Can we learn from the Torah what should be the fair arrangement – both morally and economically – in regards to the natural gas issue which has recently been the focus of public debate?
On the one hand, representatives of the companies who found the gas claim they deserve to earn large profits for the huge sums they invested in gas exploration at a high risk, and it’s unreasonable that after gas has found, state officials would violate the agreements that were signed before the start of the search. Such a violation could also harm the State of Israel, because capitalists and big companies avoid investing in countries that do not meet their agreements.
On the other hand, many public officials claim that the agreement is unfair, since the gas is a natural resource that belongs to the state, and not to those who found it. Moreover, the public invests a fortune in protecting the country’s borders – including the drilling rigs, as well – and therefore deserves a large share of the profits. True, investors deserve to capitalize for finding the gas, but there should be limits on their gains as well.
In order to express an opinion regarding the current issue of natural gas, all its details must be verified: What were the initial agreements? Were they agreed upon and authorized, or perhaps pressure was placed on government decision-makers? Has the situation changed significantly since then? It would also be worthwhile to know how other countries act, while taking into account the higher security costs in our region.
Nevertheless, I will try to clarify the basic position of the Torah.
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
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Unlike the Communist system, the Torah does not command us to divide profits equally between successful workers, and those who are not. On the contrary, the Torah secures property rights of the individual over his possessions, based on the position that a person is entitled to benefit from the fruits of his own efforts, talents, and God’s blessings. The Torah commanded to sustain the Kohanim, the Levites, and the poor by setting aside a certain percentage of the crop, but even in this matter, the Torah gave the owner of the fruits the right to choose which Kohen to give his terumot (heave offerings), and which Levi or poor person to give his ma’asrot (tithes) (albeit, the gifts to the poor,’ leket ‘, ‘shichacha‘, and ‘pe’ah‘ were made available to them without the owner of the field having the right to distribute them).
Nevertheless, there is an important element of equality in the Torah expressed by the mitzvah of Yovel (the Jubilee Year), whereby all the land in Eretz Yisrael must be divided equally among all of Israel. Even if a person was forced to sell his inheritance – in Yovel, his inheritance returns to him, or his heirs. Similarly, a destitute person who had to sell himself into slavery was released in the Yovel, so he could turn a new page and set out on a fresh path of his own free choice (it should be noted that in an economic situation such as ours, where no one is literally begging for bread, it is forbidden to sell oneself into slavery, and consequently, the institution of slavery is prohibited).
The Integration of the Two Ideas
It can be said that, indeed, both ideas – equality on the one hand, and free will and free enterprise on the other – ought to receive mutual expression.
On the one hand, all human beings were created in the image of God and are equal before the law and before all else, lands, which are the means of production, should be divided equally. On the other hand, the most important expression of God’s image in man is his ability to choose and initiate. If he works hard and utilizes his talents – he will profit; if he is lazy – he will lose. And on a spiritual level: If one fulfills the Torah and mitzvot – he will be blessed in the present world, and receive good reward in the Hereafter. But if he chooses to sin – he will not see blessing in this world, and will be punished in the next.
The Significance of Yovel in Our Times
In the past, ninety percent of people made their living from agriculture. Land was the main means of production, and as a result, dividing it equally formed a basis of equality for everyone. Today, land is no longer the primary means of production, and earning a livelihood is dependent on many factors.
Nevertheless, we should seemingly learn from the mitzvah of Yovel two foundations: First, just as farmland was divided evenly among all, similarly, we should divide other natural resources which God created equally, including land for construction, water, oil, gas, beaches, radio waves, air, and the sun. Second, just as the Torah commanded dividing the means of production equally, likewise, we should attempt to provide an education for all young people that will procure for them, as best as possible, an equal opportunity to earn a living from their talents and diligence. With effective planning, these two elements can be mutually integrated by diverting the money received from the natural resources towards professional education programs for all.
In this manner, we will have achieved realizing the vision of dividing the land for the entire Jewish nation, together with the tikun(correction) that was made in the return of lands to their original owners in the Yovel, for granting quality education to everyone also allows the children of poor parents to obtain a respectable profession according to their talents and diligence.
It could be said that this is the purpose of Yovel – to restore the natural free-will of man created in the image of God, together with the distribution of the resources God created equally.
A Proposal of Yovel for Capitalists
Perhaps a further suggestion could be made that, just as in the Yovel the fields returned to their original owners and slaves were released to their homes, in a similar fashion, Torah scholars should possibly conduct an in-depth examination of the structure of modern economy, and consider whether it is appropriate that in the Yovel year, a certain percentage of the accumulated wealth be divided equally. For in addition to laws designed to prevent monopolies which harm free competition and stifle industry and trade, we should also avoid creating overly large gaps between the extremely rich and the remainder of the population. This idea also includes a measure of justice, because well-run public organization allows the major capitalists to become wealthy, and therefore, maybe it is fitting that once in fifty years, a portion of their accumulated wealth be once again distributed for education and public needs. This will not affect their quality of life – they will still have hundreds of millions of dollars, but it will grant a more important status to the value of equality, without harming the individual responsibility of every person to earn a living.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting and informative articles by Rabbi Melamed, can be read at: http://en.yhb.org.il/