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Behar: We Do Not Own the Earth

V’ha’aretz lo timacher l’tzmitut, ki li ha’aretz, ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi

The land cannot be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to Me, and you are but temporary residents on My earth. (Leviticus 25:23)

Last week I argued for the importance of understanding the expansive evolution that Jewish law and practice has undergone since the days of the Bible. I discussed how Judaism as it evolved in its understanding of the preciousness of human life overruled the many examples of physical and capital punishment that the Torah dictates as law.

But human history is not a continuous march of progress. While we have advanced in certain understandings of what is good and just, we have regressed in others, and none more so than in our relationship with the earth. Here, the agrarian culture of the Torah has critical lessons to teach us, ancient wisdom that must be reclaimed. As our need to relate to our Mother Earth in a more humble and integrated way becomes desperately urgent, this week’s portion, Behar, calls out to us from our earth-based past with forgotten truth.

Most central to our modern misconception is the idea that we humans can actually own land, and the resources beneath that land, as if the earth was only a commodity to be exploited, rather than the living matrix from which we ourselves spring. In contrast to this contemporary delusion, Psalm 24 opens, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that it contains, the world and all who inhabit it.” For our ancestors, everything comes from and belongs to the Creator. We are here by God’s grace, and owe a debt for the gift we have received of being able to glean our sustenance from the earth.

Behar lays out the framework by which we might constantly remind ourselves that we are not the masters of creation. Every seventh year, the earth gets a Sabbath. We relinquish our control over the land and let it rest. The land becomes ownerless, and all are free to eat its fruits. Just as the Torah instructs us that every seventh day is a day of rest for us and for all the people and animals that work for us, the seventh year is an even broader sabbatical for the entire ecosystem.

The Torah gives a clear rationale for these practices: we are to observe the Sabbath to remember that “YHVH created the heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them” (Exodus 20:11), and to remember “that you were a slave in Egypt, and YHVH your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15). That is, by holding to the weekly and yearly Sabbath cycle, we regularly remind ourselves that we owe our lives and our sustenance to the Creator. This establishes a societal corrective against our innate pull to exploit the world for our own benefit. Unchecked, that aspect of human nature brings us out of balance with each other and our world. The Torah teaches that, as with Pharaoh, an unchecked lust for control, for security, and for power is in direct conflict with God’s plan for an earth and a society in sacred balance. Limitless taking leads ultimately to calamity.

Behar also instructs us to count seven cycles of seven years, and explains that after 49 years, the 50th year is the Jubilee. In the Jubilee year, any family that has lost their landholding over the previous years due to debt or misfortune is able to reclaim their land and begin again. This may be the most radical commandment in the Torah: if you are a wealthy landowner, and even if you have come by all of your holdings fair and square, after 50 years you have to give back what you acquired. The Torah explains that you do not actually own that property – you only possess the yield of the land, not the land itself. We are all leaseholders from God. In the Jubilee year, the entire society gets a giant “reset”, and both ecological and economic balance is restored. YHVH declares that, “the land cannot be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to Me, and you are but temporary residents on My earth.” (Lev. 25:23)

The Jubilee is the utopian vision of a society manifesting immense wisdom and fairness. Historically speaking, we cannot verify whether the lofty ideals of the Jubilee year were entirely practiced in ancient Israel. I have difficulty imagining it. But the message and philosophy of the Torah are clear, and represent a sustainable and wise understanding of our right relationship to the natural world. We ignore it at our very real peril.

Ancient wisdom calls out to us as a modern culture that has forgotten our debt to the earth, and instead functions under the unsustainable premise that the resources of the earth are ours to exploit without stint. Our agrarian and pastoral ancestors knew that they were “just passing through” God’s good earth, and as earth’s beneficiaries needed to steward its resources and live in balance with nature’s rhythms. They created legislation to ensure that balance, and along with it enshrined an understanding of our place not as owners but as residents upon that earth. We find ourselves today dangerously out of balance, the earth (and all of us) desperately needing a sabbatical, and the consequences of our failures in this regard are becoming terrifyingly real as our global climate destabilizes. Global solutions appear difficult to achieve, but we have no choice other than to engage this challenge, and the Torah can be one of our guides as we nurture a renewed consciousness to care for our Mother Earth.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan