There was a time before there were fences and walls.
At some point in the distant past, recorded only in our folktales, the world used to grow wild and free. Trees and plants sprouted wherever they wanted. Animals moved at their own will. There were no roads, no houses, no cars, and no banks.
Back then, human beings were hunter-gatherers. Our ancestors lived in caves, chased down animals with spears, foraged for berries, and moved wherever the weather was best.
Then, about 10,000 years ago, something changed. In a place that we now call the Middle East, a group of people realised that they did not just have to take whatever nature allowed them.
They could change their environment to meet their needs. They could plant, sow, grow, cultivate, reap and nurture crops. They could turn entire fields into places where just one thing was grown, like olive groves, barley fields and orchards.
This was the beginning of civilisation.
It was also the beginning of war. Armies grew. The spears that had been used to hunt cattle were now used to kill people.
Fences were put up. At first, they were used to keep animal livestock in. Then, they were used to mark out who owned which fields. Then, they were used to keep people in their place.
The people who had control of the fields needed people to work them. The workers, often vanquished or nomadic people, needed a place to stay and a way to get fed when all the food was fenced in.
So the workers became indebted to the owners. The landowners would feed and house the workers. The workers would labour over the land to make it profitable. The landowners gained more wealth and more land. The workers became increasingly in debt.
Sometimes, people were born into slavery, and this would be passed down for generations. Their debt to the landowners could never be repaid.
The owners, in turn, passed on the land to their children.
This presented a big problem. People could become infinitely indebted, with no hope of their descendants ever paying it off. People could become infinitely wealthy, as they conquered more land and made more people work for them. The owning people would have to use increasingly violent measures to make sure the working people did not rebel against them.
That was the situation in the ancient world. Debt. Wealth. Slavery. Borders. Violence. Revolutions.
And, according to the 19th Century historian Moses Finley, every revolution had the same demand: cancel all the debts and redistribute all the land.
When you understand this historical background, this week’s parashah, Behar, makes a lot more sense. This week, we read Leviticus 25. It is a remarkable chapter of the Bible in that, on its own, it comprises an entire sidra of the Torah, and all 50 verses deal with the same subject. This whole chapter is dedicated to how the ancient Israelites could break the cycle of debt, slavery and land acquisition.
It begins with the shmita. Every seven years, you give the land a break. You cannot overwork it. It is like a shabbat for nature, free from human interference.
Then you count seven lots of seven, seven shmitas, adding up to forty-nine years. In the fiftieth year, you have a Jubilee. Now all the land must be redistributed again. Noone can accumulate all the fields. It is a complete reset. Everyone goes home. Noone exploits anyone else.
At this time, all the debts are annulled. Nobody can rack up infinite obligations to others.
There is no ancient version of Carol Vordeman advertising that you can consolidate all your debts into one monthly loan repayment.
This means that even slaves can be set free. The law forbids landowners from charging interest to their slaves. They can’t charge them extra for the food they eat or the place where they sleep. They might be in debt, but they have to have a way of getting out of it.
Every seven years, slaves have the option to go free. Then, in the Jubilee year, all slaves are redeemed. Nobody can remain in slavery forever.
Repeatedly, Leviticus insists:
Do not grind them down.
Don’t be ruthless.
Leviticus was written in a time of great inequality, when landowners took up huge amounts of land and charged huge amounts of interest. Workers accrued huge amounts of debt and passed on slavery to their great-grandchildren. Leviticus came to offer an alternative. The system of Jubilees means nobody can become too rich and nobody can become too poor.
This system works because there is someone to defend the poor and resist the rich. There is a force stronger than any spear and higher than any fence. There is a being who will advocate against even the wealthiest landowner and the mightiest army.
That being is God.
Nobody can be a slave forever, because, ultimately, we all serve God. Nobody can own the land forever because, ultimately, the land belongs to God. In this religious system that our Torah creates, nobody can really claim to be better than anybody else.
God tells us something that no ledger sheet can. Whereas debtors can calculate the value of every loan and landowners can weigh up the worth of every harvest, faith tells us about the things we cannot count.
You can’t put a value on human life. You can’t put a value on freedom. You can’t put a value on social harmony.
This is why the Torah makes such a special contribution to human history. In a world structured by violence, it tells us that people must be set free. In a world divided by inequality, it tells us that everyone has equal value. It calls on us to relieve all debts and free all slaves.
Ours is a world of fences and walls. Ours is a world of great debt and great wealth. Ours is a world where some are too poor and some are too rich.
But Leviticus challenges us to remember a world before this was the case. It instructs us to imagine a world where inequality is no longer the case.
It teaches us to build a world without fences or walls. Let us heed that call.