By Reb David
Westerners tend to deeply intuit the idea of ownership. Stated simply, something is mine if it belongs to me, if I properly acquired it. In this understanding, the world bluntly divides between things owned or potentially owned, and the people who own or want to own things. This week’s Torah portion (Behar) challenges this understanding, with profound implications for how we live in the 21st century.
In ancient Israel, important cycles of time flowed in sevens. The seventh day was a Shabbat of total rest for the people. The seventh year was Shmitta, a sabbatical year for the land:
Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land will have a sabbath of total rest, a sabbath of God: you will not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You will not reap the after-growth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines: it will be a year of complete rest for the land (Lev. 25:3-5).
Land rested in the seventh year but its possession did not change hands. After a “sabbath of sevens” (seven cycles of seven years), however, came the Yovel (Jubilee). In the 50th year, property reverted to its ancestral owner and debts were discharged. The Jubilee year operated as a reset button for the land, debt and entire economy.
How radical an idea was the Jubilee. Land wasn’t owned, only borrowed. In Torah’s words, “The land is Mine” (God’s), and we humans are but temporary sojourners (Lev. 25:23). Our rights to land depend on honoring Shabbat, Shmittah and Yovel. Debts can be owed but only to the 50th year, not hanging over the heads of families from generation to generation. In short, the 50th year brought release from economic bondage.
To Rabbi Hillel, however, the Jubilee was too radical an idea. Releasing debts in the 50th year meant that as the Jubilee neared, people would not sell land (it’d only revert back) or lend to others (debts would soon be worthless). These results, Hillel reasoned, would encourage us to violate Torah’s command that we must lend to the needy (Deut. 15:9). As Talmud records (Gittin 36a), Hillel devised a workaround called the prosbol: before the Jubilee, debts were sold to a rabbinical court immune from the Jubilee’s release from debt, and whoever was owed the debt could serve as the rabbinical court’s emissary to collect it.
Hillel’s prosbol kept commerce going, which was important to Jewish survival. But what about the Jubilee year? What about Torah’s radical idea that land belongs to God and we merely borrow it on terms?
Fast forward to 1854, when Chief Seattle, leader of a Native American tribe in present-day Washington State, penned a now-famous letter to a Westerner wishing to buy his tribe’s land. To Chief Seattle, the idea of owning land was absurd. Chief Seattle replied:
This we know: the Earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the Earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.
Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
Torah understood this, too. Possessiveness, consuming without limit, using out of balance with nature’s rhythms – these are not the stuff of the truest living. We may become wealthy, but spiritually what do we become? True living requires us to recognize limits of an ownership society. True living, in Chief Seattle’s words, require us to act like we belong to the Earth rather than the other way around.
Such a world is easy to romanticize, but we moderns do have bills to pay, debts to honor, perhaps debts to collect. It’s easy to reply, “If only someone would give me a Shmitta or Yovel, it’d be easier for me to do the same for another.” True.
Then again, what amazing power each of us has to effect change in our own sphere. We can do more for the Earth. We can make more Earth-savvy consumer choices. We can lend to others with a more expansively charitable sense of loving kindness. We can give where it is needed, without strings attached. We can try to need less ourselves and be more grateful for what we do have.
Hard choices, but how amazing it would be to belong to that kind of world. How amazing it would be to belong to a culture that embraces that mindset, that commitment – that heart song – intent on bringing that kind of world even a little bit closer to fulfillment.