Perhaps influenced by the fact that Behar and Bekhukotai are often read together, as well as the fact that here in Israel we are reading Bekhutotai and abroad you are reading Behar, this dvar Torah refers to both Torah portions.
I need to thank Rabbis For Human Rights, the organization that I led for 21 years and am still a member of, for inspiration for a dvar Torah for Parashat Behar. In recognition of the fact that Behar includes the sabbatical and jubilee years (Shmita and Yovel, RHR declared Shabbat Behar as “Shabbat Tzedek,” a Shabbat dedicated to the ideals of socio-economic justice).
Rashi brings tradition developed from Jeremiah and Ezekiel through Chronicles and the Talmud that neither the sabbatical year nor the jubilee were ever observed, and that seventy years of Babylonian exile are the fulfillment of the verses in Bekhokotai, “Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin. Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years (Leviticus 26:33-3. The idea is repeated in 26:43). Others say that the Jubilee year wasn’t observed, but the sabbatical year was. Many attempt to observe it in Israel today. Whatever the historical truth may be, the idea of rest for the Land, and a reset of inequalities by returning everybody to their holdings is a lofty idea, assuming that the reset is to a situation of equality. If we are simply returning property to the privileged who were landowners, we are only shuffling the cards in an unequal deck. Last week we again demonstrated outside the home of Housing Minister Zeev Elkin with Lilach, who was to be evicted from her public housing home on Monday, although that was thankfully postponed. For Lilach, there is no ideal past to return to. This Shabbat as well, I recommend the RHR materials for Shabbat Tzedek (Hebrew).
RHR also hosted a gathering last week, at which Rabbi Elhanan Miller taught a text from Sifra for Leviticus also quoted by Rashi. Here is the Sifra:
(8) (Vayikra 25:23) (“And the land shall not be sold litzmituth, for Mine is the land; for you are resident strangers with Me.”) “litzmituth“: in perpetuity. “For Mine is the land”: Your eye shall not be evil to it then, (that I forbid this to you) “for resident strangers are you”: Do not make yourselves the most important. And thus is it written (I Chronicles 29:15) “For we are strangers with You and sojourners, as all of our ancestors.” And thus did David say (Tehillim 39:13) “For a stranger am I with You, a sojourner, as all of my fathers.” “are you with Me”: It suffices the servant that he emulate his master. “When you are Mine, it (Eretz Yisrael) will be yours.
Rabbi Miller also taught from Sefer Khinukh on this verse:
It is from the roots of the commandment from the angle of the simple understanding that God, may God be blessed, wanted to inform God’s nation that everything belongs to God; and in the end everything will return to those to whom God wanted to give it at first – for the earth is God’s, as it is written (Exodus 19:5), “for all the earth is Mine.” And with this commandment of the counting of forty-nine years, they will distance themselves from stealing land of their fellows and they will not covet it in their hearts; in that they know that everything returns to the one that God wishes it to be his/hers.
And this matter of Jubilee is a little similar to that which is practiced by the earthly monarchy – that from time to time, the [kings] take lands from the fortified cities that are [owned] by their ministers, to remind them of the fear of the master. And so [too,] is this thing – that God wanted that all the land return to the one who has a holding in the land from God, blessed be God. And so [too,] every slave of a person goes out from under his/her hand and will be in the domain of his/her Creator. However the kings of the earth do this from their fear lest their ministers rebel against them; whereas God, blessed be God, commanded this to God’s people to give them merit and to do good to them – as God, may God be blessed, desires to do good to them in God’s great goodness.
Last Friday I shared some of these ideas on Facebook, but didn’t manage to post a dvar Torah on this blog because I was in the South Hebron Hills, where we were demonstrating in light of the High Court decision allowing Israel to expel at least 1000 men and women and children by ignoring the evidence that these people have been living on these lands for over 200 years (way before the State of Israel or the Occupation), and ruling that international law is not binding. All this in the name of a live fire zone that is also illegal according to international law. Of course, Palestinians have no vote or say in the laws imposed upon them. Residents of settlements and outposts are not being expelled.
Angry settlers tried to attack, curse and harass us, with the army making somewhat of an effort to keep them away. We heard again and again, “This is our home. This is our land.” I hear the same every time I catch settlers in the act of bringing their flocks into Palestinian fields, vineyards and olive groves, and ask how they can do such evil. The answer as often as not is, “It’s ours.” I heard a week ago Thursday, as two settler shepherds laughed and lounged as their flock decimated a vineyard, running away when the police arrived. Now we will see if the police can figure out a way not to indict. That is the general rule, but it will be difficult this time, seeing as the landowner has already made several complaints, and the evidence is clear. The settlers aren’t so afraid. They came back both last and this Friday.
So, do the texts Rabbi Miller taught provide an answer to settler claims or no? One can read them as a clear prohibition against stealing and dispossessing. We are taught that it is not all about us, the Jewish people. However, if read these texts along with the verses in Torah and subsequent commentary that God gave us the land, we can also understand how some will say that there was no theft because the lands can’t belong to non-Jews. We are the ones who in the words of Sefer Khinukh, “God wishes it to be his/hers.” Furthermore, some will argue that non-Jews are not our “khaverim” – fellows. However, we can read as a counterbalance to the idea that God gave us the land the fact that the Jewish people are also resident strangers on the Land conditionally. That is the basis for the promise of wellbeing in Bekhokotai if we observe God’s commandments, and the threat of exile for not observing. In Behar we read, “You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live on the Land in security.” Then again, what are the commandments that we are expected to carry out? Do we or do we not believe that we are commanded by God to respect God’s Image in every human being? What are the obligations flowing from this belief? Many times I ask this of those oppressing non-Jews, and will grudgingly acknowledge that non-Jews are also created in God’s Image. However, this week when I posed the question to one young settler from the Ma’aleh Ahuvia outpost bringing his flock into the olive grove owned by a Palestinian from Dir Jarir, and even watering the flock from the cistern in the grove, he hissed, “they aren’t human.”
There are plenty of commentators over the years who have commented each way. I do think it is fair to say that the majority of authorities through the ages say that God gave us the land, but that non-Jews have property rights, and theft from non-Jews is theft, including in the Land of Israel. Our text tells us that we are all only resident foreigners on the Land because it doesn’t belong to any of us. It belongs to God.
We have a choice how to interpret. We shouldn’t fool ourselves. Our study of Torah inevitably includes both exegesis and eisegesis. Let us interpret wisely and decently in order to build a future that is more just for all than either the present or the past.