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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Vayakheil: Holy Time

March 8, 2015 at 12:47 pm | Posted in Vayakheil | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Holy time is more important than holy space. Jewish commentary through the millennia has drawn this conclusion from several key passages in the Torah, including the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”):

matchAnd Moses assembled the whole community of the Children of Israel, and he said to them: Six days you shall do melakhah, and the seventh day there shall be holiness for you: a shabbat shabbaton for God. Anyone who does melakhah on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of the shabbat. (Exodus/Shemot 35:1-3)

melakhah (מְלָאכָה) = tasks, job, crafts; creative work, productive work; project, enterprise.

Shabbat (שַׁבָּת) = day of rest, day of stopping. (From the root verb shavat, שָׁבַת = stop, cease, desist.)

shabbat shabbaton (שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן) = day of absolute stopping.

Immediately after this, Moses hands down God’s directions for making the portable sanctuary—the most holy type of melakhah humans can do. According to most of commentary, Moses first makes it clear that the work of making the sanctuary must be confined to six days a week, then tells the people what to make.  The holy day of Shabbat trumps the holy sanctuary.

As confirming evidence, the commentary points to the first mention of any form of the root shavat in the Torah—after God spends six “days” creating the heavens and the earth and everything in them.

God finished on the seventh day Its melakhah that It had done, vayishbot on the seventh day from all Its work that It had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy… (Genesis/Bereishit 2:2-3)

vayishbot (וַיִּשְׁבֹּת) = and he/it stopped, ceased, desisted.

God made the seventh day holy long before making the sanctuary (or any other place) holy.

In between the beginning of Genesis and the ending of Exodus, the Torah gives us more information about Shabbat and melakhah in the fourth of the Ten Commandments.

Remember the day of the Shabbat to make it holy. Six days you shall serve and you shall do all your melakhah. And the seventh day is Shabbat for God, your god; you shall not do any melakhah—you or your son or your daughter, your male slave or your female slave or your livestock or your resident alien who is within your gates.  Because [for] six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them, vayanach on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)

vayanach  (וַיָּנָח) = and he/it rested.

Here the Torah introduces the idea of stopping as resting. People, animals, and even God must periodically stop and rest. We know that our physical bodies need rest to rebuild energy. Do our souls also need rest to re-energize? During Moses’ first 40 days on Mount Sinai, God says:

The Children of Israel shall guard the Shabbat, to make the Shabbat for their generations, a covenant forever. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever, because for six days God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day shavat, vayinafash. (Exodus 31:16-17)

shavat (שָׁבַת) = he/it stopped, ceased, desisted.

vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and refreshed his/its soul, and recovered himself/itself, and re-animated himself/itself. (From the same root as nefesh = soul, the soul that animates the body, inclination, appetite.)

Since the divine life of the universe pauses periodically for refreshment and redirection, so must our own souls. (See my earlier post, Shabbat in Yitro, Mishpatim and Ki Tissa: Soul Recovery.)

One divine inspiration can trigger human beings to engage in a lifetime of holy work; but if we do not stop regularly to rest and listen with our souls, our work will never be animated by new inspirations.

When Shabbat comes up again in this week’s Torah portion, the Torah adds a new detail:

You shall not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of the shabbat. (Exodus 35:3)

Kindling a fire is the archetype of a human activity that is creative and useful, and enables further creative and useful work. Many ancient cultures considered kindling fire the beginning of civilization.

fireI would add that God manifests in the Torah as a sound, a cloud, or a fire. So fire can stand for our own holy work, as well as for God’s presence. And fire represents change and activity; flames are always moving, never stopping, until the fire has burned down to an ember.

I learned a hard lesson from preparing this blog post: as I suspected, I have been cheating myself.

It is a pleasure to refrain from doing drudgery on Shabbat. And during the years I worked at a job that was not my calling, I was always glad to take Saturday off.

But now I love my melakhah, my creative work of learning, pondering, and teaching Torah through my adult education classes, my Torah monologues, the services I lead, and this weekly blog. I love the work so much that it is hard to make myself take a vacation. I know I should rest on Shabbat, but after all, studying Torah is an approved Shabbat activity.  So what if I put sticky tags next to passages I want to copy onto my computer the next day? So what if I take notes on Shabbat afternoon, even though the Talmud (in Shabbat 73a) includes writing in its list of melakhah forbidden on Shabbat?  I decided long ago that I never wanted to be so strict in my observance that Shabbat became a punishment.  Why not write down any ideas about the Torah that come to me?  After all, studying Torah is holy work.

So was making the items for the sanctuary.

Rereading the portion Vayakheil this year, I can understand the value of stopping even holy work, once a week. My work makes me feel happy, but also driven. Every day that I have the blessing of time to work on Torah, I quickly kindle my inner fire. So far I have not run out of insights and observations—perhaps because I have 60 years of life to reflect upon. But I do run out of energy. I am starting to worry that my fuel supply is dwindling, and if I go on this way, I will burn out.

I need to rest more. I need to re-animate my soul. I need a regular day of shabbat shabbaton, absolute stopping. The Torah is right.

So I am going to start obeying the fourth commandment. I will still lead a Shabbat service now and then, having prepared the week before. But I will rest every Shabbat, and refrain from working on my next holy project. It will not be easy for me.

 

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