A New World

The reinterpretation of the term "forever" encourages us to strive for new realities within our own lifetimes.

Commentary on Parashat Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2

The primacy of the Oral Law has always been the bedrock of our belief system. Torah Shebichtav (Written Law) without Torah Sheba’al Peh (Oral Law) is likened to a body without a soul. Thus, when Oral Law seems to contradict the Written Law our sense of textual loyalty seems violated.

Our Torah portion is home to one of the classic examples of this apparent incongruity. The Torah states, “You shall sanctify the 50th year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all of its inhabitants; it shall be the Jubilee year (Yovel) for you.”

What are the implications of this freedom?

The Torah teaches that a Jewish servant works a six-year period of service. At the seventh year, “if the servant shall say, ‘I love my master…I don’t [want to] go free,’ then his master shall bring him to the court…and he shall serve him forever (le’olam).”

The Torah Sheba’al Peh, however, clarifies that the term “forever — le’olam” means until Yovel. How so? Ibn Ezra (12th-century Spanish commentator), cites a verse from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) which implies that the world olam can mean a period of time. Since Yovel is the longest block of time in the Jewish calendar, the word olam, taken in the sense of “a long time” is appropriate.

But even if Ibn Ezra is technically correct, we must still ask why the Torah opts for the more ambiguous “olam” when it could simply say, “Yovel.” Why create confusion in the first place?

The words of the Ramban (Nachmanides) on this topic are cryptic: “The enlightened one will understand that ‘forever’ (le’olam) is literal–for one who works until Yovel has worked all the days of the world (olam). In the words of the Mekhilta (legal midrash on Exodus): Rebbe says, Come and see that the world is only fifty years old as it says, ‘And he shall work forever–until the Yovel.’”

Ramban is describing the nature of the world. In some mystical way the world only exists for 50 years. Rabbeinu Bechayei (late 13th-century Spain) cites the Kabbalists who say that 50 represents the circle of life.

On a national scale, consider the power of 50 days. In 50 days, the Jewish people were transformed from a bedraggled nation of slaves to recipients of the Torah. We attempt that same metamorphosis each year during Sefirat Ha’omer as we count off 50 days from Passover to Shavuot.

Similarly, the Levite may only serve in the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) until the age of 50. At some level, his world, too, has been completed at that age.

This is the powerful message of Yovel. Each seven-year shemitah (sabbatical) cycle represents a rung, a new level achieved within the world while Yovel, which follows the seventh shemitah year, represents the dawn of a completely new world.

Even for the rational Jew, unaware of the mystical notion of the Yovel cycle, the message of Ramban still rings powerful — a Jew need not die in order to arrive at a new world; rather, he can transcend worlds in his lifetime.

How fitting it is that at Yovel, the Jewish servant is forced out. He who has lost his sense of destiny and independence must be taught that a Jew is never consigned to such a fate. A new world with new hopes beckons.

How many times do we set boundaries for our spiritual goals? “This I can do, but I’ll never do that,” we claim. But slow and steady spiritual progress ultimately creates a nyer velt, a new world, a progress that allows us to be the very personality we “never” could be. That is the goal of life. We must take a moment, look at who we are, who we can never be and figure out a way to get there.

Reprinted with permission of the Orthodox Union.


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