For we are strangers and guests in His Land

Our especially short sedra begins by broaching the Eretz Yisrael-directed themes of Shemita and Yovel. These two mitzvot, whose complete observance is exclusive to the Holy Land, not only change the dynamic of every seventh and fiftieth year- they disrupt each and every exchange of land and money. Imagine that in year forty eight of the Yovel cycle, someone offers you a beautiful piece of land in the North of Israel. Better yet… a gorgeous apartment in a classy condominium, with a breathtaking view of the golden abomination built on top of the Makom Hamikdash, doorman, heated pool, the works. All at a ridiculously cheap price. No brainer, right?

Wrong! Within two years of acquisition, you’ll have to return the apartment to its first owner, the descendant of Yehuda to whom that plot of land was given in the biblical division of Eretz Yisrael. Yovel dictates a certain maximum ownership period for anyone without an ancestral claim to said property, and, if we were speaking about a farm and not a building, the misken land owner would lose out double, as the forty ninth year of the Yovel cycle is Shemita, and there would be no income that year either. In short, we can easily see through this example how the mitzvot hateluyot ba’aretz of Shemita and Yovel can disrupt even a mundane apartment sale, and why it is an especially bad idea to make such purchase in year forty eight of Yovel.

But, since law is one of the top Jewish professions worldwide, let’s think like lawyers for a minute. What if we include a clause in this unfair apartment sale which would make it more lucrative for the buyer? Say, that it would bypass Yovel and, thus, the purchaser can in fact retain his retirement home by the time he reaches 65, and his investment will end up remaining a yerusha for his children. That would be pretty smart, wouldn’t it?

Nope! As Hashem so sternly tells the Jewish people:

וְהָאָרֶץ לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת
And the Land (of Israel) may not be sold in an open-ended way. (Vayikra 25:23)

Rashi elaborates on exactly why such a prohibition was enacted:

“והארץ לא תמכר” – (ת”כ) ליתן לאו על חזרת שדות לבעלים ביובל שלא יהא הלוקח כובשה

Based on Torat Kohanim, the midrash on Sefer Vayikra, Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki answers that we are prohibited from making indefinite sales of land in Israel to prevent exactly the situation we’ve outlined above. Yes, it is unfair to buy a beautiful crash-pad and have it disappear two years later- but, this is how land works in Israel. Hashem gave each shevet a parcel of land as a nachalah, and this right cannot be ignored. At the end of forty nine years, the land must be returned, and, in order to prevent our all-too-conniving Jewish lawyers from trying to get around this, a blanket ban was put on all open-ended land sales in the Holy Land.

This is a very good answer, for sure, especially in the context of the hypothetical situation brought above of the apartment purchase in the forty eighth year. Unfortunately, the Midrash’s answer makes less sense in the context of this specific passuk, which ends:

כִּי לִי הָאָרֶץ כִּי גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי
For the entire Land is mine, and you are strangers and settlers by me.

This does not exactly support Torat HaKohanim’s approach the mitzva. But, let’s put that aside for a second to focus on a much more glaring problem, one which Ramban instantly takes offense with: If this passuk is a response to our hypothetical, and is a warning against any conniving buyer who would like to purchase land in the forty eight year, only to not give it back afterwards, then why does the passuk use the reflexive term תִמָּכֵר, implying that this is projected towards the seller and not the buyer? It seems quite difficult to understand that the passuk is directed as a warning to the buyer if it is explicitly commanding land owners not to sell their lands indefinitely.

Ramban presents several different potential answers, dipping into both his deep and extensive knowledge of kabalah as well as a pshat understanding of the verses. Without getting into these, I’d like humbly offer an idea which came to me, and approach which has an important message to all modern-day denizens of the Land of Israel. For this, I’d like to again dip into a theoretical:

Imagine that a teenager goes “off the derech” in a serious way. It’s not entirely his fault- he was orphaned from a young age, lived with foster parents who cared for him, but couldn’t entirely relate to him, and didn’t take care of him as he should have been. This young man wanders from place to place, living in shelters, or by anyone who would take him in, constantly changing places as his began to overstay his welcome.

All of the sudden, there’s a knock on the box that he is living under in rainy midtown New York. There’s an older man and woman who seem vaguely familiar to the young man, but he can’t quite place who they are. “Son,” the man says, almost in tears, “I can’t believe we found you!” It was his long-lost parents, whom he had never dreamed of seeing ever again.

Arrangements were instantly made for the young man to move home. The adjustment was difficult at the begining, but, with time, the young man began to remember who he used to be and began reconnecting with a past he had barely remembered. He really began to get himself back together. Everything was going great, until one day, the young man comes home with someone else. “Mom, Dad,” he says, “I’ve just gotten a job in Europe! Is it okay if my friend stays here instead of me?”

