‘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.
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.