BREAKING THE CYCLE
In our parashah 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 shemitah 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. But there is more to the sabbatical year than merely allowing the land to rest. We are also commanded that we should leave any produce from the land for the poor. Furthermore, slaves are to be freed.
Nobody should remain enslaved in that year; not the land, nor our people. Just as we treat the land with respect, we are to allow equal access to the bounty it produces for rich and poor alike. And finally, during this seventh year, all debts were forgiven. Together, these laws are about more than good soil and land management, and they are about more than care for the environment. They are to inspire us to recognize that we do not own the land, it is not there for us to exploit for our own ends. In the same way those who are wealthy, those who own the land, are really only caretakers.
Their wealth comes to them not by right but by good fortune, and they must always remember that they are obligated to share with those around them who are in need. Just as the land is to be treated gently and not misused, so too the people around them. A person who has found themselves in straits and has had to turn themselves over to slavery, should not remain in that state. Slavery is a temporary position, something which is far from ideal, and for the time the slave is in the possession of the Jewish owner, they are to be treated with kindness and gentleness. And then, when the sabbatical year arrives, the slave, like the land, is set free.
This emphasis on land ownership and the connection with the human condition is even further expounded when we look at the laws of the yovel, the jubilee or 50th year also found in our parashah. In that year, not only are debts forgiven and the land rested, but land is returned to its original owners. When the Israelites came to the Promised Land, it was divided into portions and each one allocated to a tribe who then distributed the land amongst its members. Whatever dealings a person had with their land, in the 50th year it returned to the original owners. This was an attempt to ensure that no matter what happened to you in the intervening years, if a person fell on hard times, faced challenges and had to sell their land, it would return to them and their family. Those who had to rely on help from the community would always have the opportunity to start again and step back into self-sufficiency. So people bought and sold land, but it was temporary — more like a lease than a permanent sale.
So, the land and its treatment was inextricably linked to the morals and the type of society the Israelites were to create. It was a place where the poor were cared for, the land was not a possession to be exploited and destroyed but rather an entity which could be used to sustain all, not just the rich. The treatment of the land reflected the treatment of its inhabitants. Just as we dealt with the land, so would we deal with the people.
Even in the times of the Torah though, these laws were only to apply to the land of Israel. So what do they mean and what wisdom do they have for all of us living outside the land, and for the majority of us who no longer farm the land or make a living from tilling the soil?
I think there are two strong messages we can take away with us. The first is about the land itself. The Torah reminds us that the land is not ours to own, it is not there for us to exploit and use to satisfy all our needs at the expense of its wellbeing. The land is to be treated gently, to be given the space to rest and just be, in the same way that we humans are required to rest every seven days on Shabbat. We are to treat the environment as a precious gift on loan to us, and to tend and nurture it for those who will come after us.
Secondly, the Torah teaches us that as we treat the land, so should we treat each other. It recognizes that sometimes people will fall on hard times, and during those times the community has a responsibility to hold us, to protect us and meet our needs. There is an obligation to help people free themselves from the cycle of poverty.
Sometimes these portions of the Torah which deal with land ownership, crops and farming and slavery seem very distant from our world and our lives — the idea of returning land and not buying and selling property is impossible in our society. But the ethical considerations which underlie them are very real in our world. I pray that we can learn the lessons of the sabbatical, to connect with the land and treat it with gentleness. And so too with each other.