Jewish Life Torah Portion

Torah Portion – Behar

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

The Torah portion of Behar opens with the fundamental laws of Shmitah, the seventh year of rest for the land of Israel. 

Ordinarily, Jewish law divides along two lines: requirements between human beings and God, and requirements between one human being and another. But there is also a third realm: the requirements of a Jew toward his/her land. In fact, the very climax of the book of Leviticus emphasizes precisely this third realm, bein yehudi l’artzo, between the Jew and his land, replete with laws of the tithing of produce, the necessity of allowing the land to lie fallow during the Sabbatical year, and returning all property to its original owner in the jubilee year.

To grasp the full symbolism of a Jew’s relationship to a land, we must take note of a much earlier biblical incident, when our first patriarch purchased a plot for his wife’s gravesite, paying an astonishingly high sum for a relatively tiny piece of land. Abraham’s purchase of this property reaches back to our earliest beginnings; it unites our history with a specific parcel of earth, a grave site for our first matriarch Sarah, inextricably linking the founders of our faith-nation with the land of Israel in an eternal bond, within the boundaries of God’s initial covenant with Abraham, a bond of eternity!

This purchase of land indelibly establishes for us the special commitment that the Bible expects a husband and wife to have for each other, a commitment which extends beyond physical life. The sages of the Talmud derive our form of religio-legal obligatory engagement, kiddushin (with a ring or an object of material value), from Abraham’s purchase of the plot of land that would serve as Sarah’s cemetery plot (Kiddushin 2a). The Talmud deduces the “taking” of marriage from the “taking” of the land. Thus, halakha creates a metaphoric parallel between marriage, land and eternity, alluding to the unique ideal that we must develop an eternal relationship of love and commitment to our land paralleling the eternal relationship of love and commitment to our spouse.

What does it means to be “engaged or married” to the land? First of all, marriage contains the physical or sexual component, called “entrance” (biah in Hebrew), which expresses the exclusivity of the love relationship. Second, there are the fundamental monetary obligations the couple has to one another, specifically outlined in the Bible (Ex. 21:10) and delineated in the tractate Ketubot. Third, the Torah essentially sees marriage as an eternal relationship. Abraham’s obligations to Sarah continue even beyond her lifetime, as we have seen, and the prophet Hosea describes God’s engagement to Israel: “I shall consecrate you unto Me forever” (Hosea 2:21). These three elements relate to the land of Israel as well! “When you come into the land,” utilizes the verb whose very root refers to sexual relations specific to husband and wife (biyah). And when we’re told to hallow the 50th year (Lev. 25:10), the word the Torah employs is ‘kiddashtem’ – the same term that is the rabbinic expression for marriage. In Behar, the Torah seems to weave a mystical marital canopy uniting the nation Israel with the land of Israel.

Second, no sooner have we entered the land than the Torah instructs us concerning our obligation to that land (much like the obligations a husband has to a wife): for six years we are obligated to plant the fields, prune the vineyards, and harvest the crops, “but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land…you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards…since it is a year of rest for the land” (Lev. 25:4–5). The land must lie fallow every seventh year when its produce belongs to the poor who eat freely from the crops. And, in a human fashion, resembling the husband-wife relationship, the land responds to our actions. If we maintain our obligation to the land, the land will respond to us with abundant produce. If not, the land will grow desolate (Lev. 26:35).

Third, just as there is an eternal aspect to marriage, there is also an eternal aspect to the land. During the jubilee, the 50th year, the Torah commands that land one may have been forced to sell returns to the original owners (Lev. 25:13). Land remains in the family for perpetuity even when dire circumstances force a sale. The eternal link between the land and its owners is the issue addressed in the haftara of Behar when Jeremiah, the prophet of the destruction of the holy Temple, redeems his uncle Hananel’s land for him. Despite the destruction at hand, Jeremiah knows that eventually the Jews will return to the land. God’s promise of an eternal covenant is paralleled in the eternal rights of a family toward its finished property.

Our relationship to the land is akin to that of husband and wife. May we be worthy of the land and may the land properly respond to our love and commitment to it in this generation of return and redemption.

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