Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            This week we celebrated Yom Ha'Atzmaut, the 63rd birthday of the State which represents the latest chapter in our love affair with the Land of Israel.  And it's very appropriate that this celebration falls out during the parsha of Behar, because this reading is filled with material about how we're supposed to relate to this national legacy.  Parshat Behar is probably the most Zionist reading in the Torah.  We have the laws of Shmittah and Jubilee, as well as many instructions about how sale of land is transacted in Israel.  The Haftorah, as well, discusses real estate transactions in the time of Jeremiah (655-586 BCE).  Even though the Babylonians are bearing down on the Judean kingdom, Jeremiah is going out of his way to acquire land in our beloved country.  This wasn't land speculation; this was affection. 

            I really want to discuss one aspect of these Zionist laws, and that is the law that land can't be sold permanently in Israel.  The verse says:  The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and temporary residents with Me (Leviticus 25:23).  As an aside, this is still true.  The modern State of Israel has a Land Authority which owns most of the land and when you buy land it is as a ninety-nine year lease.  Now most historians claim that these laws were an advanced form of land reform.  It accomplished two social objectives.  First of all it prevented farmers, in this agrarian society from becoming destitute, because once a generation the land returned to the original owners.  Secondly, it achieved a political balance between the tribes.  Tribes which had lost land, and, therefore wealth and prestige could reclaim their place when the land returned to the original family owners.  These were very advanced social ideas.

            However, even though Judaism can't divorce social issues from its religious agenda, I'd like to focus on the spiritual concepts in these mitzvoth.  When you read the verse which commands this principle, we Jews almost feel like chaperones on a date.  It's like the land and God have something going on, and we're just passing through.  The inability to own the land permanently seems to reflect and emphasize the ephemeral nature of our stay here on planet earth, while God and the land will be there forever.  Since we love God and the land, we should view ourselves as responsible caretakers for the short period that we have control of the land.  To a certain extent we should view the land as we view our own DNA.  We carefully and affectionately pass it along to the next possessors.  These parcels of land are like our children, to foster and nurture.

            The next verse intensifies the spiritual nature of this commandment.  It says:  Therefore, throughout the land of your possession, you shall give redemption for the land (verse 24).  Even though there is a social aspect of the precept.  We should redeem land in the sense of buying it back for the family even before the fiftieth year has been reached.  Nevertheless we can't ignore the spiritual overtones of the language, especially in this season between Pesach and Shavuot.  Redemption is primarily a spiritual category and only secondarily has a financial connotation.  In other words, we must feel the need to redeem the land much as we feel the urgency to redeem captives or hostages.  I believe that there are three ideas in redeeming the land:  first, to buy it back from sources other than the original family; next, for society, to help the poor reestablish themselves, and, finally, for some spiritual or mystical connection of the land to God.

            What does that last idea mean?  We could answer that there is some special relationship with the land and God because of all the historical events which transpired upon that hallowed ground.  Perhaps, we could say it's because this land was the land bridge connecting the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, the cradles of humankind and civilization.  In the beginning, the first humans passed this way out of Africa, then ideas crossed by, later it was armies, and now its oil.  But in Deuteronomy it says that this land which God gave us is 'not like the land of Egypt, out of which you came, where you sowed your seed and which you watered by foot, like a vegetable garden. But the land, to which you pass to possess, is a land of mountains and valleys and absorbs water from the rains of heaven, a land the Lord, your God, looks after; the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year (Deuteronomy 11:10-12).'  Somehow this land is closer to God in some agricultural, meteorological and magical way.

            The reality that Israel relies on barely sufficient annual rainfall (there are no major rivers, the Jordan is a trickle), requires close monitoring and constant petition to the God whom we believe controls the rain (Deuteronomy 11:14 and Talmud Ta'anit 2a).  And a history which chronicles more battles than any other plot of dirt on earth, causes our people to live a life on the precipice, always appealing for Divine intervention.  Apparently that's the way God wants us, permanently on the line demanding help.

            But what can we do to redeem a land already blessed and cared for by God?

Rav Amital OB"M wrote of a letter from Rav Eliyahu Guttmacher, one of the leading disciples of R. Akiva Eiger, written in 1874, in which he asserts that if there would be 130 families working the land in Eretz Yisrael, this would be considered the "beginning of the redemption."   We redeem the land by working it and loving it, and it responds by blossoming and flowering.  And, we should never view ourselves as the outside third party in the love affair between God and the land, because our Talmud (Ketubot 111b) proclaims that any Jew dwelling outside of Israel lives as if he has no God.  We rendezvous with God in Israel.                

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