Granting Peace in our Land: Observing our Greater Shabbatot

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Marisa James considers what the sabbatical laws can teach us about the necessity of advocating for the powerless.

Creative Commons/Mike LaPlante

Creative Commons/Mike LaPlante

The teachings in this week’s paired parshiyot, Behar and Behukotai, are meant to prevent us from becoming greedy. At the beginning of Behar, literally “in the mountain” at Sinai, the first thing God tells Moses is “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord.” (Leviticus 25:2-4)

Why do we give the earth a
shabbat
every seventh year? The lifespan of the earth is much longer than ours, so maybe every seven years is enough! But we must give the earth a rest, and acknowledge that it does not belong to us. We are meant to be equal partners with the earth, and treat it with the same kindness we hope it will show us.

Later in the chapter, we come to the rules for the Jubilee year, which is to occur every 50th year, when “each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.” (25:10) This Jubilee year works in two ways: first, every person returns to the land that they lived on 50 years before, so that no individual gains all of the communal property and no individual is bereft. Secondly, this ensures that anyone who has fallen on hard times gets a fresh start, and if they have become indentured servants or slaves, “then he and his children with him shall be free of your authority; he shall go back to his family and return to his ancestral holding.” (25:41)