Torah Portion of the Week: God’s Little Acres

Parashat Behar presents a profound alternative to the modern concepts of possession and liberty.

'The Year of Jubilee,' by Henry Le Jeune.
Wikimedia Commons

The Torah is not a statement of principles. Rather, it’s a narrative that includes laws, but as a rule it does not explicitly state formulas of faith or theological fundamentals. This is especially true with regard to the Book of Leviticus; we must search carefully to find the justifications for each of the detailed laws described there. An exception is Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2), where laws are justified by clearly and explicitly stated principles. We can deduce from them the priestly lawmaker’s attitude toward two important concepts in the realms of political philosophy and modern economics: possession and liberty.

The laws governing shmita (the sabbatical year, when the land is left to lie fallow) in this week’s portion are also described, albeit with different phrasing, in two other passages in the Torah: Exodus 23:10-11 and Deuteronomy 15:1-11. The commandment concerning shmita has different practical and conceptual aspects in each of those passages: For example, in Exodus, working the land in the seventh year is forbidden, whereas in Deuteronomy, debts must be cancelled. In both references, the reason given for the law is the obligation to support the poor: They will eat the crops (Exodus) or benefit from the cancellation of debts (Deuteronomy).

In Parashat Behar, as well, shmita benefits the poor, but the reason for the prohibition on working the land is connected to God: “When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the Lord. Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the Lord; thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. That which groweth of itself of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, and the grapes of thy undressed vine thou shalt not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. And the sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you: for thee, and for thy servant and for thy maid, and for thy hired servant and for the settler by thy side that sojourn with thee; and for thy cattle, and for the beasts that are in thy land, shall all the increase thereof be for food” (Lev. 25:2-7).

Shmita is “a sabbath unto the Lord,” linking the seventh year to the seventh day. Biblical literature cites various reasons for observance of the Sabbath too, with the priestly code in the Torah again emphasizing the religious basis for the holy day. According to writings deriving from the priestly tradition, the Sabbath is observed not to provide a day of rest for workers but to commemorate the Creation of the universe in six days, after which God rested from his toil. Like the Sabbath, shmita reminds us of God’s mastery over all aspects of reality. This is explicitly mentioned in this week’s reading: “And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with me” (Lev. 25:23). This key verse challenges the concept of land possession: God is sole owner of the land, and the Israelites are merely tenant farmers permitted to work the land and live on it conditionally.

The concept of human ownership of the land is challenged on two levels – individual and national; Parashat Behar interweaves them. At the individual level, it sets out and also limits formal arrangements for legitimate possession of property. Since, during a jubilee, the culmination of seven cycles of shmita years, all possession rights are abrogated and every portion of land returns to its original inhabitants, commercial transactions must take into account the number of years remaining until the next jubilee.

This commandment opens with a blanket instruction: “And if thou sell aught unto thy neighbor, or buy of thy neighbor’s hand, ye shall not wrong one another” (Lev. 25:14). After presenting the practical aspects, the Torah ends this passage with the demand: “And ye shall not wrong one another; but thou shalt fear thy God; for I am the Lord your God. Wherefore ye shall do my statutes, and keep mine ordinances and do them; and ye shall dwell in the land in safety” (Lev. 25:17-18).

The marketplace is not a neutral space, religiously speaking: Commercial transactions between mortals must reflect the fear of God. Individual and national aspects are interconnected: If the Israelites remember that individual ownership of land is not absolute, they may continue dwelling in the Promised Land as a national collective. Just as no individual owns land, no nation owns the Promised Land – “for the land is mine.”

This does not mean that biblical law does not grant the individual or the nation any rights to property and land. Rather, that these rights are conditional, never absolute. Just as an individual is not the absolute or permanent owner of a tract of land, the Promised Land is only temporarily in the Israelites’ possession.

Not only is land expropriated from its human owners, according to this week’s Torah portion; mortals themselves do not own even their own bodies. No Israelite can be sold into permanent slavery; bondage ends with the jubilee year and even the extent of the bondage a slave owner is entitled to is limited – not necessarily for humanitarian reasons but rather, primarily, because all Israelites belong to someone else: “As a servant hired year by year shall he be with him; he shall not rule with rigor over him in thy sight… then he shall go out in the year of jubilee, he, and his children with him. For unto me the children of Israel are servants; they are my servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 25:53-55).

As seen in Parashat Behar, the Exodus from Egypt is a transition not from slavery to liberty, but from one form of slavery to another: from being slaves of flesh-and-blood creatures to being slaves of the Master of the Universe. The freeing of the slaves during the jubilee emphasizes that God’s ownership supersedes human sovereignty. The master-slave relationship is not an arrangement between two human beings but the embodiment of an obligation that he imposes upon them. In contrast with other texts in the Torah, Parashat Behar teaches us that slaves do not have the right to forgo their liberty and to remain slaves, because their liberty is not based on self-ownership but on existence as God’s possessions.

Parashat Behar presents a profound alternative to the modern concepts of possession and liberty. Possession is never absolute, because everything belongs to God. Similarly, liberty is not the absence of commitment, but a different – much stronger – form of commitment: commitment to God. The anchoring of human values in God’s holiness simultaneously weakens and strengthens those values. On the one hand, the dimensions of time, the land and the person, the individual and the nation – these do not exist independently. Their existence is not absolute, but is granted by God. On the other hand, they are not just products of incidental, arbitrary, meaningless agreements: God grants them their validity.