Land Distribution–Then and Now

As Jews, we must express our religious imperative to ensure equal access to land.


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“Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names: with larger groups increase the share, with smaller groups reduce the share. Each is to be assigned its share according to its enrollment” (Numbers 26:53-54).

The Israelites had the incredible luxury of being told how to build a just society before settling in a new place. The rationality and fairness of land distribution in Parashat Pinhas is remarkable and very different from the norms of land ownership currently present around the globe.

Agrarian Communities

In rural areas, particularly in developing countries, land is the source of income, sustenance, and social (and often legal) status. Approximately 45% of the world’s population (~2.7 billion people) earns its living through agriculture. More than 500 million of these people are without secure access to land.

As workers on other people’s land, many farming communities cannot depend on continued access to the land they currently farm. In places of violence and civil unrest, displaced people are often denied the right to return to the land they fled. In former communist countries, public lands have become places of dispute as families and communities strive for some access to the small amount of land up for grabs. Many countries struggling with the legacy of colonialism deal with the chaos of unstable and corrupt governments that have followed independence.

The common theme that runs through all these cases is a lack of any coherent underlying commitment to address the agricultural needs of all members of the national community. This global challenge highlights the relevance of the short passage above from this week’s parashah.

The underlying assumption of the text is that every family, clan, and tribe has the right to own land. Ancient Israelites, like modern communities, needed a stable place to live, eat, and earn a living. The inclusion of this text in the Torah underscores the point that land ownership is essential to the successful survival of the people.

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Sarah Margles was an Education Officer at American Jewish World Service. She earned her Masters Degree in Jewish Education at the Hebrew University and completed a Certificate of Advanced Jewish Study at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.

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