parshat behar, leviticus 25
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on clubhouse on May 19th 2022 for Madlik Lag B’Omer … full of sparks, flames and disruptive Torah. The earth is the Lord’s resonates throughout the Torah nowhere stronger than in the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. We explore what a Promised Land means when land ownership is only temporary.
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish text or traditional. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz we host Madlik disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. Today is L’ag B’ Omer so I’m hoping that the sparks and flames of disruptive Torah will be particularly strong today. The earth is the Lord’s so it is written in the Good Book. Nowhere does this more loudly resonate than in the laws of the sabbatical and Jubilee years. On the other hand, we Jews have serious ownership issues with our land. So let’s explore what a Promised Land means when land ownership is only temporary. This land is MY land.
So welcome. What a wonderful way to talk about a Pasha, both on L’ag B’ Omer where I said sparks do fly because it is a tradition to light a bonfire on L’ag B’ Omer. And also I just came back from the land of Israel. And we are going to be talking about land tonight and what the unique relationship with land the Bible has and the Bible has for us. So this week’s parsha is Bahar, which means the mountain and it’s in Leviticus 25: 1 that it says God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, speak to the Israelite people and say to them, when you enter the land that I assigned to you, the land shall observe Shabbat six years, you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the field. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Shabbat of complete rest a Shabbat of God, You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard, you shall not reap the after growth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines. It shall be of a year of complete rest for the land. And then it goes on to say there’s a cycle of seven years and seven times seven is 49 and the 50th year is called the Jubilee Year. And it says Then you shall sound the horn loud on the seventh month of the 10th day of the month, the day of atonement, and you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land, and you shall hollow the 50th year you shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee year for you. Each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family. And it goes on to say in this year of Jubilee each of you shall return to your holding you will get your original land back. You shall observe my laws and faithfully keep my rules that you may live upon the land in security. The land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill and you shall live upon it in security but the land must not be sold beyond reclaim for the land is mine. You are but strangers resident with me. וְהָאָ֗רֶץ לֹ֤א תִמָּכֵר֙ לִצְמִתֻ֔ת כִּי־לִ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֧ים וְתוֹשָׁבִ֛ים אַתֶּ֖ם עִמָּדִֽי. And throughout the land you hold you must provide for redemption of the land. And in this, it says the most famous saying, which is written on the Liberty Bell, that you shall proclaim freedom throughout the land. וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ So Rabbi, we actually are in the year of the Shmita, the sabbatical year. And as I drove through Israel every so often on the highway, you would see signs that would say, we are observing the Sabbath year this Shmita year, which means that they literally were letting the land lie fallow. But I want to focus less on the agricultural aspect of this. And more on the aspect that comes out really clearly in the 50th year; the Jubilee year, but I think that impacts our understanding of the seven year cycle as well. This concept of the land belongs to God, and we are toshavim, we are settlers We are transients upon this land. This is a radical idea. And it starts by saying, When you come into what we all know, is the promised land. Is this radical idea?
Adam Mintz 05:17
Tremendously radical. I mean, the Torah, basically, in this week’s parsha teaches us that if I buy a field from you, that field goes back to the original owner on Shmita. Now, that actually affects the entire economic system. Because if I buy a field from you in year one of Shmita, that means I’m going to pay a rental for 48 years. But if I buy a field from you in year 45 of shmitah, well, I’m only paying for five years, it’s not going to cost as much money. So actually, the entire real estate system was around this idea of Yovel – Jubilee. And you can imagine that, everyone was reminded of Yovel all the time. Isn’t that amazing?
Geoffrey Stern 06:12
It is, I mean, you know, there is Turkish law, for instance, even in Israel, my parents owned a house in Yemin Moshe, which is the the little community that Moses Montefiore, he’s the Moshe of Yemin Moshe built. And when they bought it, and they paid a sum that was equated with the value of the land, they got a 99 year lease. And of course, they had to renew it for $1. But Turkish law, and there are other legal systems in the world, that you really do never really own that real estate, we who we think of real estate as the one thing that you can really own. Should you rent, or should you buy? Well, some legal systems say you can only rent. But those are legal systems, our system is more than just a legal system. It’s a moral system. It’s an ethical system.
