Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?

Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?

 

Parashat Behar focuses largely, though not entirely, on the laws of Shemitah and Yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years respectively[1]. These laws are often seen as a continuum, with one the former flowing naturally into the latter. Shemitah occurs every 7th year, when all of the Jews of the land of Israel must declare their land ownerless and let it lie fallow for a whole year; they may neither sow nor reap in the land. Yovel occurs every 50th year, just after every 7th Shemitah year. In Yovel, all sales of land are nullified and the lands are returned to their owner, and all slaves are set free. Thus Shemitah entails a nullification of dominance over the land, and Yovel entails a revoking of sales and ownership. However, this depiction runs across a critical flaw when it comes to the textual depiction of the return of lands and slaves in Vayikra 25:13, “In this year of Yovel you shall return every man to his portion [of land].” The text does not depict the return of lands as something separate from the freeing of slaves. In fact, it does not describe the return of lands at all. Rather it talks about the return of slaves as free individuals to their ancestral homelands. Thus Shemitah and Yovel are in fact conflicting, not continuous. Shemitah involves people stepping back from the land and their ownership of it, while Yovel requires people coming close to the land of their families. The former creates a sense of distance and otherness from the land, while the latter conditions a sense of familiarity and identity with it.

The tension can be resolved by reformulating the concept of the Yovel in a way that focuses on ownership after all. However, it is in the reverse way of it was formulated before. Instead of Yovel being about whether or not the land belongs to us, it’s about whether or not we belong to the land. Thus the whole of the Yovel/Shemitah passage can be summed up conceptually as, “The land doesn’t belong to us so much as we belong to the land.” Thus Shemitah and Yovel do in fact form a continuum, as we first recognize every 7 years that we do not really own the land, and then in the 50th year we take yet one step further away from ownership and recognize that we, in fact, are creatures of the land we are born on and are in a sense owned by it.

At this point it is worth bringing up a conceptual dichotomy discussed by Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar)[2] regarding the difference between what he calls “earth” (אדמה) and “land” (ארץ). Rav Shagar says that “earth” refers to the elemental reality that all humans are born out of, to what it means to exist as a human being. In contrast, “land” refers to the society people construct, the power-oriented political structures we create. All human have a connection to the earth, and groups of people create their own various lands. In Shemitah we step back from the “land”, renouncing any sense of ultimacy that we attribute to our constructed societies, we recognize that our ownership is anything but absolute. In Yovel, we are still getting back beyond our conditional societies, but the emphasis is not on shattering these false idols, but on getting back to the source, getting back to the basics of what it means to be human. While Yovel is not applicable in our day, Shemitah is made all but negligible by the innovation of the Heter Mekhirah[3], and the number of Jews who live the sort of agrarian lifestyle where these rules are really felt is negligible, it’s important to recognize that these laws still have something to teach us. In our societies, we often become too caught up in the hierarchies and stratifications that we use to categorize and understand the people around us. While these structures are important, we need to step back every now and then and realize that they’re only constructs, and that at the root of it we’re all people. Further, living in these structures causes us to get locked into very particular ways of understanding ourselves, and every now and then we need to get back to our very human essence, and realize that we can choose how we want to define ourselves and our world in the future.

[1] The ideas in this composition are based to some degree on “Father Sky and Mother Earth” by Rav Shagar, found in “On That Day: Sermons and Essays for the holidays of Iyar”, pg. 207-216.

[2] “On That Day”, pg. 37. Note that he also includes a third category, “State” (מדינה), that is absolutely worth reading about but was beyond the scope of this composition.

[3] Literally “Permission of Sale”, wherein land in Israel is sold to a non-jew in order to exempt it from the laws of Shemitah.

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