we are all settlers

Parshat Behar

In the Middle East we spend a lot of time discussing borders, justifying land claims, reciting prior agreements and defining people as they relate to land… immigrants, refugees, occupiers, settlers, pilgrims etc.

It’s worth remembering that ultimately, none of us can own the land. Agreements regarding the land don’t last forever. The plot of land our house is built on, the land defined by the borders of our country, mother earth itself, do not belong to us.  If they belong, they belong to a higher authority.

And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with Me.
And in all the land of your possession ye shall grant a redemption for the land. (Leviticus 25: 23-24)

Baruch A. Levine writes in his commentary to Leviticus:

The God of Israel, to whom all land ultimately belongs, has granted the Land of Israel to His people, Israel, as an everlasting ‘ahuzzah, “holding.” In so doing, he has imposed on them certain conditions of tenure. Foremost among these is denial of the right to alienate land through its permanent conveyance to a purchaser – a right that is usually considered an intrinsic element of ownership. (page 270)

In the seven year cycle of shemita, all land is to be released to its original holder (ahaz), not to its original owner. Man cannot be an owner (or what in the Caribbean island of Anguilla they call a native: A belonger). No, we are all strangers in a strange land; we are all settlers.

The term “an everlasting  ‘ahuzzah, “everlasting holding.” is really a contradiction in terms. “Everlasting” is forever and not contingent on events or time, and “ahuz” means to physically hold something. The first piece of Talmud most of us study is Tractate Baba Metziah, and is about two guys, each holding the same (sacred?) talit and both claiming it as theirs. “Shenaiyim ohazim betalit” Holding something is not owning it…. (btw they have to split the talit…)

Pharoah’s father’s name was Adikam Ahuz. In Egyptian, according to the Sefer HaYashar, Ahuz means short… and according to this tradition, Pharaoh’s father was not only physically short, he also reigned for only 4 years. Holding is temporal.

Just as an everlasting ahuza is a convenient contradiction (Divine Ruse/kindness – Arabic talattuf) .. which retains the temporary nature of possessing as opposed to owning God’s Land, but also provides a sense of entitlement to our homeland.

So too when it comes to the Biblical idea of an agreement or covenant.  The concept of an everlasting covenant (e.g. brit olam – Genesis 9; 16) is Orwellian DoubleThink. A covenant is conditional on both parties keeping their side of the deal, needs to be renewed and can by defenition, be broken.  Everlasting implies an unconditional commitment. In the early days of the emergence of the revolutionary idea that God and the Jewish People had entered into a covenantal relationship, the contingent aspect of the pact was emphasized. As the Jewish People accepted a monarchy, settled in their land and experienced their first exile in Babylon, the concept of an eternal covenant emerged. To the point, that when the Bible was translated into Greek (The Septuagint), the Hebrew word for covenant (Brit) was translated primarily as an inheritance, patrimony, gift… testament. (see A Greek-English Lexicon by H. G. Liddell and R. Scott)

The term New Testament is a translation of the Hebrew Brit hadasha. So, similar to the fossilization of ahuza-possession, covenant also lost its tenuous, temporal and historically conditional nature and became a static patrimony. The evolution of covenant from a historically contingent and dynamic relationship to a static fact of existense and law of nature is seen in the post-exilic prophet Jeremiah, and latter echoed by Saul (aka Paul) of Tarshish in the New Testament.

30 Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah;
31 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; forasmuch as they broke My covenant, although I was a lord over them, saith the LORD.
32 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the LORD, I will put My law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people; (Jeremiah 31: 31-34).

(see: Covenant – The History of a Biblical Idea Delbert Hillers chapter 7  The old age of an idea, especially p. 167)

So “holding” is by definition temporary. Resolving the age-old question: “buy or rent” the Bible seems to say: You can only rent… but you can have an everlasting lease.

So it remains until today. Anyone who has purchased real estate in Israel, knows that Israel is still governed by Ottoman Real Estate law, and while the price you pay certainly feels like you’re buying the property and no rent is collected… what you really are purchasing is a 99 year land lease… whose renewal will not be unreasonably withheld. 

It’s a paradigm shift that is difficult for the Western mind: “Many Europeans and Americans do not understand this arrangement. People who came from legal systems where land ownership is a fundamental right, do not understand leasing.”… but this arrangement is natural in the Middle East and as shown in Leviticus 25; natural to the Bible. Only God can own, man is just a tenant.

Here’s the first comment by Rashi to the Torah:

Genesis 1.1 In the beginning Rabbis Isaac said: It was not necessary to begin the Torah, [whose main object is to teach commandments, mitzvoth, with this verse] but from “This month shall be unto you” [the beginning of months] (Exodus 12:2) since this is the first mitzvah [commandment] that Israel was commanded [to observe]. And what is the reason that it begins with Genesis? Because of [the verse] “The power of his works, He hath declared to his people in giving them the heritage of the nations (Psalms 111: 6) For if the nations of the world should say to Israel: “You are robbers, because you have seized by force the lands of the seven nations” [of Canaan], they [Israel] could say to them “The entire world belongs to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, He created it and gave it to whomever it was right in his eyes, Of His own will He gave it to them and His own will He took it from them and gave it to us.” (Yalkut, Exodus 12.2).

