Friday, May 16, 2003
You know, it's been quite some time since I posted anything about the weekly parshah. This is NOT because I'm not reading it. It IS because I've gotten out of the habit of reading it before Saturday morning in synagogue, with the result that I have nothing to say about the parshah until the week is done and it's old news (until next year).
I do want to get back in the habit, but I don't want to make yet more promises I'll only fail to keep. So here's a quick look at this week's parshah, Behar ("On (or At) the Mountain").
Behar deals primarily with the sabbatical and jubilee years, the seventh and fiftieth years of a cycle in which land would first lie fallow and then be returned to its "original" owners, debts cancelled, slaves freed, etc. The concept has been seized upon in recent years as the basis for a kind of statute of limitations on economic failure; thus, Pope John Paul II called in the year 2000 for a jubilee-year cancelling of the debts of poor countries.
But the relationship of the jubilee to property is interesting. Leviticus 25:23 reads: "You shall not sell the land permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are aliens and sojourners to Me. And in all the land of your inheritance, you shall give a time of redemption for the land."
This is not an injunction not to sell to other nations permanently, because contracts to sell land to other Jews are also cancelled at the jubilee. So this is not about a special, covenantal promise to God's chosen people - not precisely. (Moreover, some kinds of land are excluded: specifically, houses in most walled cities may be sold permanently under specified conditions, while houses in unwalled villages, land in the country, or any land associated with the Levite cities may not be sold permanently.) Somehow, the text is suggesting, there is a fundamental connection between a family and its ancestral "portion" - apart from or in addition to God's covenant with the Jewish people with respect to the Land in its entirety.
However, the grounding for this connection, this essential ownership of one's ancestral land that cannot be nullified by sale, is, paradoxically, a finite human being's fundamental inability to own anything. "You are aliens and sojourners to Me" - none of you own this land: I, the Lord, am its sole owner. And for this reason you are to return the land after 50 years - not to me (or my designated representatives: priests, kings, prophets, etc.), but to its ancestral owners. The "natural" social arrangements of the settlement of the Land - each family and clan and tribe with its ancestral portion, and the Levites with their cities - is revealed, surprisingly, as harmonious with God's fundamental ownership of the Land.
The relationship between freedom, property ownership, and the ultimate sovereignty of God is complicated. God does not say: at the jubilee, the government will distribute property from each according to his ability to each according to his needs. Neither does He say: trade property as you will, and freely, and whatever results is in accord with the divine will. The jubilee, it turns out, is less about redressing the injustices of ordinary economics than about getting back to what is essentially one's own - and essentially one's own because it is a gift from God, and therefore in harmony with Him. It is the same with slavery: the text countenances slavery, including enslavement of Israelites. But at the jubilee they must go free - not because it is somehow an affront for a person to be property, but because the Israelites already have a master: God. And they eventually have to return to His service.