Let it Go – Behar/Be-Hukkotai 5777

One of the three fundamental assumptions of neoclassical economics is that individuals maximize utility.  That is to say, people make choices that lead to increased profits.  If presented a basket with two apples + a banana and a basket with two apples + two bananas, the individual will chose the second option.

In contrast to this economic theory, parashat Behar is riddled with commands to forgo – the very opposite of increasing utility.  We must relinquish the opportunity to create utility on the seventh day, the seventh year, and the fiftieth year.  In the Jubilee, we must also release our indentured workers and give back those lands which we have purchased.  

The Torah is seemingly at odds with the fundamental assumptions of neoclassical economics.  Is God is teaching us to not listen to our nature?!

We can reconcile this contradiction by understanding the other assumptions of the neoclassical model; 1) people make rational choices and 2) people act according to the relevant information available to them.  Together, these principals denote that if an individual has complete information, she will make a perfectly rational decision.  This can only happen, however, in a situation where individuals have access to complete knowledge.  Many economists believe such a regime will come about when the price system internalizes all costs.  As an example, if produce fully internalized the costs of it production: CO2 emissions, clean up needed after spraying pesticides, soil depletion, etc – the price of those goods would significantly inflate. This internalization of costs will provide consumers with complete knowledge in the form of prices.  Then, and only then, will consumers be able to make fully rational decisions.  Unfortunately, as much as we try to obtain complete knowledge, only God holds such purview.

Instead of seeing God’s commands to forgo as living in opposition to utility maximization, we can use these second two principles to bring harmony between neoclassical and Torah-based economics.  God is not instructing us in a different system, but rather filling in our imperfect access to information.  By letting workers rest on Shabbat, allowing anyone to eat from any field in the Shmita, and leveling the playing field in the Jubilee, we are forced to internalize the true costs of life.  This leads to a more informed market, one which allows for rational decision making.  When this is the case, the values of treating the foreigner with respect and providing for the poor, the widow, and the orphan become internalized into our own utility maximization.

And this is the meaning behind the curse, “You shall flee though none pursues” (Vayikra 26:17).  If life is merely a game of collecting rivalrous goods, I will always want more – I will always keep guard against my perceived pursuers.  If, however, I can cease my flight and experience the infinite blessing of a moment – I may learn to let go.  If we can take this to heart, God will surely uphold Her promise, “And I will grant peace in the land” (Vayikra 26:6).

Shabbat Shalom


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