We Jews are often described as “the people of the book” but as much, if not more than that, we can be described as “the people of the land,” for our connection with the land of Israel is thousands of years strong. For much of that time we have been without the land, we have yearned, prayed and longed for her soil, we have dreamed of the day when we could once again return and touch the land, kiss her ground and connect once again with the soil and soul of our people. Like the Indigenous Australians who have a deep and visceral link to land, we too have an unbroken tie to the land of Israel. In our parasha this Shabbat, we read that we are to “redeem the land.” What does it mean to redeem land? At its face, the Torah is speaking about the shmita year, the one year in every seven when we are to allow the land to lie fallow, to eat only the produce which is given forth naturally from the soil. We are not to cultivate or sow, but rather we allow the earth to breathe, we give it the space to rest, rejuvenate and exhale. But perhaps there is more to redeeming land that just allowing it to lie fallow every seven years. Perhaps we are to constantly redeem the land by recognizing it as its own living, breathing organism which needs to be protected and nurtured.
Recently I was discussing a relatively new area of law with a friend of mine. She said that there are a number of people who are advocating for land rights, but not in the way we might imagine the term. They suggest that just as humans have rights and require protection, so too should the land. Just as we should not enslave one another, so too we should not enslave the land, for it also has the right to be free. I profess to know very little about the legal arguments but I find the concept as I have understood it, to be fascinating; viewing the land and the earth as an entity with rights. And if we do that, what flows is a responsibility upon us to respect and care for that entity.
Too often we approach the land as a tool which should provide us with all that we desire, caring little for its welfare or long term well being. But if we shift our thinking to imagine the land as more than soil, we also automatically adjust our approach to its care.
The Torah calls upon us to “liberate the land,” to afford it the freedoms we would wish for ourselves and others and to care for and protect its welfare.