If you’ll pardon my terrible storytelling, I ask you to take a second and imagine what might be going through the heads of the long-lost parents. Their son was gone for so many years, and they finally found him and brough him home- how must they feel for him to out of the blue give up his presence in their home, where he belongs, in order to move somewhere nicer? In order to move somewhere where he can make more money? Imagine how heart-broken they would feel.

I believe that this is exactly the point of our passuk. For hundreds of years, Hashem had to send our young nation to Egypt, to miss it change from an extended family of seventy to an entire people. Finally, He was able to redeem us from the terrible suffering we went through there, and He brought us home to where we belong. In His love, he divided the Land of Israel into eleven fair shares, and gave cities to the Levi’im. How must it feel for him when one decides to give up his ancestral share of Israel, his space in his long-lost father’s home, to pursue better land or better business in other parts of the Land (and let’s not even get started about opportunities outside of the borders of Eretz Yisrael…). This could an explanation for the safety of disallowing indefinite sales of land- it ensures that, at the end of fifty years, the wayward son will once again return home to his ancestral land.

Let’s return to the son, poised to leave his long-lost parents’ home, replacement already ready to move in. What would the father do, after all he had been through? He could start to cry, he could start to beg his son to stay, or force him to stay. However, the most effective plea is exactly what Hashem says at the end of our passuk: We’ve just been reunited after so many years, and we found you from the streets of New York and brought you home. How could you leave our home for somewhere else? כִּי לִי הָאָרֶץ כִּי גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי.

This is a sensitivity which I’ve felt almost constantly during my four years, eight months,and twenty four days of permanently residing in Israel. Unfortunately, not everyone shares this feeling, and even I don’t properly feel it. The Land of Israel that I’ve had the privilege of making aliyah to is not nearly the land that Hashem promised Avraham Avinu, Moshe Rabeinu, Malachi, and every prophet and leader in between. In 1948, through the Jewish blood and tears, we won back a parcel of land which would accurately be called the West Bank of the Jordan River. In 1967, this expanded slightly with our reclaiming of the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, and, of course, Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria. Having Jewish sovereignty in these areas is nothing short of an open miracle, a culmination of two thousands of Jewish dreams come true. As Rav Doron Perez, head of the World Mizrachi Organization, wrote in introduction to the Koren Yom Ha’atzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim Machzor, every step of the redemptive process should be recognized with complete and utter gratitude, not unlike Dayenu in the Pesach Hagadah.

At the same time, it is also important to realize what is still missing. Hashem promised us a very large parcel of land which includes most of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and even parts of Iran and Iraq (until the Perat River). Take a moment to internalize how far away we are from inheriting the true Land of Israel- the Jewish State of 1967, no matter how phenomenal is was, was only a mere drop in the bucket of what is yet to become ours. And, since 1967, the Israeli government has been put in a position where it had to give up land for undelivered and unreciprocated peace. First Sinai, then parts of Judea and Samaria, then Gaza. Even the small portion of our eternal inheritance is a fraction of what it used to be, and pressure is mounting for another big withdrawal. The IDF is preparing to give up military control over big parts of Samaria, effectively opening ourselves up for another war there- only bad things can come from this. Aside from being historically proven as tactically wrong, I believe that the idea we’ve developed here shows a bigger flaw.

While peace is extremely important, and it is certainly the goal that every Jewish Israeli is working towards, we cannot forget the simple maxim which ends our passuk in Behar: כִּי לִי הָאָרֶץ כִּי גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי. With this comes the shame of missing so much of the Land, and, more importantly, a feeling of responsibility, for, unfortunately, history has shown that we can give up our land for peace. But, can we give up Hashem’s land for peace? How can we bear to give up another dunam of our ancestral heritage, knowing that so much of it is still out of our hands?! Not unlike our previous exiles, Hashem has taken us off of the druggy infested streets of New York and returned us to His home- how can we stand before Him and tell Him that we are leaving and giving him a druggy, the bloodthirsty terrorists whom He redeemed us from, in our place?! Why would anyone ever do this?!

We cannot forget the responsibility of “כִּי לִי הָאָרֶץ כִּי גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי.” Whether applying it to avoiding a convenient equitable deal on an apartment in the forty eighth year, recognizing it as a reason not to abandon our long-lost and recently reunited father, or using it as proof for why we should not give up the small remaining fraction of our nachalah to our enemies, it is a lesson which I have no doubt each and every one of us can learn from, and it is a privilege and responsibility that we carry carry with us every single day.

May we merit a complete redemption, a purging of our enemies from among us, and a return of the Jewish people to its complete and full inheritance, very very soon.

About the Author
Born and raised in Teaneck NJ, Tzvi Silver moved to Israel in 2012 after catching aliyah fever while learning abroad. Tzvi is now pursuing a degree in Engineering from the Jerusalem College of Technology, and works on the side as a contributor for local newspapers in the New York Area. Tzvi's interests include learning Torah, rabble-rousing, and finding creative ways of mixing the two.
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