Adam Mintz 07:22
This law, Geoffrey is a moral law, because it prevents people from getting too wealthy. Because if you were able to amass, you know, 1,000 fields, well, you’re not going to be able to keep them because they have to go back during Yovel. So it’s a moral system.
Geoffrey Stern 07:38
It’s the ultimate reset. It’s the ultimate redistribution of wealth. It’s like playing Monopoly, and then you get to a certain point and it reverts back to the way it was. And I think that’s the classical understanding. But what I want to focus on is even when it reverts back to the way it was, and goes back to the original tenant, it’s not going back to the original owner, the language that it uses. It says וּבְכֹ֖ל אֶ֣רֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶ֑ם, this, אֲחֻזַּ means really what you hold, you know, they talk about possession is 90% of the law. But the point is, you never get to the point where you literally own it, because God says that the land belongs to Him. And I think that the tagline for that is in Psalms 24, 1-3. And this was actually the name of a book written by Abraham Joshua Heschel. It says, The earth is the Lord’s and all that it holds the world and its inhabitants for he founded it upon the ocean, set it on the nether streams, who may ascend the mountain of the Lord, who may stand in his holy place. And it says לַֽ֭ה’ הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ, and that was the name of Heschel’s book. The idea is ultimately, that at the end of the day, it all belongs to God. And we can never own we can touch we can feel we can have a relationship with but I think that ultimately is the essence of what we’re focusing on here.
Adam Mintz 09:28
Yeah, that’s right, that we can’t own, that’s really very interesting. Only God owns land. And what about the fact that every Shmita all loans go back [and] are canceled? So if I borrow money from you, if I can pay you back? Well, then the Shmita comes and cancels the loan. Actually, and we know this, that that create It’s such an economic crisis, that already in the time of the Talmud, almost 2,000 years ago, they introduced something called a Pruzbol. A Pruzbol is a legal fiction, which allows the lender to collect the loan even after Shmita. And the amazing thing is that as Shmita comes to a conclusion, this summer, there will be ads all over the place in Israel, to start to to fill out this form called the Pruzbol, in case you lend money to somebody to make sure that the loan isn’t cancelled. So that’s really alive today. But that’s the idea that again, it’s the great reset, if someone can’t afford to pay back well come Shmita the loan is cancelled.
Geoffrey Stern 10:51
You know, we’ve kind of discussed this double entendre, this dual meaning to different commandments, mitzvot in the Torah, I think we first came across it, when it said in the in the Parsha in the section dealing with the Exodus, that you shall write these things on your arms and on your your head. And we said there it’s not referring to tephilin it’s refering to the ideal. I think with shmitah, there is a very strong argument that in fact, it was more ideal than it was real, meaning to say that there are passages in the Talmud that talk about well, who is a really great person, someone who observes the Shmita, which leads one to believe that they were the exception to the norm, that it was so countered to the necessities of daily life, that it almost was as much an ideal, as it was a reality. Is there any truth to what I just said?
