Parshat Behar 2018
I have this thing with the number 40 in the Bible. The flood was 40 days and night, Moshe went up to Sinai for 40 days and nights (twice), Shaul and David and Shlomo reigned for 40 years each. Eliyahu’s flight into the desert took 40 days and 40 nights. Jonah warns Nineveh – another 40 days and you are history.
So it is surprising to find another magic number – 50. In fact, we can say – actually according to Rabbi Asher Brander, the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban said – 50 means forever, in mystical terms, that is.
50 is what we are counting now. The 50 days of the omer, from Egypt to Sinai, from slavery to nationhood, from obeying a Pharaoh to obeying (and then disobeying) God. The Levites were allowed to serve in the Tabernacle or Temple only up to age 50. And in our parsha, the yovel, the jubilee, marks the end and the beginning. It’s a new day, it’s a new life, it’s a new world for us. It’s 50.
We of course understand that the overriding message is that the land belongs to God, not to us, and when after 50 years the land goes back to its original owners, the ones who inherited it when Bnei Israel entered the land, it’s not really going back to them. It’s more of a return to the divisions that were determined way back when.
But here Rabbi Shimon Klein brings up a question. Why is there a difference between land in a walled city and land out there with no walls? We are told that if a person must sell his property for whatever reason, the price he gets is based on how many seasons of crops he is selling. If it is close to the yovel, he gets little, if it is far from the yovel he gets more. But at the yovel, the land goes back to its original owner.
But if a person is living in a walled city (or Chazal say, in a city that once had or could have had a wall) and he sells his property, he has one year to change his mind and buy it back. After that, the property will belong to the buyer in perpetuity, or until he sells it.
Why the difference? Robert Frost wrote: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. But that’s a wall to separate people. A wall around a city is another matter. Its purpose is to provide to unite: to provide defense and solidarity to those inside against all those outside. It’s not intended to separate but to merge all those within its boundaries.
What a wall does here is it creates a society. You don’t build a wall by yourself. You don’t have the money or the time or the manpower to do so. You have to do it together. This is the basis for the fabric of society, which of course has to be done up with all sorts of other content and connections to make that society viable and worthwhile.
This, says Rabbi Klein, is where the book of Vayikra turns from God’s point of view, to the human point of view. A field being worked is God’s territory. A city with its intricate web of relations between people living in close proximity is man’s work. If a person makes the decision to sell his property within the city, he is of course leaving God’s territory (because everything is His), but even more, he is leaving the social territory that his presence has helped to strengthen or weaken.
And here’s another point to consider. If we say that the ancestral land belongs to Yossele Shmendrik and always goes back to him in the yovel, what does this say about progress? You can’t go far. You are always brought back. But in a city, according to Rabbi Klein, the life of the collective becomes a recognized and valuable principle. Our power is augmented and amplified when we are part of a broader circle of life, with the power and authority to sell, to part with our property. We allow the buyers – and their families – to contribute to new life there.
To sum up, the land belongs to God and we have limited rights to it, just as Israelites belong to God and therefore can be slaves or servants in a very limited fashion (we often see this when a waiter serves us). Our connection to the land, our right to the land, is not unlimited. It is based on specific behaviors which are laid out in detail in the Torah more than once. And to drive the point home we are told that the other nations were driven out because of their unwholesome behaviors. This means we don’t have carte blanche support for what we take as our country, whether from our orange-haired friend in the United States or from the True Boss upstairs.
The late Rabbi Menahem Froman used to preach loud and clear – the land doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the land, and it’s our job to make sure we continue to belong.