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Parashat Behar 5776 — 05/28/2106

Parashat Behar 5776 — 05/28/2106

Vayikra 25:1-26:2

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein. (Ps 24:1)

“You shall not sell the land in perpetuity, for to Me belongs the entire land, for you are sojourners and residents with Me.” (25:23)

As I write this the results of the “Super Tuesday” Presidential primaries are being discussed ad nauseam, and doubly so this year since both political parties are experiencing challenges from “outsiders” to their respective establishments. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is the first viable Jewish candidate for President of the US, and it is to the credit of the country that nobody seems to care. What they appear to care about much more is that he is a self-avowed “Democratic Socialist.” Although Bernie Sanders is very far from being an observant Jew, his approach to government and his speech come straight from the Jewish prophetic tradition of concern for the poor and oppressed, and castigation of the hypocritical, superficial frumkeit that keeps the poor oppressed and religion empty. I am not going to use this space to debate his policies, but since R. Steinsaltz chosee to discuss the laws of Shemittah and Yovel for this parashah, it seems like an opportune time to discuss some aspects of the ideal society that Torah pictures for us.

R. Steinsaltz writes:

It appears that the whole idea of Shemitta has another meaning, one that is more relevant in our generation’s reality. It is this meaning that is emphasized in this parashah as well. … the emphasis is on the question of who owns the land.

In the Shemita year, and even more so in the Jubilee year, there is an aspect of suspension of property ownership by a kind of royal decree from heaven. … Gd proclaims that He is suspending ownership of land and property, canceling all debts.

Such a suspension is not an anomalous idea. … instances of this kind of decree have occurred … when they sensed that the economic situation was volatile … the pressures, the inequality, or the exploitation of a certain class had reached the point of being unbearable, the country would simply announce that it would stop paying its debts, and the creditors would now have to write everything off as a loss.

R. Steinsaltz goes on to cite the yearly, temporary closing of Rockefeller Center to the public, simply to assert the fact that it is indeed private property, and public access to it is not by right, but by leave of the owner, and concludes:

In the Shemita and Jubilee years, the Owner reinforces His right to all possessions by suspending our usage rights. This can be seen from the fact that the “royal suspension” of Shemitta and Jubilee year is not an absolute suspension and does not eliminate ownership of property completely. … when the Shemitta year is over, the owner can begin to eat from his land’s produce again. Everything is his, as before … the Shemitta year was only an intermission.

A 19th century Rabbi once quipped that Torah is not a socialist document, because for 6 years out of 7 it upholds private property rights. In fact, the largest section of the Talmud is devoted to defining what those rights are, and how they are to be protected. Nonetheless, property rights are not absolute. On the Biblical level, as we have seen, debts are canceled every 7 years and every 50 years the land reverts to its ancestral family owners, in a kind of global “reset” to the moment the Land was first divided amongst the tribes. On the Rabbinic level, the Rabbinic courts were empowered, to remove property from one person and give it to another (hefker beit din hefker) when it was deemed necessary to rectify an inequitable situation.

In my opinion, the most powerful restraint on the untrammeled adoration of private property is the notion that we, our bodies, our talents and abilities, and of course, our property, are actually not ours at all. Everything is given to us by Gd to be used for a specific purpose, that being to infuse the nature of Divinity into the mundane world – to sanctify life in all its aspects. This notion runs counter to the idea that we are each individual, isolated, autonomous being who are free to act as we choose. So for example:

  • We don’t have the right to commit suicide, nor to assist someone in doing so. Our bodies are not “our own” to do with as we please.
  • We are not at liberty to use the wealth we have amassed (even if amassed honestly) for whatever purpose we please. It may be enjoyed, but it must also be used to help others, and it certainly may not be used to corrupt the government.
  • There are certain circumstances in which we may not marry the partner of our choice because of the possibility it may lead to some undesired consequence down the road (this is, of course, besides the list of forbidden relationships [arayot] in Leviticus Chapters 18 and 20)

The list could go on and on. All of these restrictions on our individual choice are based on the one principle that we are here on this earth to do Gd’s work. Permit me to give an example from physics as well. Physics deals with systems, and tries to decipher their internal dynamics, and their interactions with one another. Really, there is very little difference between these two pursuits – two interacting systems are parts of a larger system, and their mutual behavior is the internal dynamics of the larger system. In fact, the history of physics has shown that whenever we have two interacting systems that appear to be separate, there is a deeper level of unity that underlies them – electric and magnetic fields can interact with one another, but this is only what appears on the surface. In reality, these two interacting fields are not at all separate – they are two aspects of an underlying “unified” field – the electromagnetic field.

Similarly, it is obvious that all human beings form a web of interaction, and we all interact with the various aspects of our environment. When there were orders of magnitude fewer humans, and we had access to much less concentrated sources of energy, these interactions were necessarily weaker. When interactions are weak, the different parts of a system can be viewed as interacting individuals – with individual being primary and interaction secondary. When the interactions become stronger, the feedback loops that are inherent in the web of relationships in the system can no longer be ignored. The system must be considered as a whole. The action of an individual, which was of little consequence when he interacted only marginally with others, now begins to have global significance. We begin to see very clearly that you can’t drill a hole under your seat in the boat and claim that it’s only under your seat and nobody has the right to make you desist.

I believe that Torah is telling us that we live in an infinitely-connected world. Our perception of ourselves as individuals has some validity, but at a deeper level we are all simply different aspects of one underlying system – the Creation that Gd has put in place to reflect His infinite Wisdom and Intelligence. Gd is koneh hakol, the Creator and Owner of everything, including our selves. He has given us free will to choose to focus on playing our part in hastening the fulfillment, or to focus on our individual wants and desires. We need to begin to see ourselves as a connected part of something much larger than ourselves in order to make the correct choice.

Haftarah: Yirmiah 32:6-27

Our haftarah tells the story of Yirmiyah’s (Jeremiah’s) purchase of a field in his hometown (he actually redeems the field to keep it in the family), despite the fact that the Land has already been conquered by the Babylonians. The simple message of the passage is that Gd has not abandoned Israel, and that once again Jews will be buying and selling land, farming and growing crops, trading and doing business, in the Land. Yirmiyah instructs his secretary to put the deed in an earthenware vessel so that it can be stored safely for a long time (this is before large data centers where things like deeds can be backed up to multiple, EMP-proof locations…). In a sense, Yirmiyah’s instructions highlight for us the futility of our attempts to create something permanent on this material earth. The world of the material is one of decay, of loss, of death. The only way to achieve immortality is on the level of the spirit, by expanding our awareness until unbounded, unchanging awareness is a permanent feature of our experience. So when Gd tells us “… the land shall not be sold in perpetuity,” besides a commandment, perhaps the lesson is that we can’t do anything in perpetuity on “the land.” “For the land is Mine.” If you want perpetuity, you’ll find it only in Gd.