Taking stock

How can we restore a balance to our lives and to the earth?

What would it mean to roll back our life history and start all over? (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
What would it mean to roll back our life history and start all over?
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
 BEHAR FOCUSES almost entirely on the Jubilee, the 50th year and culmination of a cycle of seven seven-year periods.
This year was designed as a kind of super-sabbatical, during which everything returned to its starting position.
Although we no longer observe the laws of the Jubilee (and some maintain that they were never implemented), their significance for individuals, society and the environment is striking.
What would it mean for ourselves as individuals to reboot our lives, to return to our sources, to revert to the status quo ante? What would it mean to roll back our life history and start all over? What would it mean to return to our original “holdings,” literally, to what we first grasped and held on to? We all need to do this periodically, to take stock of where we began as individuals. What are the stories we inherited from our families? What are the stories our parents told us about ourselves? Which stories, experiences, and memories should be set aside so that we can return to our true selves and realize our original potential? How can we restore a balance to our lives? Commenting on one of this Torah portion’s most famous lines: “Proclaim release [dror] throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof,” Ramban (Nahmanides) suggests that we can interpret the word dror, release, mystically, by linking it to the word dor, generation.
Quoting Ecclesiastes 1:4, “One generation goes, another comes,” Ramban correlates the Jubilee with the kabbalistic notion of transmigration of souls, whereby individual souls periodically return to the root of the Eternal Soul, to be reborn into the next generation.
Our societies display clear evidence of gross economic imbalance.
The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. The Jubilee offers us a different vision: a just society, where the vulnerable are protected and the greedy restricted, where individual talent and ambition flourish but not at the expense of the common good. It’s certainly not a world most of us are familiar with. Nor is it the kind of world Diaspora Jews have historically thrived in.
Forbidden to own land for most of our two millennia of exile, we gradually became experts in accumulating capital, which is portable, easily inheritable, fungible, and expandable. As my father-in-law of blessed memory used to say, the greatest miracle of modern times is compound interest. And present-day Israel has shown little inclination to reinstitute the Jubilee by forgiving debts and restoring land to its previous owners. We would much rather hold on to what we’ve acquired.
And what about viewing the Jubilee from an even broader perspective, that of the earth itself? Throughout this portion, God repeatedly asserts title to the land and to the Jewish people.
Although the end result of observing the laws of the Jubilee is to restore equilibrium among the tribes and families of the Israelites, that’s not the justification given in the text. Rather, God demands that the land itself be redeemed from human exploitation. “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is mine; you are but strangers resident with me. Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land.” God speaks as the earth’s advocate.
In Genesis 3, Adam is punished for his disobedience in the Garden of Eden by being forced to work the ground in order to eat. “Cursed be the ground because of you; by toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field; by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat until you return to the ground – for from it you were taken.” Note that the text states that it is the ground that is cursed, not Adam. Even though Adam has to work hard to get his food, it is the ground that bears the brunt of his punishment. No longer is vegetation allowed to grow wild but human beings are to till and sow and harvest crops from it. And, in time, to pollute and deplete and poison it. The land must be protected by God; otherwise people will lose sight of its needs and abuse it.
What would it mean for us today to release the land, to redeem it? At a time when we are wantonly fracking shale to extract oil and natural gas, melting the polar ice with our exhaust pipes and smokestacks, spilling radioactive waste into our oceans, and trashing our cities and towns with plastic, what would it mean to free the land of our heavy footprint and let it return to its wildness? Perhaps that is what God meant in charging us to “provide for the redemption of the land.”  Ellen Frankel, a Philadelphia resident, is the former editor-in-chief of The Jewish Publication Society and the author of ‘The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah’