Behar: Owning Land

May 18, 2017 at 11:47 am | Posted in Behar | 1 Comment
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Is owning land like owning a bowl or a blanket? Do human beings have the right to buy and sell land, inherit it, give it away, use it any way they like, destroy it?

This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“on a mountain”), lays out rules for land ownership in ancient Israel and Judah. The first rule is about farmland:

The seventh year will be a time of the most restful rest for the land, a time of rest for God. You shall not sow your field and you shall not prune your vineyard.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:4)

Every seventh year, the Torah explains, everyone can eat what grows wild on your land:

It shall be … for yourself and for your male servant and for your female servant and for your hired laborer and for your toshav, the geirim with you; and for your cattle and for the wild beasts that are in your land; all may come to it to eat.  (Leviticus 25:6-7)

toshav (תּוֹשָׁב) = resident alien, foreigner living in a citizen’s household. Plural = toshavim (תּוֹשָׁבִים).

geir (גֵּר) = resident alien, immigrant; non-citizen who moved from another land. Plural = geirim (גֵּירִים).

The implication is that although you own the land, you only own its produce six years out of seven. Every seventh year you must let it lie fallow,1 giving the land a year of rest (shabbat, שַׁבָּת), just as every seventh day you give everyone in your household a day of rest (shabbat, שַׁבָּת). During your land’s year of rest, whatever it produces is ownerless, and can be eaten by anyone, even wild animals. Additionally, landowners may neither sell nor hoard the produce during that year; like everyone else, they may pick up only what they can eat.

Tribal lands according to Joshua

The next rule in the Torah portion Behar lays out what happens to land every 50th year. After the 49th year (which is a year of rest for the land, as above), all the land gets an additional year of rest, and during that year ownership of each parcel of land reverts to the family that owned it 50 years before—the descendants of the family that owned that land 50 years before that, and so on, all the way back to the original assignment of land in the book of Joshua.2

In this year of the yoveil, each of you shall return to his holding. (Leviticus 25:13)

yoveil (יוֹבֵל) = ram, ram’s horn, shofar; year of blowing the ram’s horn.  (English “jubilee”.)

That means a plot of land may not be sold in the sense we sell land today. Instead, someone pays up-front to lease the land for however many years are left before the next yoveil. During those years, he3 may plant and harvest as he likes—but then he has to return the land.

According to the count of years since the yoveil, you shall purchase it from your fellow; … since he is selling you the number of harvests.  (Leviticus 25:15, 16.)

Does that mean that the only true owners are the “original” families that were given land when the Israelites conquered Canaan, and get the same lands back every 50 years?  No.  The Torah says that all land belongs to God.

You may not forfeit the right to reacquire the land, because the land is Mine; for you are geirim and toshavim with Me.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:23)

The Gleaners, Jean Francois Millet, 1857

God is the true landowner of the land; even the Israelites who inherit land, or get it back in a yoveil year, are resident aliens from God’s point of view.

If everyone who “owns” land is actually borrowing it from God, everyone must obey God’s rules about the use of the land. Besides letting the ground rest every seven years, they must leave some of the harvest in the field for poor people and geirim to glean.4

Of course if a victorious enemy simply seizes land, there is nothing the Israelites can do but wait and hope God will return it to them eventually.

In modern nations today, our own governments can seize private land by eminent domain, often (depending on the nation) compensating the owners for their loss. In general, people can buy, sell, inherit, and give away land, but there are limits—set by government rather than God—on how they can use the land. We have zoning laws, laws protecting wetlands, laws requiring large developers to set aside some land for public parks or green spaces.

But we could do better, if our governments were truly dedicated to the public good.  For example, we could have laws banning the use, on farms and on homeowners’ lawns, of any pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers that poison the environment. We could have laws severely limiting carbon dioxide emissions, and all forms of air and water pollution.

After all, does anyone have the right to degrade our God-given earth?

All human beings are merely temporary residents, geirim and toshavim, on God’s land.  We live here on sufferance.  We depend on nature, which some people call God’s creation—because it certainly isn’t ours. If only we could remember that we are all gleaners, harvesting our food from land that does not really belong to us!

