Avraham Bronstein
Avraham Bronstein

We can’t change the past, only the future

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai
Yom Yerushalayim

The opening commandments of our double Torah portion of Behar-Bechukotai concern the Shemittah, the once every seven years Sabbatical during which most agricultural activity was forbidden, and the Yovel, the Jubilee that was declared once every fifty years. During that Jubilee year, debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and land that had been bought and sold was restored to its original, ancestral owners. According to our sages, these commandments reminded the people of their inherent equality to each other. Rich families knew that their wealth was always, on some level, ephemeral, and poor people knew there would always be a chance to make a fresh start.

The 19th-century Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk observed that the Sabbatical year is still observed today, but the Jubilee is not. He explains that the Sabbatical year is similar to Shabbat, which happens automatically, whether or not we do anything to declare or sanctify it. In contrast, the Jubilee is more similar to the festivals, determined by a calendar that is maintained with active human involvement. A Jubilee year must be formally declared by representatives of all 12 tribes living within the land of Israel, a reality that has not existed for nearly 3,000 years.

Rabbi Meir Simcha’s analogy highlights the reality that, even with a Jubilee, there is no such thing as an automatic reset button for life. One cannot simply cancel fifty years, the span of two generations, and pretend they did not happen.

Indeed, our lives are framed by what we were given by those who came before us, and our own choices have long-lasting, even irreversible consequences for those who follow. 

We can easily observe even today the ongoing effects of slavery and persecution on people long ago freed from those deplorable conditions. Conversely, an ancient Israelite family that accumulated vast wealth and prestige might have enjoyed the effects of that privilege for generations even after returning their land acquisitions to their original owners.

So ironically, the Torah’s command to restore everything to its original starting point only reinforces the lesson that we can’t ever fully undo the past, and that what WE do matters most profoundly in shaping the future.

This coming Sunday night and Monday, the State of Israel celebrates Yom Yerushalayim, marking 54 years since the reunification of the holy city of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. This year’s celebration will be more fraught than usual, coinciding as it does with ongoing demonstrations and protests in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where several Palestinian families were ordered to vacate their homes, following a court decision in a land dispute first brought a full Jubilee cycle ago, back in 1972.

These Palestinian families point to documentation provided by the Jordanian government in the 1950s. However, a Jewish group claims that older, Ottoman records indicate Jewish ownership.

Perhaps the Yovel, the Jubilee year highlights the folly in trying to turn back the clock – that the reality of this neighborhood, and indeed of Jerusalem as a whole, cannot be adjudicated based on claims that date back 50, 75, even 100 years ago. The world today is different than it was then – the years that have gone by have made their impact; they cannot be simply ignored or overridden. The competing claims should be judged in light of Jerusalem as it is now, guided by a vision of a brighter future for all of the city’s residents, rather than by attempts to recreate by force some version of its past.

As we mark Yom Yerushalayim, as we celebrate both the history and the hope that the city of Jerusalem represents to the Jewish people and so many around the world, the Jubilee year reminds us that our actions will determine whether the world we bequeath improves or diminishes on what came before us. With prayers for the peace of Jerusalem, and the well-being of all those who call it home – Shabbat Shalom 

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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