Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Behar 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Behar 5760/May 20, 2000

"Throughout the land...

you must provide for the redemption of the land" (Lev.25:24)

Menahem Ben-Yashar

Dept. of Tanakh (Bible)

The main focus of Parashat Be-Har is the very land of Israel and the Israelite people living on it, specifically with respect to two practices: first, that the land be left fallow every seventh and jubilee year, "in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord" (Lev. 25:4); and secondly, that land whose original owners are no longer on it, having been forced to sell their holding, shall revert to the original owners, and that Israelites who have been sold into slavery and severed from their land shall return to their land in the jubilee year, or earlier if redeemed by a relative.

Leaving the land to lie fallow on the sabbatical and jubilee years, and concomitantly letting its fruit and produce be free for anyone to take, has a social element of equality for all: "Let the needy among our people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat" (Ex. 23:11); including gentiles: "the hired and bound laborers who live with you" (Lev. 25:6). The same holds for returning land that was sold or attached, and for releasing slaves: "each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family" (Lev. 25:10), namely, socio-economically, it serves to redress the distortion caused by the turns of fortune between one jubilee and the next, so that one can begin afresh from a situation of equality.

The Torah's emphasis on the social aspect is reflected in its remark concerning the purchase (or more precisely, lease) of land: "you shall not wrong one another" (Lev. 25:14); and in its warning with regard to the Hebrew slave: that he not be ruled over ruthlessly, nor be subjected to the treatment of a slave, nor be humiliated by public sale into slavery (Lev. 25:39-42).

In the context of the weekly portion's discussion of property and financial matters, taking interest on loans is prohibited (25:36-37). This is clearly a law concerning relations between one person and another; yet it says in this regard, "but fear your G-d. Let him live by your side as your kinsman" (25:36). Thus we see that it is equally a commandment concerning relations between people and concerning our relationship with G-d.

Indeed, the laws in this week's reading concerning the sabbatical and jubilee years, and concerning land holdings and slaves--whose social nature we noted above--are explained by the Torah in terms of our relationship with G-d, thus establishing two religious principles, one concerning slaves, the other concerning land holdings. Wlhat is the theological basis for these laws?

With regard to Hebrew slaves, they are not to be viewed nor treated as actual slaves, whose bodies are entirely owned by their masters, rather as long-term hired help: only the person's labor belonging to the master. And what is the reason for this? "For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants," G-d explains, "they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt" (Lev. 25:55). Having freed the Israelites from bondage to Pharaoh with His mighty hand, G-d clearly became their sole master; Him alone the Israelites are to serve. Now, to love and fear G-d may be a matter of the heart, but to serve G-d is a formal and legal obligation placed on the children of Israel.

With respect to the land the Lord says, "But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me" (Lev. 25:23). Other nations may boast of being autochthonous (aboriginal) in their land; our land, in contrast, is called by the Torah the land of Canaan, which was given us by G-d, "not by your sword or by your bow" (Josh. 24:12). The land is the Lord's, and we are only temporary "strangers resident" on it, having no absolute right of ownership, having no authorization to hand over or sell landholdings beyond reclaim. G-d, Lord of the land, established and commanded that all the tribes of Israel shall have holdings in the land of Israel (save for the tribe of Levy, who have a special role to fulfill in the sacred service). Every Israelite family and person is bound to its inheritance, "the Israelite tribes shall remain bound each to its portion" (Num. 36:9). Every person in Israel will benefit from the Lord's blessing of his land through rain and crops, and will bless the Lord; every person in Israel is bound to the land which is sanctified to G-d; this sanctity in turn sanctifies the person but also obliges him to behave properly. Indeed, at the end of the section on forbidden relationships (Lev. 18:24-30), the Torah warns that if the people defile the holy land through their deeds (the notion of defilement only makes sense in relationship to things holy), the land will respond accordingly. It will spew out those who defile it and exile them.

Redemption of the land, that is, returning it to a family that sold its holding, about which we read in this week's section, is also discussed in the Prophets, Jeremiah 32, from which the haftarah is taken.

Jeremiah said: The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel, the son of your uncle Shallum, will come to you and say, "But my land in Anathoth, for you are next in succession to redeem it by purchase." ...So I bought the land in Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel. I weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver (6-9).

The most fundamental redemption is that of the individual and the family's land, with all the religious and social significance that attaches to this; the basis for this is set forth in the Torah. The fundamental act of family redemption discussed in Jeremiah 32 bears the mark of national redemption. For at a time so close to destruction and exile there was no point in buying land; the inheritance in Anatot was essentially worthless, having been conquered by the Babylonians and severed from the site of the redemption purchase, which was taking place in the besieged city of Jerusalem. The deal serves no other purpose than to present symbolically a promise that in the future "Fields shall be purchased, ... in the land of Benjamin and in the environs of Jerusalem, and in the towns of Judah; the towns of the hill country, the towns of the Shephelah, and the towns of the Negeb. For I will restore their fortunes--declares the Lord" (Jer. 32:44).

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