We need to wake up and hear the ram’s horn!

(An earlier version of this essay was published in May 2010.)

1  The seventh year is called the year of shmittah (שְׁמִטָּה), “release”, in Deuteronomy 15:1-14, where it is described as the year for remission of debts and the freeing of Hebrew slaves.

2  Joshua 13:8-33 confirms Moses’ assignment of land east of the Jordan River to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe, divided by their clans. Joshua 15:1-17:18 confirms the assignment of land the tribes of Judah, Efrayim, and the other half of Menashe have already taken by conquest west of the Jordan, divided by their clans. Joshua 18:1-19:48 describes the assignment of land by lottery (which was presumed to be the will of God) to the remaining seven tribes and their clans. (The Levites, who serve at the temple instead of farming, are given land only in towns, with small attached pastures.) In the next few books of the Bible, the tribes do not conquer all of these assigned lands, and the tribe of Dan moves to another area.

3  Society in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah was patriarchal, giving the male head of household authority over everyone else. According to current scholarship, the book of Leviticus was written sometime after the Assyrian Empire captured the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C.E., but the patriarchal system continued in Judah.  Women could inherit land only when their fathers died without a son, as in Numbers 27:1-11, and even then strings were attached (Numbers 36:2-12).

4  Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21.

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Haftarat Behar—Jeremiah: The Redeemer

May 23, 2016 at 2:49 pm | Posted in Behar, Jeremiah | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 32:6-27.

Prophets during the period of the kingdoms of Israel (931-722 B.C.E.) and Judah (931-586 B.C.E.) had more than one way to deliver God’s messages. They could preach to the king or to the people, in either poetry or prose. They could do performance art, acting out a message with props. Or they could do an apparently ordinary action that carried a symbolic meaning about God and country.

Jeremiah’s ordinary deed in this week’s haftarah, purchasing a field in his hometown from his cousin, carries a double meaning.

The grounds for the purchase are laid out in this week’s Torah portion, Behar:

Beggar, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Beggar, by Rembrandt van Rijn

If your kinsman becomes poor and must sell part of his property, then his nearest go-eil shall come and ga-al what his kinsman is selling. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:25)

go-eil (גֹּאֵל) = redeemer; deliverer.

ga-al (גָּאַל) = redeem; prevent purchase by an outsider, buy back from an outsider, deliver from the hands of an enemy.

In other words, land must be kept within the extended family if possible. (And if not, God’s law requires that every 50 years will be a yovel or jubilee and all lands will return to the descendants of their original owners.) If someone needs to sell land, the nearest kinsman has the first right to buy it. If no kinsmen step forward to buy the land, and it is sold outside the clan, then when a kinsman has the means he is expected to step forward and buy it back. He does not have to return the land to the original seller (at least not until the next yovel year); the important point is to keep the land in the family.

These laws about land ownership would have seemed moot while Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonian army in 588-586 B.C.E. From all the accounts in the Bible, it became increasingly obvious that the Babylonians would win, and King Nebuchadnezzar would annex the whole kingdom of Judah to his own empire. Then his administration would decide who owned the land; the old property rights of the Israelites in Judah would be irrelevant.

Jeremiah speaks to King Zedekiah, 1897 illustration

Jeremiah speaks to King Zedekiah, 1897 illustration

Jeremiah spends most of the siege in prison in Jerusalem. The prophet keeps saying that rebelling against Babylon is futile, and the king of Judah should surrender before the city falls to Nebuchadnezzar’s troops. This is not a popular message with either King Zedekiah of Judah or his officials, especially since Jeremiah speaks in God’s name. Since Jeremiah is the son of Hilkiah, the late High Priest, people are likely to believe him. So the prophet is thrown in prison at least three times in the book of Jeremiah.

While Jeremiah is in prison at the beginning of this week’s haftarah, God tells him:

Hey! Chanameil, son of your uncle Shulam, will come to you saying: Buy yourself my field that is in Anatot, because yours is the duty of the ge-ulah to buy it. (Jeremiah 32:7)

ge-ulah (גְּאֻלָּה) = right of redemption; responsibility to redeem. (From the same root as ga-al.)

And Chanameil, the son of my uncle, came to me, as God had spoken, to the court of the guards. And he said to me: Buy, please, my field that is in Anatot, which is in the land of Benjamin, because the right of possession is yours and the ge-ulah is yours. Then I knew it was indeed the word of God. And I bought the field away from Chanameil, the son of my uncle, that was in Anatot. And I weighed out for him the silver, seven shekels and ten in silver. And I wrote in a document, and I sealed it and I designated witnesses… (Jeremiah 32:8-10)

Jeremiah describes all the details of the transaction, showing that it was done according to the letter of the law. Then God adds an instruction.

Thus said God of Armies, the god of Israel: Take these documents with this document of purchase, the sealed one and this uncovered one, and put them in a jar of pottery so that they will last a long time. For thus said God of Armies, the god of Israel: They will buy houses and fields and vineyards in this land again. (Jeremiah 32:14-15)

Preserving the documents of sale in a pottery jar indicates that after a long time, the Israelites will return and own their land again.

Then Jeremiah asks why God told him to redeem land in Judah when the kingdom was about to fall to the Babylonians anyway.

And the word of God happened to Jeremiah, saying: Hey! I am God, the god of all flesh. Is anything too wondrous for me? (Jeremiah 32:26-27)

Jerusalem, 587 B.C.E.

Jerusalem, 587 B.C.E.

God then declares that Jerusalem will be burned to the ground as part of God’s plan to use the Babylonians to punish the Israelites for their idolatry. But eventually God will bring the Israelites back to their land. In other words, God will be the go-eil for the Israelites.

Thus Jeremiah’s purchase of his cousin’s land prefigures God’s redemption of the Israelites.

At first I wondered if Jeremiah’s cousin Chanameil was merely acting out of divine inspiration to set up the symbolic story by asking Jeremiah to be his go-eil. But then I read another episode in the book of Jeremiah, a few chapters later, when the Babylonian (Kasdim) army temporarily lifts the siege.

And it happened that the Kasdim removed the front-line troops around Jerusalem on account of the [advancing] front-line troops of Pharaoh. And Jeremiah was going out of Jerusalem to go to the territory of Benjamin to apportion land there among the people. And he was at the gate of Benjamin, and there the commander of the guard …arrested Jeremiah the prophet, saying: You are defecting to the Kasdim! (Jeremiah 37:11-13)

Jeremiah winds up in prison again. But it is striking that his first idea, when the siege is temporarily lifted, is to walk back to his hometown, Anatot in the territory of Benjamin, and make sure the sale of his cousin’s land was carried out according to the documents he prepared.

I suspect Chanameil really was poor, and needed the price of his land in silver to survive. By selling the land to his first cousin Jeremiah, he could use the silver and still continue to farm the land—as best he could during the siege of Jerusalem a few miles to the north.

When there is a break in the siege, Jeremiah tries to go south to check up on his cousin and make sure no outsider has kicked his cousin off the land that he is now, technically, farming for Jeremiah. Even though he knows that the Babylonians will soon return, Jeremiah acts in the spirit, not just the letter, of the law in the Torah portion Behar. He is his cousin’s go-eil, and as long as possible he will strive to redeem him.

Jeremiah knows his world is falling apart. He knows the siege will resume in a few months, Jerusalem will burn to the ground, and the whole kingdom of Judah will fall to its enemies. Yet he risks his own limited freedom in an attempt to make sure his cousin is all right—knowing that both he and his cousin are likely to be killed or deported later that year.

The sale of the land in Anatot is a symbolic act God uses to tell people that although they are doomed, there is hope for the next generation. And the sale is a practical step Jeremiah takes to help someone in the present.

Whether the doom we see advancing on the world is war or global warming, may we all be like Jeremiah and remember that each individual and each day counts. Stage your symbolic protests for the sake of the big picture.  But be responsible and kind to another human, right here, right now.

