Whose land is it?

The Jewish people are in danger of forgetting that they are not owners of the land, but God’s guests.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
THE AMAZING practice of a national observance of a full year of rest from agricultural labors – a sabbatical year – is described in the Behar Torah portion. Like the Sabbath of the seven-day week, the sabbatical year is the culmination of a seven-year cycle.
As the Torah speaks of this practice, it combines legal instructions with terms of spiritual and emotional intensity. It seems that the Torah’s excitement is aroused to such a degree that it is moved to create a series of seven-year cycles, climaxing in the Jubilee Year.
What is the Torah so excited about? The Torah’s passionate investment in creating a sabbatical cycle is evident also in the placement of this topic within the book of Leviticus. It serves as a culmination, not only of a cycle of times, but of its construction of a holy society. Leviticus, as the “Book of Holiness,” is capped with this topic. And the awful warnings about abandoning the Torah that virtually conclude the book are tied to the Torah’s horror at thinking that we might neglect this mitzva and its message.
But, if this section is meant to be a fitting conclusion to this book, we are puzzled by the way the Torah introduces it, saying that this set of laws was revealed at Mount Sinai. The beginning of the book of Leviticus explicitly tells us that the book was communicated, not at Sinai, but from within the Tent of Meeting. We have an apparent contradiction in terms of both time and place.
The Sages noted this problem, asking, “What is the connection between the year of rest and Mount Sinai?” The array of answers to this classic question is vast and rich. Hasidic masters were especially eloquent in showing how the institution of the sabbatical year was so fundamental to the lessons of Judaism that it had to be rooted in the moment when the Torah was given to Israel. Indeed, the common thread tying together so many explanations for this linkage between year of rest and Sinai is the celebration of the sabbatical year as a paradigm for all that is meaningful in Judaism.
Moreover, the message of a year of rest goes beyond Sinai in its Jewish particularity, taking us all the way back to the most basic hopes of humanity. As the Torah sees it, the sabbatical year will not simply be a time of restrictions. Rather, we will enjoy a period of satisfying peace and harmony with each other and with the world around us. We will eat from the yield of fields and trees without labor. And we will all equally share in the earth’s bounty, humans and animals together. So we are connected not only to Sinai, but to the primeval Garden of Eden.
But, ironically, the better we justify the connection of year of rest with Sinai, and the better we discern the fundamental and expansive nature of the significance of the sabbatical year, the more we create another question for ourselves. If the year of rest is so important, then why is its application limited to the Land of Israel? Why is the Torah’s expansive Edenic vision not spread throughout the world, wherever Israel may be? One part of an answer can be found in a paradox that lies at the root of this mitzva. The Torah begins by stating that the year of rest must be observed “when you enter the land that I am giving to you.”
The land, long ago promised to our ancestors, is described as a gift to the people of Israel. Entry and possession of the land are conditions necessary for this institution to become operative.
However, later, God states that the entire basis of this set of laws is that “the land is mine, for you are but strangers and alien residents with me.” We must learn from this that we have not been given the land to own. We are visitors, charged with treating the land with respect.
Tragically, contemporary Jewish religious and political attitudes are infected with a selfish concept of Jewish ownership of the land of Israel that is a betrayal of the vision of holiness that is at the heart of the Torah, centered in this third book, Leviticus. This chauvinistic sense of proprietorship leads to a contradiction of everything the Torah stands for.
So it is precisely in the land of Israel, where the Jewish people are in danger of forgetting that they are not owners of the land, but God’s guests, that the laws of the sabbatical year are so necessary.
How is it that, less than a year after the last sabbatical year, it seems that so many of us continue to miss the point? ■
David Greenstein is rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah, Montclair, New Jersey. He teaches at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and at Neve Schechter in Tel Aviv, during the summer.