Parashat Behar

דתני דבי רבי ישמעאל הואיל והלך זה ונעשה כומר לעבודת כוכבים אימא לידחי אבן אחר הנופל תלמוד לומר (ויקרא כה, מח) אחרי נמכר גאולה תהיה לו אחד מאחיו יגאלנו

It is taught in a Beraita of R Yishmael’s School “Since this man went and made himself as a priest of idolatry, perhaps we should throw a stone on the fallen? Therefore the Torah states ‘After the sale, redemption is due him. One of his brothers must redeem him'.’” — Kiddushin 20.

The Talmud asks why should there be a command to redeem someone who sold themselves as a slave. If it was up to us, R Yishmael asks, maybe we should leave them in their own mess. Perhaps we should even add to their troubles. This man went and sold himself to an idolatrous temple, and now we need to bail him out?! Apparently, yes.

The Talmud suggests that perhaps we need to bail this person out so they don’t assimilate, but asks if it should still be done in a harsh manner at an unfavorable exchange rate to the slave. Not only are we disgusted by the idea of someone selling themselves to an idolater, but noting the order of passages in our Parasha, the Talmud quotes R Yose son of R Haninna as suggesting that this person who sold himself’s troubles all started for doing business with the crops of the Sabbatical year. The idea seems to be that this person’s poverty is undoubtedly divine punishment for breaking the Torah, and we at least raise the possibility that the person should wallow in their punishment.

This is an interesting statement, as at first it seems as though there is some sort of of prosperity theology. The slave is cursed with poverty for before he did not properly serve Gd. Prosperity theology states that health and material success in this world is something to strive for. If someone is wealthy, it is because Gd is rewarding them for their piety, and if they are poor, it’s because they are suffering a divine curse. So does Judaism take such a philosophy?

It’s important to note that even if Judaism did have a prosperity theology, it does not allow for disdain for the poor. It’s a given that even if the guy is cursed with ill fortune for his sin, the relative still must redeem him.  In fact, the conclusion of the Talmud is that one in fact does use the favorable evaluation in the redemption. You should support him before he falls, and after he falls, you must immediately help up.

But in fact, Judaism only has a very limited property theology if one at all. The Talmud later states in this very tractate (Kiddushin 39.) that שכר בהאי עלמא ליכא, there is no reward for fulfilling the commandments in this world. The Talmud in Taanit says one is not allowed to test Gd and demand reward. So one is not entitled to assume that they will be blessed for fulfilling the commandments or that their blessing is some divine favor, and conversely, one can’t assume that someone poor is under a curse.

But there is one exception. Taanit says you can test Gd over tithes. The Arch Hashulhan says this is a property of supporting the poor. When you give money to needy people, you can expect reward. When you withhold it, you can expect punishment. Because money is not yours to spend frivolously. Money is Gd’s, and He gave it to you to support others.

It seems to me that this is what the Gemara is trying to say here. This person who sells produce of the seventh year is in essence robbing the poor, because the food is supposed to be ownerless. He is cutting himself off from the community, and he is proclaiming that possessions are his to use as he sees fit and not Gd’s. He deserves a curse. It is inevitable that he will cycle through making worse and worse and more and more greedy business decisions until he ends up selling himself to an idol.

At that point, we might be all too quick to judge. The guy gets his just deserts. Let him suffer it out until the Sabbatical Year. But the Torah says no. He is still our brother, and as soon as the sale happens, we are obliged to redeem him. We are not allowed to think “That bum got what he deserves.” Instead we have to consider that Gd easily could have made him the rich one and us the one in need. When you brother is down, you redeem him.

Gd promises success to motivate people to spend their money in ways they would otherwise be reluctant and to remind people that everything is Gd’s. But too many people are quick to look at their blessings as a sign they are better than others. So the Torah offers a balance. If it you need it to help others, then you deserve a blessing. But if you use your good fortune to turn your back on the needy, you deserve a curse. For ultimately, all is in the hands of Gd, and he entrusts us to help each other.