Adam Mintz 11:57
I mean, you’re making such a big point. And we of course, we’ve talked about it before. And that is that generally speaking, I mean, just take the laws of Shabbat, Shabbat is a reality. But it’s also an ideal. You just talked about Abraham Joshua Heschel. He wrote a book about the Sabbath. And his book about the Sabbath really talks about exactly what you said, he talks about sanctity of time and sanctity of space. He takes Shabbat from the thing that we observe every seventh day. And he basically says, it’s about the sanctity of all time, you know, of time generally. And that, he says, you have to see it in the bigger sense. And obviously, that’s true about Shmita, too. And I think that’s an important point, we talked about this before. But the idea of seven’s is a very critical idea here, you know, every seventh day, we rest, every seventh year, the land rests, and every seven of seven years, then the 50th year, then, the slaves go free and the land goes back. It’s all about seven’s. You talk about how the Jewish calendar works, the Jewish calendar works around sevens. That’s not, to be taken for granted. The Jews basically gave the week to the world. That’s not to be taken for granted. When you think about the month, Geoffrey, the month is 30 days, it probably would have been better to divide the week into five or six days, then every month would have exactly the same number of weeks by dividing the week into seven days. Actually, the months are confusing, because every month starts at a different day. Now we’re used to that already. But wouldn’t it be easier if the first of June July August and September were all Tuesday’s that would make it a lot easier. But Judaism gave the world the idea of seven. So yeah, that’s what you’re talking about the you know, the reality and the ideal. I think the idea of the week the idea of seven is something that’s both the reality, but it’s also an ideal.
Geoffrey Stern 14:21
So I’m less of a numerologist than maybe you are, but I do agree that the Sabbath, both the seven day day of rest, and what we’re studying today, which is the seventh year cycle of land, letting the field rest and the seven times seven cycle of the Jubilee where as you said, not only do you rest the field, but the field goes back to its original placeholder. The loans get nullified and what we didn’t mention is that slaves go free. And that’s, of course, why it’s on the Liberty Bell. But this idea of rest, meaning to say, of disruption, and then rest of coming to yourself, I think is the greatest gift of the Jews to the world. You know, there’s a series of book The, the gift of the Irish and he wrote a book on the gift of the Jews. And in the gift of the Jews, it was this day of rest, Shabbat, the same word for Shabbat, which means to rest is the name Shvita , which is a strike, a labor strike in in Israel, ultimately, when you mandate that your servant has to rest, and that your animal has to rest. That is the most basic form of human rights and animal rights and waits to nature. It means that these things cannot always be controlled. And I think that is an unbelievable message. But I think ultimately, what lays at the heart of that, in terms of the biblical message, is there’s a reason for all of that. And that is, as I was saying, before, that everything belongs to God. And you know, whether you believe in God or you’re an atheist, the idea is that it doesn’t belong to us. We don’t own it. And what I’d like to take the discussion in another direction, which is I mentioned that the word that is used for when it returns to the first owner ….. owner is a mistranslation, because what it really returns to is the first ochez, the first holder. And we know in Genesis that Abraham is promised this promised land, and what I want to square the circle is this kind of dialectic and tension between a promised land, but also a land that ultimately is not yours because no land belongs to anybody. The first Rashi in all of the Torah, embrace it and we’ve quoted this numerous times, says Why does the Torah begin with the story of creation, to show exactly as that psalm that I read a second ago, that really the whole world belongs to God and God goes out of his or her way to make Abraham come from another place he’s not entitled to this particular Promised Land. He’s given that promised land on the basis of לַֽ֭ה’ הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ, the world belongs to God and God can give it to who he wishes. But the interesting part of that tension is in Genesis 17:8, it says, I assigned the land you sojourn into you and your offspring to come all the land of Canaan as an everlasting holding, I will be their God, the word for everlasting holding is a אֲחֻזַּ֖ת עוֹלָ֑ם, achuzah is that word that I’ve been focused on, which means really, you’re not a title-holder, you grab it, you hold it, and olam would seem to mean, everlasting. So it seems to me a little bit like one of these words that there’s a conflict or a tension within it. Like when Adam is introduced to Eve as his עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ, his help-meet and of course, Rashis says If he is worthy she shall be a help to him; if he is unworthy she shall be opposed to him, to fight him. Is there a tension in the word who’s אֲחֻזַּ֖ת עוֹלָ֑ם?