Behar: Choosing a God

May 4, 2014 at 11:37 am | Posted in Behar | Leave a comment
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Feeling a sense of the numinous or the divine, from time to time, is human nature. So is the impulse to acknowledge and reach out to the ineffable. For thousands of years, many human beings have channeled this impulse into worship of one or more gods.

The Hebrew Bible does not have a separate word corresponding to the English word “worship”. But it does have words for prayer (tefillah), bowing down or prostrating oneself (hishtachavot), service (avodah—often meaning the tasks of priests), and bringing offerings to a god (hakriv korban). Prayer and prostration usually happen on the impulse of the moment in the Torah.  Priestly service and bringing offerings, on the other hand, are rituals for which the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed rules.

But the most important thing is which god one is addressing. The Torah repeatedly warms its readers to restrict themselves to only one god out of the many available in the ancient Middle East. This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“on the mountain”) ends with these instructions:

You must not make for yourselves eliylim, or a pesel; and a matzeivah you must not erect for yourselves; and a maskit stone you must not place in your land for prostrations upon it; because I, God, am your elohim. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:1)

eliylim (אֱלִילִם) = pseudo-gods (often used to refer to gods in other religions)

pesel (פֶּסֶל) = carved image; idol of cut stone or wood (from the verb pasal = carve)

matzeivah (מַצֵּבָה) = standing-stone

maskit (מַשׂכּית) = paving-stone with a design on it, set into the floor of a shrine

elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = gods (plural of eloha = god); God

What strikes me about this warning is that after the general reference to pseudo-gods, we get three examples of idols associated with stone. In contrast, the God of the four-letter name (approximated in English by Y-H-V-H) is associated with a day of rest and a holy place in the next verse:

Shabbetotai you must guard, and mikdashi you must hold in awe; I am God. (Leviticus 26:2)

shabbetotai (שַׁבְּתֹתַי) = my sabbaths

mikdashi (מִקְדָּשִׁי) = my holy place

Shabbat, the sabbath, is a holy time: one day a week when the people must refrain from labor and honor God. A mikdash is a holy place. A shrine with a pesel, matzeivah, or maskit stone might be a mikdash for another god. But this week’s Torah portion quotes the god of Israel as saying mikdashi, MY mikdash. Throughout the book of Leviticus, God’s mikdash is the portable sanctuary Moses assembles in the book of Exodus; God becomes present above the ark in the sanctuary’s innermost chamber. Later in the Bible, the holy place where God becomes present is the temple in Jerusalem. Since the fall of the second temple, some Jews have viewed Jerusalem as God’s holy place, while others have said holy place is any spot where God becomes present to a human being—as long as it is the correct god.

Both the pseudo-gods and the God of Israel require human actions before they can be worshipped. Humans carve the pseudo-gods out of stones. Humans set aside times and places as holy to the God of the four-letter name.

Like many religious seekers today, I like the more abstract idea of how to approach God. Thinking about time and space dazzles me; looking at a stone sculpture only stimulates my aesthetic sense. But in Biblical times, the sanctuary or the temple was full of tangible objects and decorations made of metals, wood, and thread. Gold flashed, rich colors glowed. And the second temple was built of stone.

A visit to the temple meant not only a feast for the eyes, but an overwhelming experience for the other senses. The Levites chanted psalms and played musical instruments. Priests burned aromatic incense. When you brought any animal offering, you laid your hands on the beast’s hairy head. When you brought a wholeness-offering, a priest burned selected portions into smoke for God, and ate his own portion, but the donor and his guests ate the rest of the meat and bread.

When we make God too abstract, we approach the divine with only one part of ourselves, the rational function of our minds. But our minds are much bigger than that. Reading a prayer silently makes me think about the meaning of words; singing a prayer lifts my spirit. Thinking about time and space dazzles my intellect; looking at a blossoming tree or a smiling face moves my heart with a feeling of the divine.

So I have to reinterpret the phrase:  I, God (the four-letter Y-H-V-H name), am your elohim. Most translations use “the LORD”, a variation of “Y-H-V-H”, or Hashem (“the Name”) for the first god-word, and “God” (always capitalized) for elohim. Yet elohim is a plural, and the Torah occasionally uses the word to refer to multiple gods worshipped by other peoples.

When I come to that phrase, in prayers or in this passage from the portion Behar, I think: I, God, am all gods to you.

In other words, do not get stranded in abstract theories, however dazzling to the intellect. And do not get stuck at the level of a stone carving. Let the stone, or the singing of psalms, or the taste of bread move your heart. Use your head to recognize that the divine is also more than an exalted feeling. And then acknowledge that these things are all part of the holy One.

 

Behar: Redeeming Yourself

May 17, 2012 at 10:22 am | Posted in Behar | Leave a comment

(May this posting redeem the half-finished blog post that I sent out last night by a slip of my finger.)

The word “redeem” and its Biblical Hebrew equivalent, “ga-al”, both mean to buy back something that was lost, or sold, or that should be yours anyway. The difference between the English word and the Hebrew word is in what kinds of things get redeemed.

Both “redeem” and “ga-al” cover buying a slave’s freedom.  In America, you can also redeem your own reputation or moral standing. And you can redeem a coupon for something of value.  In the Torah, the word “ga-al” also covers buying back property that was sold to someone outside the family, giving a childless widow a legal heir, or executing a murderer.

The double Torah portion for this week, Behar (on the mountain) and Bechukotai (with my decrees), introduces the concept of the yoveil every 50 years.

You shall make every fiftieth year holy, and you shall proclaim emancipation in the land for all her dwellers;  yoveil it will be for you, and you shall return each man to his holding, and you shall return each man to his family (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:10)

yoveil = year of the ram’s horn; “jubilee” year every 50 years when all Hebrew slaves went free and any property sold during the last 50 years was automatically returned to the original owner.

And for every holding, you shall provide redemption (ge-ulah) for the land. If your brother becomes poor and sells some of his holding, his redeemer (go-alo) who his closest relative shall come and redeem (ga-al) what his brother sold. And a man who does not have a redeemer (g0-eil), but whose hand has increased, so he finds enough for its redemption (ge-ulato)–he will calculate the years of his sale and he will return the remainder to the man to whom he sold, and then he will return to his holding. But if he did not find enough in his hand to return, then what he sold will be in the hand of the buyer until the year of the yoveil. Then he will go out, in the yoveil, and return to his holding. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:24-28)

Since all land reverted to the original owner or his heir, the price of land was set accordingly to the number of years left before the next yoveil; a buyer paid more for a field he could use for 40 years than for a field he could only use for 10 years. Furthermore, a buyer could not even be sure he would keep the land until the yoveil.  Any time after the first two years, the original owner or his close relative had the option of “redeeming” the land by paying the buyer for the remaining years of use before the yoveil.  If the land was redeemed by a kinsman, then he got to hold and use it until the yoveil year returned to the original owner (or his son, or closest heir).

Can you imagine selling your house, but retaining the right to buy it back any time?  Knowing that if you could not afford to “redeem” it, your brother or uncle might do it, and move into your house until the magic year when the house would return to you anyway?

I remember the house I lived in 50 years ago, when I was a small child.  I loved our yard, with the lady-slippers blooming under the pine trees in front. I had my own patch of garden along the curved walk to our front door. I watched robins and blue jays struggle over nests in the big maple tree, and I explored the swampy woods in the back yard, building shelters out of old logs and catching salamanders. I have memories of every room inside the house, as personal as the bite-marks I made on the windowsills when I was teething.

The last time I went back east and drove past that house, I saw that someone had cleared all the trees in front, turned the garden into lawn, and built two additions that changed the look of the whole house. Only the woods in back was left.

What if this were a yoveil year for the United States, and that house returned to my family?  What if the house my husband and I are paying a mortgage on now suddenly reverted to whoever owned it 50 years ago? It sounds great in terms of finances.  But my childhood house has been changed so much, it would not really be my old house. And I’m not sure I want to move back to New England, now that I’ve built a life in Oregon.

