Parashat Behar is primarily concerned with rules and regulations pertaining to the land of Israel. We read the description of the laws governing the sabbatical (“Shmitta”) years in which the land was to lie fallow one out of every seven years. We learn of the idea of the Jubilee year, which occurred every fifty years, when property that had passed out of a family by reason of economic necessity reverted to the original owners.
The Torah also teaches that each Jubilee year was an opportunity for anyone who had been forced to self himself into servitude to redeem himself, even if his master was a resident alien, i.e., not a member of the Israelite community.
Leviticus concludes with a graphic vision of the desolation of the land of Israel and the dispersal of the Israelite people if, after entering the land, they fail to fulfill the Covenant obligations of the Torah. Exile and oppression, couched as a warning, are described in terrifying terms.
“For the Land is Mine [says God]; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). With this brief but powerful verse, the Torah strives to dispel the perhaps inevitable tendency for the ancient Israelites — and modern Jews — to assume that ultimate authority over the land of Israel belongs to people, rather than to God.
There is an important connection between the idea that the land is ultimately God’s, and the idea that every fifty years, at least, servants are given the opportunity to be set free. Both rules testify to the unique vision of God and of humanity that the Torah seeks to establish.
Despite the emotional exuberance of the song “Exodus” — “This land is mine, God gave this land to me” — Jewish tradition was concerned to communicate that this inheritance was contingent, not necessary; that it was potentially eternal, but also potentially transient.
Judaism records debate and discussion over hundreds of years as to the centrality of the land of Israel to Jewish identity. Being on the land conveys a sense of permanence and stability; being off the land suggests alienation and abandonment. “By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept…how can we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land?” (Psalm 137).
In ancient days as well as in our own time, the possibility of mistaking what is partial for what is ultimate was the entryway into idolatry. Then as now there were Jews who believed that the land, and not God, was ultimate. Then, as now, there were Jews who felt that any action in behalf of preserving Jewish control over the land of Israel was acceptable. Then, as now, there were Jews who believed that preservation of control over the land of Israel, even at the cost of life, was a higher good than what would have been seen as an ephemeral “peace”.
Rabbinic Judaism was fond of the legendary account which envisioned a succession of national settlers occupying and then being exiled from the land of Israel. Each nation which preceded the Jewish people had had its turn on the land; each had transgressed the basic moral principles of society, and each had been exiled by God. The Jewish people was no different; they too were subject to exile if their comportment was compromised. “Because of our sins were we exiled from our land” is the way the traditional prayerbook puts it.
If the land ultimately belongs to God, then the land cannot be ultimate. Yes, there is a Covenant between God and the Jewish people. Yes, part of that Covenant stipulates that God will give the land of Israel to the offspring of Abraham and Sarah. And yes, despite exile, Jewish religion always taught that the Covenant remained in effect, and that eventually, unlike the other nations, the Jews would return to the land of Israel. But Judaism, at its best, remained wedded to a vision of God as the Creator of the universe, and thus as ultimately in control of the world which was God’s creation.
Similarly, the idea that no one could be sold into servitude indefinitely, that the opportunity for redemption would come every fifty years, testified to the Jewish vision of human beings being created in the image of God, while still remaining distinct from God. The Exodus from Egypt is the major lesson of Judaism, from which a myriad of things can be learned. Certainly foremost among them is that no human ruler (like Pharoah) had the right to presume ultimate ownership of another human being. Economic and social circumstances may have created conditions where people had no choice but to indenture themselves, but this did not deny their dignity.
In the modern state of Israel, and for Jews throughout the world who are concerned with the Jewish homeland, the convergence of these issues has again become important. The current Israeli political climate certainly suggests that a time may be coming when it will become necessary to debate what is ultimate. There are political realists whose concerns for security lead them to resist surrendering any territory currently controlled by Israel. But there are also extremists whose romantic-mystical-theological vision of the land threatens to make of it an idol, an ultimate over which they presume to have unqualified control.
Regrettably, such a vision of the land can lead to a repudiation of the Torah’s teaching that human beings ultimately belong to God, and are deserving of decency and dignity. The Torah says God made human beings in the Divine Image — it does not say God made only Jewish human beings in that Image. When we make of the land an idol, when the land becomes an ultimate, then any act on its behalf — even an act which denies the humanity of other people — becomes acceptable.
Jews outside the land of Israel advise with caution when it comes to matters of the land of Israel; we are, in most cases, remote from the day to day associations with the land which only continuous residence can confer. We may have opinions — some informed, some not — about the relative merit of land and peace. But at best we can raise concerns, perhaps offer suggestions, but realize that ultimately the hard decisions will be made by Israelis, not by Diaspora Jews.
If we do not share the land itself, we do, however, share the Torah tradition. Along with concerned Israeli Jews, we can authentically call attention to the teachings which caution against the hubris which holds that the land is “ours”. Everything we do in the land, on the land, and for the land, must remain tentative, not absolute, and must account for the imperatives of the ethical core of the Torah.
Ultimately, it is the society which is created on the land which will determine the true meaning of the inheritance promised to Abraham and Sarah, nurtured through the generations, and brought to fruition in our own day.