Fred is my rabbi, and he’s a great guy; he was “green” before green was cool. In 19990, during his junior year at Brandeis, Fred set off on a 3,300-mile walk from Los Angeles to New York as part of a project called the Global Walk for a Livable World. Today, he serves on the national boards of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and as Chair of Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light. Fred believes, as I do, that clergy of all faiths can and should play a greater role when it comes to teaching people about the environment, and the impact of their consumption.
This is a letter that Fred wrote last spring in the Adat Shalom newsletter under the headline “You Can’t Take It With You”:
Recently, while wrapping up the Book of Leviticus, we read Parashat Behar. This Torah portion is basically one chapter, Lev. 25 — and it’s at the very top of my list of favorite biblical passages. Behar outlines the every-seven-year Sabbatical (Shmita) during which the fields lie fallow, and the every-fiftieth-year Jubilee (Yovel) when debts are forgiven, slaves are freed, and land is returned to its original owner. It’s the Jewish source for the notion that “you can’t take it with you”.
Leaving aside the scholarly debate over how thoroughly these teachings were practiced and enforced during Temple times, as a values statement there are many vital messages for us today in this teaching, from the political to the personal. Four short examples:
Economic: What a great balancing act the Yovel/Jubilee is, between unrealistic communism and unbridled capitalism! The Torah is way ahead of modern society in suggesting a middle way — a way that preserves people’s personal incentive to work hard and get ahead (and thus advance society as a whole), while recognizing that imbalances accrue across the generations and becoming self-replicating after a time. Be capitalist for a whole generation, but every fifty years level the playing field. The implications of this value system for our household economics are enormous, since Judaism teaches that you can’t take it with you — and oughtn’t leave it all for the few lucky enough to be
your heirs, either. [MG: This suggests that the authors of the Torah would agree with former Treausury Secy. Robert Rubin, union leader Richard Trumka, hedge fund guru Julian Robertson and heiress Abigail Disney that we should restore the estate tax.)
Ecological: In our chapter we are commanded: “you shall not sell the land beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are strangers and sojourners with Me.” This is the consciousness that the world so desperately needs now — the land is not ours, and our land use decisions need to take a Higher Power into account.
Plus a bonus: Would you believe a plug for sustainable agriculture, as in letting your fields lie fallow every so often to re-fix nitrogen into the soil and to prevent erosion? It’s right there in the Torah! You can’t take it with you — but you can leave a lot of damage behind you if you’re not careful.
Energetic: As the land needs a rest every seventh year, so does the farmer, plantation owner and migrant fruit-picker alike, the Torah goes out of its way to remind us. And so do we. Why has ‘sabbatical’ been retained only in academia and religion, when everyone needs and deserves a chance to step back from their day-to-day work, and to recharge their batteries?
Shabbaton/sabbatical is a value for us all. You can’t take it with you – but while you’re here you can refocus periodically on what really matters, and recharge so that you do it better going forward.
Emotional/spiritual: As in macro-economics, so in the inner realm — the Jubilee reminds us that the goal of life is not to accrue ‘stuff’ and stocks and savings, but wisdom and friendship and meaning. I had occasion to offer a eulogy during the week of parashat Behar for a lawyer who happened to work on estate issues, but more importantly was a beloved dad and grandfather, husband and friend. And this was the upshot: you can’t take it with you. Important as his work was, the Torah reminds us that all of life is one big estate-planning exercise. All ‘things’ depreciate; it’s only a matter of time before we give it all back, one way or another. But a life well-lived is of enduring value, and the love and goodwill generated in that lifetime does in fact continue beyond our numbered days.
You can’t take it with you — but you can leave a legacy of love.
The decision is ours to make, with every priority we set and every bit of time we allocate. Remember, every minute of every day — we don’t take it with us, but we do make a difference.