Adam Mintz 18:57
אֲחֻזַּ֖ת עוֹלָ֑ם? Yeah, I mean, that’s interesting, well, let’s take a step back because you made so many good points. The first interesting point was that it’s not the owner of the land. It’s only the person who’s holding on to the land. There’s no idea of ownership. In addition, let me just finish this point, then we’ll get to the next point. The Torah says in this week’s parsha Avadai Hem The Torah says that the people are my servants. And the rabbis learned from there Avadai hem, v’lo avadim l’avadim, you’re not allowed to work for anybody else. That’s why the slaves go free. Because land is not owned by anybody. And nobody can work for anybody else. It all goes back to God. אֲחֻזַּ֖ת עוֹלָ֑ם? It’s not really אֲחֻזַּ֖ת עוֹלָ֑ם.. generally, doesn’t mean forever? Alarm means until the Yovel (Jubillee) The Torah says that the Jewish slave if he likes his master can have his ear pierced. And the Torah says Ve’avado L’olam, he’s a slave forever. But the word olam doesn’t really mean olam. The word olam really means until the Yovel. So you’re you’re right for pointing that out. But the rabbi’s already picked up on that and said, it doesn’t really mean that.
Geoffrey Stern 20:26
I’m just blown away from that I had never heard that before. And again, it means that the rabbi’s understood what the contradiction was, and that they tied it to the rule that we are discussing today. Just blows me away. But But there’s another aspect of this achuza that we all are aware of. If you noticed when I read the verses, in verse 18, it said, You shall observe my lowest and faithfully keep my rules that you may live upon the land in security. וִֽישַׁבְתֶּ֥ם עַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ לָבֶֽטַח, the land shall yield its fruit, and you shall eat your field and you shall live upon it insecurity. For those of you who read the prayer book, who say the Shema, twice a day, once a month, once a year, you know that the second paragraph of the Shema says the following, and it’s from Deuteronomy 11:16. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and to bow to them, for God’s anger will flare up against you shutting up the skies, so that there will be no rain, and the ground will not produce its produce, and you will soon perish from the good land that God is assigning to you. So even this promised land, even in these very verses, it has the two sides to it. It’s promised to you if you observe the rules, and you conduct yourself properly. But if you don’t, you will be banished, it will not produce what it needs to sustain you. And for a people that his been outside of its land more than it’s been on its land. This is a powerful, powerful message that again, is connected to the concept of the sabbatical year, the Jubilee Year. And as you just pointed out to the word Olam, which we normally mean is it’s ours forever.
Adam Mintz 22:41
I mean, it’s such a nice point you raised that for there’s no forever in the Torah because the only one who’s in charge of forever is God.
Geoffrey Stern 22:52
Adam Mintz 22:53
Isn’t that a great idea?
Geoffrey Stern 22:55
I think it’s an amazing idea. So let’s let’s deal with another word, we dealt with achuzat for a second, there is a another word that comes up in these words, and it seems to mean something like forever. And the word is, the land shall not be sold permanently for the land is mine. You are strangers and sojourners with me. And the word for permanently is tzemitut. And that word similar to olam has a bunch of connotations. In modern Hebrew, we talk behalutin which means again for ever, so if you if you talk about someone who is in modern Hebrew, if you say that someone is Meshuga l’chalutin and, and in the word that it goes, it means absolutely. But at the end of the day, these words kind of have the sense of a death grip. They’re not positive words. Tzemitut has a sense of destruction and decay; when you’re sold that to me took forever. So it’s almost as if it’s not only that you only have this temporarily, but there is a negative, decaying aspect of having something forever that we are a dynamic religion we are have a dynamic sense of living and life and that this concept of forever is not something that it’s too bad. We miss the latter and we don’t have have it forever. Having something forever is actually a kind of a dead end.
Adam Mintz 25:05
It’s bad to happen forever. Well, it’s against the toe right to have it forever.
Geoffrey Stern 25:11
I think yeah, it is. But it’s also not. We like to think of something you know, they always say nothing lasts forever. But but but the concept behind that is, wouldn’t it be cool if it did. And the if you look at the Hebrew words that are used for forever, they’re, they’re actually not that positive. They’re static. And they’re, in a sense, almost derogatory. There’s a beautiful verse as in Kohelet and Ecclesiastes. And it says, just as a man enters this world by final decision, בַּחֲלִיטִין, so he leaves this world by final decision, it’s almost associated with death. And what the Shmita, ultimately is about is about this tension, of living on the edge of this lack of finality, this lack of, of forever, is actually a lease on life, if you’ll mind the pun.
