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Shmita and Social Justice in Parashat Re’eh

Dr. Peri Sinclair
| 09/08/2020

Parashat Re’eh revisits the ideas of Sh’mita (Sabbatical year) and Tzedek (justice).

The Torah relates to the idea of tzedek many times. This repetition speaks on the one hand of the importance of this value, but also acknowledges how difficult it can be to live up to.

Dr. Peri Sinclair explains the connection between these two values. According to her, we were placed in an involuntary sh’mita year in light of the Corona crisis; an opportune time to question our concept of morality, community, poverty and social justice.


Parashat Re’eh is the 4th Parasha in the book of Deuteronomy.  The Book of Numbers, which we completed a month ago told, at first glance, the final scene in the story of the children of Israel’s adventures in the desert.  If it were a play, the final scene would be of Moshe, standing on the tip of the mountain looking over at the promised land which he would not enter.  Lights.  Curtains.  Applause.

Deuteronomy: Moshe’s reprise

He gathers his people and gives a brief history of their time in the desert. Moshe ties their past with the present and foretells their future. In Deuteronomy, he sums up the origin of the children of Israel. Retells their unique traditions, their status as holy people and their special relationship with God before concluding in song in parashat – V’zot Ha’bracha, which we will read on Simchat Torah.

Of all the topics in Parashat Re’eh, I would like to dedicate our time together to the ideas of Sh’mita (the sabbatical year) and tzedek (social justice).

The Torah relates to the idea of tzedek many times. This repetition speaks on the one hand of the importance of this value, but also acknowledges how difficult it can be to live up to.

Sh’mita is an extreme example of tzedek.  Every seven years we are instructed to release our lands, relinquish possessions and forgive debt – like pressing re-start to the economy and social order.

The Sabbatical year appears three time in the Torah. 

The first time emphasizing social justice. 

The second time it is a reminder of creation – similar to Shabbat.  We are reminded that people do not have ultimate ownership, the land belongs to God.

Kobi Oz, the popular Israeli singer says to Zalman in his song – you are not your land!  The sabbatical year teaches humility.

In Parashat Re’eh, the Sabbatical connects the idea of social justice with a reminder that we do not have ultimate ownership over the land.  It belongs to God.

Our acts of social justice and sh’mita are part of our Jewishness.  How do we relate to people and to our natural resources are part of how Judaism in manifested in the world? It is part of our relationship with God.

There have been voices suggesting that the Covid-19 pandemic is likened to a involuntary sh’mita. It forced the world to take a break.  This is how the sabbatical year is manifested in modern society.

In lieu of relinquishing hold on our land we were forces to let go of our routines, to dial down our consumerism, slow our pace, some have even suggested debt relief as a means of helping people and small businesses weather this storm. Just like in ancient times we searched for community for both comfort and support. The pandemic and economic crisis are compelling us to face with a new type of poverty.

Parashat Re’eh teaches: “you must open your hand and lend, sufficient for the person needs.”   (Deuteronomy 15:8)

Our sages ask what the phrase, “sufficient for a person’s needs” means. The response was “sufficient”  relates to what is required for a person’s everyday existence.  “For the persons needs” expands what is sufficient from an absolute concept to a relative or subjective measure.

The Midrash tells us of Hillel the Elder, a notoriously poor sage, who on one occasion, came across a poor man who was of good family.  Hillel bought a horse for him to ride and since he could not find a slave to run before that man, he himself ran before him like a slave.

The rabbis address poverty with astonishing sensitivity and compassion to the psychology of the loss of wealth and status.

They realize that one can’t compare two people’s loss.

The public discourse we are witnessing, at least here in Israel, relates to similar issues. However, the discourse lacks the compassion of the sages.  The questions our society must deal with are based on morality and values deeply rooted in our tradition. This seems mostly absent in the public domain.

Our Parasha invites us to enter into this debate wearing our Jewish lens. We can examine our circumstance from a Jewish point of view.

I find it hard to imagine the world adopting a Sabbatical year after what we have recently lived through. Our experience was a once-in-a-lifetime and will not repeat, at least not by choice. Therefore, it is important to note that the Sabbatical year described in the Torah did not last long. These seem to be decrees which the community cannot abide.  If there is one thing we can gain from our experience, it is the opportunity to engage with questions of morality, community, social justice and poverty.  These are all issue worthwhile engaging with as individuals, as community, as society, as a people.

Dr. Peri Sinclair is The Susan and Scott Shay TALI Director General.  She received her doctorate in Midrash from the Jewish Theological Seminary and her MA in Jewish Education from JTS’s Davidson School of Education​. Peri is a graduate of the T​ALI​ School in Hod Hasharon and a proud alumn​a​ of NOAM (the Masorti Movement’s yo​uth​ movement).  ​She​ ​has ​spent 15 summers ​in senior staff positions at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires.  She is married to Dr. Alex Sinclair and together they are raising three inquisitive kids in Modi’in.

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