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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.
This week’s parashah, B‘har, lays out perhaps the most socially radical element in the Torah, the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Paralleling our personal rest and liberation from work every seven days on Shabbat, we are commanded every seventh year to cease our productivity, our work, and not only to rest ourselves, but also to allow the land to rest, to return to its natural, primordial, un-worked state.
In the Jubilee year, the 50th year which completes seven sabbatical cycles, not only is the land allowed to rest and return to its natural un-worked state, but society rests as well, returning to its natural primordial state of equality and liberation. In the Jubilee year, all slaves go free, and every person returns to his ancestral holdings (Leviticus 25:13-17).
As landownership was the foundation of economic and political power in ancient Israel, the Torah mandates a radical and equitable redistribution of wealth and power every 50 years. Rest, return (to a primordial state), and liberation are then all achieved, personally, naturally, and socially, through the trinity of Shabbat, Sabbatical year, and Jubilee.
What is it that allows this return and liberation? What is it that makes possible this radical redistribution? One of the Torah’s central insights is the ultimate lack of human authority over personal (Shabbat), natural (Sabbatical Year), and social (Jubilee) entities–all are owned only by God.
We are told in our parashah that “the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine, you are but strangers and residents with me (Leviticus 25:23).” Similarly, Israelite slaves must be freed in the Jubilee year for “they are My slaves, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over to servitude (Leviticus 25:42).”
Land, property, other people, and even one’s own self can never truly be controlled by any human, for there is already a divine lien on every object and every person. God ultimately owns them all and has the power, through restricting their sale, purchase, or use (such as commanding rest on the Sabbath), to decide their fate.
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