But redemption, ge-ulah, also means release from servitude and return to one’s family.  For us, the idea of a  yoveil year could also mean a reinvestment in family relationships. And the idea of returning to your original land could also mean a return to your own original personality, before you started acquiring other people’s concerns and giving up on your own concerns.

It’s easy to get caught up in the transactions of the world, and forget what is really yours. Sometime after you turn 50, you can reclaim the God-given parts of your soul.  And you can release the other people in your life from your expectations, so they can redeem their own souls.

But according to this week’s Torah portion, you don’t even have to wait 50 years.  If you have the means, the courage and mental resources, you can redeem yourself and free others at any time.  If you don’t, someone close to you may help you to do it. There are more paths to recovery than we think.

Behar: Exclusive Ownership

May 8, 2011 at 11:22 pm | Posted in Behar | Leave a comment

And if your brother beside you becomes impoverished and is sold to you, you may not impose slave labor on him.  He will become like a hired worker, like a temporary alien worker with you…  Because they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they may not be sold as a slave is sold.  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:39-42)

aved = slave, servant, assistant, subject (of a king)

Since Biblical Hebrew does not have separate words for “slave” and “servant”, translating the word eved or aved depends on context.  I translating the word as “servant” when it refers to a human who is owned by God, or to a human who serves another human but is not his property.  I translate the word as “slave” when it refers to someone who is owned as property by another human being.  Throughout the ancient Middle East, some slaves were captured in battle, and others were reduced by extreme poverty to selling themselves (and/or their children).

This week’s Torah portion, Behar (On a mountain), mandates some unusual ways to reverse poverty in an agricultural society.  If a family has to sell its land, it can be redeemed by a kinsman at any time; and even if it is not redeemed, the land returns to the original family every 50 years, in the Yovel/ Jubilee year.

If an Israelite becomes even poorer, and has to sell himself into slavery, then he, too, can be redeemed by a kinsman at any time; and even if he is not redeemed, he is set free in  the Yovel year.  Furthermore, the Israelite who “buys” a fellow Israelite must treat him like a hired worker, not like a slave … because all Israelites belong to God, so they cannot be owned by people.

The end of the Torah portion Behar warns that Israelites are also forbidden to become servants to any other god:

You shall not make for yourselves worthless gods or idols; you shall not erect a standing-stone for yourselves; and you shall not place in your land a stone with a figure on it for prostration upon; because I, Yah, am your god.  My sabbaths you shall observe, and my holy place you shall hold in awe; I am Yah.  (Vayikra/ Leviticus 26:1-2)

shabbat = sabbath, day of rest (from a root word meaning to cease, to stop)

mikdash = holy place, sanctuary, temple

Israelites  belong exclusively to their own god.  They may temporarily serve a human being.  But they must never serve another god.

I was raised an atheist and then chose to become a Jew, so I’ve never bowed before a sculpture of Jesus on the cross, or any other god-image. I have never even prayed to another deity. Does that mean I’m all set? Not quite. According to the portion Behar, I must also be a servant of  the God of the four-letter name, which I translate above as Yah.  It’s not enough to say that I don’t belong to anyone else.  Nor is it enough to say that I belong to God because, like all humans, I have only limited control over my own life.  The question is whether I’m actually dedicating my life to “serving” God.

Maybe studying and writing about the Torah every week doesn’t count.  Maybe my prayers aren’t passionate enough.  Or maybe by the time I find a definition of God that I can accept, I’ve lost the God that the Torah is talking about.

How can anyone serve God as a slave serves a master?  The answer may be in the next sentence:  My sabbaths you shall observe, and my holy place you shall hold in awe.

Aha!  Maybe we serve God by stopping every seventh day to rest, reflect, and reset our intentions.  And maybe we serve God by noticing the holiness of the place where we are, instead of taking it for granted.

When I think of it that way, I’m glad I belong to God.

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