Clearly Rashi’s primary point is that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews, and I will not argue otherwise, but I find his argument nonetheless; intriguing. The land of Israel does not belong to the Jews because they were the original occupants. To the contrary, it’s as if Rashi, and by extension, the Torah is going out of it’s way here and in Lekh-Lekha, to flaunt the fact that Abraham and his decedents, came from another land and were settlers. We Jews are not natives or belongers when it comes to the land of Israel. It is not a matter of fate or destiny that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews, it is not written into the fabric of the universe…. it is a matter of historical contingency. God gave the land to the Jews to settle…. ” for the land is Mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with Me.”

Which brings us to Heter Mechira, a fascinating piece of halachic trivia – In the modern era, as Jews started to return to the land of Israel, the struggling farmers trying against all odds to eke out a marginal existence were confronted with the biblical law of shemita.. the requirement to let the land lie fallow every 7 years. In 1888 a bunch of the most esteemed European rabbis (and the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa) came up with an innovative idea which has become known as the heter mechira (literally: permission to sell). They proposed, that just as on Passover we sell our Hametz to a non-Jew, for the Sabattical year of rest, the entire land of Israel may be sold to a gentile, so that the Jews could work the land. …By the time the next shmita cycle came around in 1895-1896, the rabbinic authorities had joined a united front permitting the sale of the land for that sabbatical year. The rabbis concluded that reality dictated a need for such action because the people could not observe the laws of shmita. In the years of 1910 and 1911, Rav Kook allowed for the sale of the land as well, reaffirming that although it was not ideal, it served an important purpose. …In the years that followed, the decision to sell the land was reevaluated before the arrival of each shmita cycle. Once the State of Israel was established, the Rabbanut (Chief Rabbinate) accepted the sale of the land every year until as recently as 2007-2008. (See Whose Land is it Anyway? By: Nava Billet published in the Yeshiva University Student Newspaper). I’d love to know which gentile “owned” the land of Israel during these years… and what would have happened if he had decided not to sell it back! But all kidding aside, the heter mechira is intriguing because it creates a precedent in which the land of Israel is “temporarily” transferred to a non-Jew…… It is a legal fiction which achieves a goal of compromise with the requirements of reality while still adhering to the Torah.

I am hoping that I will be forgiven for citing another Middle Eastern concept which provides a temporary accommodation to reality. It is a Muslim concept which has recently been made a hot button and debated and exploited by both sides of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. It is the concept of Hudna or temporary truce. I cite it, not to enter into the fray of Middle Eastern dialectic, but only for the purposes of my exploration of alternatives to our Western conceptions of permanent ownership, patrimony and permanent agreements/covenants.

The concept of “hudna” is one in which the time factor is diluted. The meaning of the word “hudna” is a ceasefire, a break, or a rest. In Arab-Islamic tradition, the hudna is permissible for the sake of conducting negotiations between rivals (Reut Institute, http://reut-institute.org/en/Publication.aspx?PublicationId=287 ). It follows that the hudna is temporary in essence and, as been pointed out by supporters of Israel, can even serve the purpose of reinforcing fighting positions and re-arming. Furthermore, the word hudna does not suggest any preparedness to solve the problem or any commitment not to violate the ceasefire…. The understanding of hudna draws from the precedent of the Treaty of Hudeibiya signed between the Prophet Mohamed and members of the Tribe of Quraish in the year 628 (see Barriers to Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Editor: Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov p.279)

It may come as a surprise, that in signing the peace agreement with Israel in 1978, Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president quoted a religious order based on the Treaty of Hudaybiya (see Guy Bechor, Ha’aretz, 5/24/94 see not 8 in Reut Institute – Hudna)…

It seems to me that if we accept the fact that we are all just settlers… even if our settling is everlasting (i.e. an “everlasting ahuza”) and if we believe that our covenants are historically contingent even if they too can be eternal, and if we can pay top dollar for real estate even if we only get a 99 year lease, then when it comes to negotiating with our enemies, or finding an accommodation with another people who also claim our “much too promised land”, then maybe we can acknowledge that Western concepts and categories are not helpful here. Maybe we should explore our shared Middle Eastern traditions, which permit accommodation with reality and the enemy, without necessarily abdicating our most cherished personal and national aspirations…. and without losing face. It’s just a thought.. but if we are all just strangers and settlers, maybe, just maybe we can get along .. if not forever, then  for a very long while…..


Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, Palestinians, Religion, social commentary, Torah

4 responses to “we are all settlers

  1. another article that “spins” the Obama speeches as a rejection of a final peace agreement in favor of an interim accommodation…. Sounds a little far-fetched and naive even to a liberal optimist like me.. but you never know…. http://www.tabletmag.com/news-and-politics/67979/the-acrobat/?utm_source=Tablet+Magazine+List&utm_campaign=0136c44189-5_28_2011weekender&utm_medium=email

  2. alternatively: “In the history of the world no one has washed a rented car” Tom Friedman

  3. Pingback: parshat behar sparks | madlik

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