Weekly Davar: Behar-Bechukosai 2023

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

‘For the land belongs to Me; you are strangers and temporary residents…..’ (Leviticus 25:23)

This one idea – that land belongs to God and not to us – would have saved so much human suffering throughout the generations.

I often hear people say that religions have caused many wars. I usually counter that it is human beings supposedly practicing those religions that cause wars, not the religions themselves. But if we are to really consider the causes of war, the most common, by quite some way, is land. Alexander the Great, Rome and the other great early empires – fought for new lands. Russia’s war in Ukraine, is ultimately a dispute over land. Israel and the Palestinians – land. Hitler’s expansion eastward – ‘lebensraum’, land. America and the Native Tribes – land. Yes, there are often other factors such as ideology (religion being one example) and politics, but land is most commonly the fundamental factor.

There is something about land, and the ownership thereof, that arouses a visceral response in human beings. My late father, of blessed memory, was a mediator. He said that the worst disputes he dealt with were divorces. But a very close second was neighbours – and often it was about the tiniest and most irrelevant pieces of land between their properties. Land ownership is something that we human beings feel very strongly about. We get very attached. I think it’s about a sense of security. Possessions come and go, but land seems solid. It cannot be moved so it looks like it cannot be taken away. (Ask Jews who went through the holocaust about that one, though.)

The Torah goes out of its way to discourage this sense of attachment to land ownership. Land belongs to God, not human beings. We are simply grateful tenants. And laws in this portion strongly support this aim. Every seven years the land must lie fallow for a year – God owns the land, and we are given permission to use it only six years out of seven. Land must not be sold unless a person is becoming destitute – it is, after all, not ours to sell. Even when sold, it is only ever leasehold. A freehold cannot be sold in Torah law. And it returns to its original owners every jubilee year. 

Torah is not just a set of laws. It is a set of laws with divine purpose; a set of laws designed to develop and refine the human spirit. In its laws around land ownership, its goal is clear and noble. If only humanity would see the land we live on as God’s, this primordial and visceral drive could be curtailed and controlled. Of course, we would find other things to fight over, as is our nature. But ultimately, I believe that with our most fundamental cause of dispute gone, our world would look like a very different place.

Shabbat Shalom,

Shaul

Parsha in a Nutshell

The Torah portion begins with the laws of the Sabbatical year in which the Jewish people are commanded to desist from all agricultural activity. Every 50th year is the yovel, the Jubilee (an English word which clearly derives from the Hebrew) year, where agricultural activity is also prohibited. The portion also talks about land ownership and the buying and selling thereof. In Jewish law, there is no such thing as selling a freehold. Land can only ever be leased.

The second portion talks firstly of the good that will befall the Jewish people if they live up to their billing of being a light to the nations and then it talks about what will happen if not. Unfortunately, the latter part of the portion is much more the story of Jewish history than the former.

Weekly Davar: Behar 2022

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Davar Thought

There is a unique law in this week’s Torah portion, that of the Jubilee year. Indeed the word ‘jubilee’ itself comes from the Hebrew word, yovel.

Once every 50 years, Torah tells society to reset itself. Slaves go free, personal loans are cancelled and all land is returned to its historical owners, having been shared equally amongst all families during the times of Joshua.

Whilst Judaism believes in a free market, it is, however, a free market with some caveats.

There is no question in my mind that the ability for human beings to amass wealth is, on the balance of things, a very positive force in the world. As a means of individuals being rewarded in a cause-effect manner for their endeavour, nothing even comes close to money. Of course, however, there are downsides. It fosters greed and superficiality; it can put people at odds with each other and contribute to jealousy. But, on the whole, it’s a very positive force that fosters the growth and development of human society.

So Torah believes in, and promotes, a capitalist system. What Torah aims to avoid, though, is what happened across Europe in the Middle Ages – the development of wealthy landowner ‘haves’ that subjugated the ‘have nots’. A feudal system of lords and serfs that undermined human motivation and hence societal development in Europe for centuries. Torah has a response to this built into its system. Once every fifty years, all land returns to its original owners; slaves are freed; the operating system is, in effect, rebooted and all men are equal once again (Yes, I’m just being honest – the same equality didn’t necessarily exist for women). A wealthy landowner class could never have developed in Israel and so a key safeguard is there against abuse of the free market endeavour.

Torah has never been a fan of socialism. It significantly inhibits human enterprise. But capitalism has its dangers also. For better or for worse, it can produce Robert Maxwells and Harvey Weinsteins. Torah wants all the upsides of a free market, whilst protecting against the downsides. You cannot always have your cake and eat it, but in my mind Torah found a great balance. Donald Trump is an example of a landowner who has been in business for around fifty years. Even if he had started at the beginning of the Jubilee cycle, his property empire would be changing hands over the next few years. I feel that Torah’s system might make such a person poorer. But he would likely be a more Godly human being for it.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

The Torah portion begins with the laws of shmita, where the Jewish people are commanded not to plant their fields or tend to them every seventh year. Every 50th year is the yovel, the Jubilee year, where all land returns to its ancestral owners.