Adam Mintz 26:22
And you know, you say also, it’s, it’s also introduces this the element of uncertainty. You know, it’s scary that you can’t work the land during Shmita, you talked about driving in Israel, and seeing the signs that you can’t work the land during Shmita. That’s scary. How you going to make a living? Right? It’s scary that you’re gonna have to give back your field at the Yovel How you gonna have to start again, you say it’s the great reset, the great reset sounds good in a bit in the big picture. But personally, the great reset is kind of scary, isn’t it?
Geoffrey Stern 27:00
It absolutely is. So I want to jump …., because I just came from Israel. And so because so much of the tension and an end and a bloodshed in Israel is about ownership of land, is about territoriality. I want to do something radical on this lLag B’Omer, I want to study a Mishnah in the Talmud, that really at one level has nothing to do with what we’re discussing. But I think after we learn it together, we might find it has everything to do with what we’re discussing. And it focused is on a Who’s that, and holding. So it’s the first mission or the first page of Talmud that I ever studied. And it likely might be the first page of Talmud that you ever studied. I can sit here looking up at the sky and say it by heart. שנים אוחזין בטלית זה אומר אני מצאתיה וזה אומר אני מצאתיה, there are two people struggling over a tallit; a piece of cloth. And each one claims that they found it, which of course is very much in line with what achuzah means. They don’t say they owned it forever. They don’t say they inherited it. They both found it. And the missioner goes on to say what do we do. And it says this one takes an oath that that he does not have ownership of less than half. And this one takes an oath that he does not have ownership of less than half. And of course, when you take an oath, we take it very seriously, you’re taking an oath in the name of God. And each party has to be credible, we can’t let someone make an oath that could break their integrity. So instead of each party saying the obvious, which is it’s all mine, they each says I don’t have less than half; that even in the worst circumstance that both of us came at it at the same time. I don’t have less than half. And I’ve always thought that this is a wonderful paradigm for how people argue also about land. That in a sense, it preserves for each party, the integrity that they need to have their narrative. It retains their truth, but nonetheless at the end of the day, it says יחלוקו that each one gets half even though they each believe that they deserve the whole and I would love one day to learn this Mishnah at a peace talk between different people arguing over the same land. Am I crazy? I mean that’s great. I mean that’s about you know, that’s about the time interaction between our desire to own things, our desire for things to be forever our desire for things to be final and the reality of שנים אוחזין בטלית, isn’t that what it’s really about it is
Adam Mintz 30:16
Its tension, which is built in.
Geoffrey Stern 30:19
In the notes. I quote from The Autobiography a very short Autobiography of a young scholar, who died very young, but was considered by everybody to be an Eloy genius. His name was Rav Avraham Eliayu Kaplan. And he says the first time he learned this missioner, he really thought they were arguing in a synagogue over a tallied because that’s what it says, not a piece of cloth, which is what the Aramaic means, …. he saw a religious content to it. And I think we can look at a simple legal text like this, we can look at illegal text of the sabbatical year, and we can learn so many profound lessons. The only last thing that I will say because I do believe that religion has a place in peace talks and in coming together is that when Sadat made peace with Israel, he used a law from the Sharia called a hudna, which means you can make a temporary peace, even when you are breaking some of your ideals. And of course, the temporary peace can last forever. I think in these rules is a way of getting beyond our ideologies and being able to accept others and being able ….. because God owns the world because לַֽ֭ה’ הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ. we can find a way of compromise.
Adam Mintz 31:54
Amazing, great topic. Welcome back. Enjoy Bahar, everybody. And we look forward to seeing you next week. Shabbat Shalom everybody.
Geoffrey Stern 32:03
Shabbat Shalom to you all.
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