D’VAR TORAH BY: RICHARD N. LEVY
As we have made our way through the Book of Leviticus, we have often noted how boundaries have been crossed—between the inside and outside of the body in issues of tzaraat (“leprosy”); between the clothing of the priest and the furniture of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle; between proper offerings of fire and dangerous ones. Now, as the Book draws to a close, in the first of this week’s two portions B’har, we have another boundary crossing, between human beings and their land, as the model of the seventh day of rest, Shabbat, determines the manner in which the land is cultivated and sold. As human beings need a day to rest and refresh, so does the earth—a suggestion that when God promised uncountable progeny to Abraham along with an eternal claim to the land, the two promises were really one: human beings and land deriving sustenance and refreshment from each other, as the first “human being,” adam, did from the adamah, the “earth.”
But as one cycle of seven years becomes first two, then three, four, five, and six, another concept emerges as the seventh year of that cycle approaches. The year following seven seven-year cycles is a yovel, rendered in English as Jubilee, referring to the ram’s horn sounded as the year begins, on Yom Kippur. Now the boundary is crossed between liberty—a seminal idea for human beings—and release, of the land from the series of owners who have possessed it over the previous fifty years. (The notion that Yom Kippur is really a day of liberation is intriguing.)
In the Jubilee, the land reverts to its original owner, as a sign that the land belongs to no human being, but to God, who leases it to those who will till it. “The Land is Mine,” God proclaims in Leviticus 25:23, and “you are but sojourners and tenants with Me.” Human beings deserve to be redeemed from indenture, and land deserves to be redeemed from the human owners who use it, as opposed to God, who desires only that the product of the divine creation flourish and show forth all the potential that God sowed in it. In a sense, the law of the Jubilee acts as a bridle on God’s unlimited grant of dominion over the earth to the first human beings (Genesis 1:26), much as God realized the need to adjust the human diet as a result of the widespread violence that caused the Holy One to send the Flood.