Parshat Behar: The existential difference between ‘Land’ and ‘Real Estate’
I recently came across a mordantly and presciently cynical cartoon that appeared on the cover of a Hungarian humor magazine in the late 19th Century. The magazine was, of course, published and edited by Jews who were pretty much on the forefront of everything that was happening in fin de siècle Budapest
On the cover we see the back of a very well-fed Jew clad in his Shabbat finery overlooking Andrassi Street (the new Champs Elysee of Budapest). Clearly he is a real estate developer and he is proudly declaring “How goodly are thy tents o Jacob” (מה טובו אהליך יעקב). The brilliant cartoonist could not possibly have grasped just how profound his sarcasm was. The Jewish real estate developer with his thousands of square meters of buildings actually believing that he has made it, that he is secure, that nothing is more sure than owning the most prime property.
Of course we all know what eventually happened. Andrassy Street is still the Champs Elysee of Budapest. As for the descendants of that developer and all the others who built ‘Judapest’ – either smoke over Auschwitz or evaporated through terminal assimilation.
One might think we have learned the lesson. But, no, to this day real estate remains he holy grail of so many of our moguls, especially Orthodox one – skyscrapers in New York, huge projects in Germany, buying up every piece of property in London. It isn’t just greed. It’s the quest for a security that simply isn’t there.
The Jewish lust for property is in diametric contrast to the Torah’s adamant point of view regarding real estate. Then Torah is very clear; every Israelite is entitled to his modest piece of land in perpetuity (for the Levite it is his urban domicile). Beyond that, real estate can neither be bought nor sold. At the very most it can be leased for the duration of a 50 year Jubliee cycle. After that it must revert to its original owner.
…בשנת היובל הזאת תשבו איש אל אחוזתו
… כי מספר תבואות הוא מכר לך
“During this Jubilee year every man shall return to his landholding … for he only sold (leased) you the number of harvests”
(Leviticus 25: 13 and16)
Clearly the Torah has a loathing for the real estate industry. It understands the hubris property ownership causes, and the false sense of security is gives.
Some years ago I hailed a taxi in Washington DC. The driver was a pleasant Palestinian Arab psychologist who was waiting to get licensed in the US. We started chatting. After a few minutes he turned off the meter and pulled over while we continued a fascinating conversation that ultimately chilled me to the core. My cabby told me that Arabs like him greatly admire and envy Israel for its freedom and democratic values. “But in the end”, he said, “you will lose to us”. I asked him why he was so sure, and his response devastated me: “Because for you it is about real estate while for us it is about land.”
For once I was absolutely speechless, and had nothing to say in response.
Real estate is not a business. It is a drug with which more is never, ever, ever enough. And the worst part of this drug is that it lulls one into a false sense of security.
We do not live in an era when it is possible to have equal distribution of Israel’s limited land resources in perpetuity. But the teaching in Parshat Behar should not be ignored. We crave real estate at our own peril – and not merely at the peril of the developer/owner/landlord. Rather, they imperil all of us through their greed by turning our “land” into “real estate”. Bad enough in the Diaspora where it is merely supercilious ego and personal existential continuity that is at stake. But here, where we are meant to live, it is lethal.
27 Iyar 5777
22 May 2017