Fantastical Visions

I was reading an editorial from the New York Times this week that introduced me to a wonderful word. That word arose in the paper’s discussion of the Covid-19 crisis and our government’s answers to it. As you might suspect, the Times was none-too-complementary of the administration’s actions and reactions. The editors said:

“A major reason for the faltering response is a chimerical expectation that markets will perform the work of government.”

“Chimerical” was a new word for me. Chimerical is defined by Merriam-Webster as: “existing only as the product of unchecked imagination: fantastically visionary.” Actually, I’m usually drawn to those who are deemed fantastically visionary. I’ve always seen that as a positive attribute. Here, though, the editors of the Times are not complimentary. This week’s Torah portion involves something that I consider to be fantastically visionary in the sense that the Torah describes idealistic goals for which it is worth striving. The visions are the Sabbatical Year and the  Jubilee Year. As Lori Hope Lefkovitz, Professor of Gender and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College says it very succinctly, “[This Torah portion]…declares [that] the land is a sacred trust and commands the people to observe periods of comprehensive release. This Torah portion invites us to consider how, in each generation, we can best serve as guarantors of this trust, respect the duty to rest ourselves and our natural resources, and experience ‘release.'” A lofty ideal.

Professor Lefkowitz, is essentially saying that the notion of “release” was intended to nudge us to set aside some rest for ourselves as well as the land. As for the Sabbatical Year, a rest for the land every seventh year, the Torah portion says:

“For six years you shall plant your field and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and you shall harvest its produce.

But the seventh year shall be a Shabbat of [complete] rest for the land, a Shabbat for [rest before] the Eternal, you shall not plant your field and you shall not prune your vineyard.

[Even] crops that grew on their own [from the seeds of your previous] harvest you shall not reap, and the grapes of your untended vines you shall not gather; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.”

It sounds like a severe stoppage of agriculture and all the parts of the economy that are tangential to it. However, our ancient ancestors figured out pretty quickly that if they rotated between different parcels of their land, putting each on a different seven-year cycle, they could always be producing.

The Jubilee Year, on the other hand, is goes even deeper.

“You shall count off…—seven times seven years—…give[ing] you a total of forty-nine years.

…You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.

In buying from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years: the more such years, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years, the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests.”

First I hope you recognized the inscription on the Liberty Bell that comes from the Torah portion, “Proclaim liberty-release throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof…”

This is a beautiful idea and the Torah doesn’t leave it as theoretical. There are the details to this liberty-release. “Each returns to his family”, in other words, all indentured slaves are freed and can return to their kin.

“Each of you shall return to his holding” is quite a bit more challenging. Attempting to prevent one person, family, community, cooperative, etc. from monopolizing wealth and property, the Torah creates a fifty-year economic cycle with a constant “braking system” that increasingly slows things as each Jubilee year approaches. Idealistic and lofty but not very practical. Did it work? Was it every fully implemented? We don’t know, but historians doubt it, either because it wasn’t feasible or because the wealthy wouldn’t cooperate.

Perhaps, the Jubilee Year wasn’t intended to be an operative system so much as something “fantastically visionary”. In other words, to somehow, put into place in our society, a way in which every individual and family could have a decent amount of assets and prosperity – to not be at risk of losing their ability to provide basic needs: shelter, clothing, food, learning and healthcare for themselves and their loved ones.

Sound familiar to the cries for help that the most vulnerable populations and their advocates are making right now? One would think that when we come to the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic that we would re-emerge and re-imagine how we re-create our society. If history teaches any lessons about our ability to be “fantastically visionary”, the odds are not in our favor. For instance, after the Spanish Flu in 1918, national health experts in the US thought there would at least be a revamping of this nation’s health system. People did stop drinking from common cups in schools and at the work place, but that was about it. This, after the deaths of 675,000 people.

When we come to the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic, and we will, will we rush right back into the society we had, with all its inequities, imbalances, unfairness in the justice system, employment opportunities, access to decent health care and quality education? Will we honor a hard day’s work by those we consider heroes now or will they return to being invisible? Will we rebuild our economy one person at the expense of another or we maintain our current slogan of “We’re all in this together?”

The Sabbatical and Jubilee years teach us that we should begin with high ideals and the fantastical visions and see how we can fulfill them rather than start with restrictive pragmatics that will keep the visions perpetually out of reach. The Sabbatical and Jubilee years teach us that, indeed, we are all in this, this crisis, this pandemic, together, and…we are all in all of this, this preciousness, this fragile world, this delicate life together – forever.