sermon · social justice

A peasant farmer was my father

A peasant farmer was my father

When my mind wanders, I like to think about where I would go if I could travel in time. Have you ever considered this? When you would want to visit?

Personally, my first thought is Paris in the 1890s. In my higher moments, I project myself into medieval Andalus, the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry in Spain. 

And, of course, I’d love to go back to biblical times. Wouldn’t it be marvellous to see the First Temple in all its glory? What would it be like to inhabit that world of prophets and visionaries?

But this time travel thought experiment always comes with a corollary. I’d have to be a rich man. No matter what spot of history I got dropped in, the only way to enjoy it would be to be part of the elite.

If I were sent back to biblical times without that condition, I’d probably be a peasant farmer. We like to imagine our ancestors as great kings and high priests. In reality, they were less than a small fraction of the ancient Israelite population.

95% of people in the biblical period worked the land. Dropped back to the time of David and Solomon, we probably wouldn’t be in their courts, but in the fields. 

I take a perverse pride in this knowledge.

Think how hard they must have worked to bring that ancient society into being!

As a peasant farmer in the ancient world, you would have about 3 acres, growing different crops, including grains, fruit trees, and olives. You would, almost certainly, have a chicken run and a small herd of goats. 

If you were really fancy, you might also have a cow.

Your home would be a collection of huts and tents, stretching out to include your extended family. Each would be a bustling, cramped place, with pots and pans and a fire stove. Your animals would potter in and out of your sleeping quarters. 

I am not trying to paint a romantic vision of any of this. Your life would be hard. You would pull a plough with your own hands and sow seeds with your back hunched over. You would cultivate and cut and glean your trees in the searing heat. 

You would spin your own wool, stitch your own clothes, bake your own bread, build your own dwellings, subsist on whatever you needed to survive.

Yes, all that is true for women, too, with an additional burden. You would give birth to ten children and breast feed all of them. You would count yourself incredibly lucky if all of them lived past the age of 5. If they did, they would likely be married off in their teens. 

No, there is nothing romantic about the lives of our real ancestors. 

But we should be proud of them. 

Peasants, labourers and serfs might not be the subject of great poetry and sagas, but without their efforts, nothing exists. There could be no food, no shelter, no community, and no culture, without their graft. That gruelling work made civilisation possible.

This week’s parashah tells us something of how they built ancient Israelite society.

If they had just stuck to their own homesteads, they would have had to survive on the paltry gains of subsistence farming. In a bad year – if rains failed to fall or crops failed to grow – they would simply perish.

So, our family, the farmers of the ancient world, signed up to participate in the agrarian state. 

The agrarian state was responsible for distributing food and creating common irrigation and transport systems. In ancient Israel, the centre of that state was the Jerusalem Temple. 

Our parashah explains the criteria for participating in its systems. You must not glean your fields right to their edges, so that you leave enough for travellers and strangers. You must donate a tenth of your grain and livestock to support those in the community who are most vulnerable, like widows and orphans. 

In some ways, this is the foundation of the earliest welfare state. 

But the poor are not the only beneficiaries of this redistribution. 

In fact, they were not even its primary targets. 

Our parashah begins with a ritual that Israelites must undertake each year. At each harvest of the year, you must collect your first and best fruits. You must bring these, the choicest of all the crops you worked so hard to create, and give them to the priests.

You must lift them above your head and say: “A wandering Aramean was my father. He was enslaved in Egypt, but God brought him out into this land of milk and honey. Now, I bring before you, the first fruits of the soil that God has given me.”

The priest will sacrifice it, perform closed rituals, and eat it in front of you.

That priest did not work to produce those fruits. He did not share in the exhausting work of raising children in a hovel, or run ploughs over the land. In fact, he wasn’t responsible for any land.

The priest’s sole job was to be the leader of the ancient cult. He was in charge. He profited from your work. 

That great Temple in Jerusalem, with all its priests and writings and rituals, only existed because the poor majority paid in and made it happen. That entire society functioned on the basis of our ancestors’ labour. How could they have done it without the work of the people who harvested the grain, built the bricks, and cared for the sick? 

I don’t resent the ancient priests. 

That work made possible great cultural developments. At that time, we couldn’t have had literary culture, organised society, music or scientific discovery without a class who had the leisure time to devote to such pursuits.

We then wouldn’t have benefited from the innovations in agriculture, technology, transport and trade that makes our lives today less horrible than they were in ancient times.

But, while resentment for ancient figures might not be productive, we should feel entitled to be critical.

After all, their world is our world. For all the social progress we have made, the divisions that defined civilisations millenia ago are only greater than they were then.

Far fewer people profit far more from the work of the majority than ever did in the biblical period. 

Almost all of us, I know, are worried about how energy price gouging, interest rate rises, and higher costs of living will affect us. Some are already feeling the effects of an economy where wages won’t rise but prices keep going up. 

Meanwhile, the energy companies and their shareholders are making record profits. These last few years, which have been so frightening for most people, have been a period of great abundance for the world’s richest. 

This is not accidental. The rich are not rich in spite of the poor. They are rich because of the poor.

Perhaps those inequalities were essential to create our current world. But how much greater would society be if we decided to eradicate them? Just imagine what we could accomplish if nobody had to worry about heating their home or feeding their family.

We could unleash the great talents of everyone, whether priest or pauper; shareholder or sharecropper; king or taxi driver. We could enjoy this world, with all its bounties, without the constant friction of struggle.

On reflection, if I could travel in time, I don’t think the past would be the place for me. I would prefer, instead, to make my way to the future.

I want to go to the time when technology is harnessed to benefit everyone in the world, regardless of who they are and where they live. An era in which it is not just a small minority that creams off the profits of the many, but when everything is redistributed between everyone. One in which the gains of civilisation are shared with all humanity. 

We can’t change the past. We can’t go back and rescue our ancestors from the harsh realities of peasantry. But we can build a different future for the next generation. We can make it so that the future is not defined by the same problems of the past.

Let us travel to that point in time together. 

Shabbat shalom.

Ki Tavo 5782, South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue

judaism · sermon · social justice

A world without walls

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:

 לֹֽא־יִרְדֶּ֥נּֽוּ בְּפֶ֖רֶךְ

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.

Shabbat shalom.