of mice and men, wives and land

Parshat Behar

It’s worth remembering that 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)

  וְהָאָרֶץ, לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת–כִּי-לִי, הָאָרֶץ:  כִּי-גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם, עִמָּדִי
וּבְכֹל, אֶרֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶם, גְּאֻלָּה, תִּתְּנוּ לָאָרֶץ

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 Sabbatical cycle of shemita, all land is to be released to its original holder (ahaz), not to its original owner. Man cannot be an owner. No, we are all strangers in a strange land; we are all settlers.

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

The word used in Leviticus 25:23 for “perpetuity” tsĕmiythuth is rare.  It only appears in one other place… verse 30, and also in reference to holding property.

According to Levine, we now know from Akkadian contracts that the term tsamit is very ancient and means “finally handed over [to his generations]”.  Writes Levine: “The repeated emphasis in our [Torah] legislation on computing the price of the land in terms of crop years also relates to the fact that in the Akkadian contract from Ugarit, property “finally handed over” is at the full price. Not so ‘ahuzah land.” (p.174).  Unlike Forever Land (tsamit), Ahuzah land is living land, land that is valued for what it produces, grows and nurtures. Forever Land (tsamit) is valued as property.

Forever Land (tsamit) also has a negative connotation associated with eternal death, not eternal life.  (Strongs Concordance H6783)


The aramaic translation of  tsĕmiythuth is   לחלוטין  (Lechalutin) which is also a great word used in modern Hebrew to mean “absolutely” as in “Is he meshuga? Lechalutin – absolutely!  but it also can refer to absolute destruction as in:

 הפצצה מקיפה מעל אזור ספציפי במטרה לכתוש את האזור לחלוטין

The morbid nature of this sense of finality in tsamit-lechalutin comes out in Rabbinic literature as well. See Kohelet Rabba on Ecclesiastes 5:15:

“Just as man enters this world by final decision (bechalutin), so he leaves the this world by final decision.”

 הא היך מה דאתא בחליטין, כן ייזיל בחליטין

I recently saw Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men starring James Franco and Chris O’Dowd, so I can be forgiven if I make the connection between holding something too tightly and extinguishing it’s life force. It seems to me that the Hebrew Bible’s conception of land ownership understands that when we hold something too tight we can suck the life out of it.. whether we are a big oaf holding  a mouse, a puppy, a wife, or whether we hold onto a dream of owning the farm, or a homeland…  if we hold it too tight, we risk killing it.

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

Genesis 1.1 In the beginning Rabbis Isaac said: …. what is the reason that the Torah begins with Genesis [and not the first law]? … 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).

אמר רבי יצחק לא היה צריך להתחיל [את] התורה אלא (שמות יב ב) מהחודש הזה לכם, שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו [בה] ישראל, ומה טעם פתח בבראשית, משום (תהלים קיא ו) כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים, שאם יאמרו אומות העולם לישראל לסטים אתם, שכבשתם ארצות שבעה גוים, הם אומרים להם כל הארץ של הקב”ה היא, הוא בראה ונתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו, ברצונו נתנה להם וברצונו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו:

Clearly Rashi’s primary point is that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews. It would be foolish to argue otherwise.  But his argument is 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  to showcase the fact that Abraham and his decedents, journeyed from another land and were settlers…. not belongers. We Jews are not natives 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.”

How such a philosophy of limited ownership and temporal land claims plays out when it comes to peace talks is a rich area for discussion. It seems to me that if both parties think more in terms of temporary accommodations and less in terms of eternal claims, the chances of success will be higher and the possibility of suffocating that which each party holds dear… will be less.


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