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The following article is reprinted with permission from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
Parashat Behar discusses the sabbatical year and the jubilee year. The Israelites are told that they may sow their fields and prune their vineyards for six years, but during the seventh year the land must be given a complete Sabbath year of rest. During this year, the people can eat what the land happens to produce, but can do nothing extra to have it yield its fruits. During the sabbatical year, all debts are to be forgiven. Likewise, every 50th year is the jubilee year, in which no work can be done in the fields.
During the jubilee year, all Israelites who had been enslaved during the previous 49 years are granted their freedom. Also during the jubilee year, any properties purchased during the previous 49 years are to be returned to the descendents of those who were given the land at the time the Israelites originally entered it.
"And the Land shall not be sold for ever, for the land is Mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with Me."
"For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt–they may not give themselves over into slavery."
Your Torah Navigator
1. Why does the text say that the land is "Mine" (God’s) if humans buy and sell land (and, indeed, the Torah gives us so many rules for such buying and selling of property)?
2. What does it mean to be both "strangers" and "sojourners" with God?
3. What is the meaning of being God’s "servants?" What connection does that have with having been taken from Egypt?
4. Specifically, who is the Torah telling us may not be slaves? How do we understand the fact that this injunction is not placed on other peoples, and how do we reconcile this with our modern understanding of human liberty?
Our parshah ends with the pronouncement "You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God. You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, Mine, the Lord’s."(Leviticus 26:1-2)
In essence, this entire parshah focuses us on countering the erroneous reality that we set up for ourselves. We can worship ourselves as idols: we attribute to ourselves power and status in accordance with our wealth and with how many people are "under" us. The end of the parshah gives us pause by posing the true reality–that it is God’s laws we must ultimately follow, not our own. In the end, it is God’s power that is abiding, not ours.
It is to prohibit worshipping our own glory that the rules of the sabbatical and jubilee years exist. Ultimately, we do not really own the land, and we certainly do not own each other. To believe otherwise is to deal in idolatry. We act godly when we till and tend the land and care for those around us, realizing we own none of it.
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