This Torah portion is one of my favorites and definitely one of the most amazing (or at least in the top 54).We start by reading about the sabbatical year: “Six years you shall sow your field … but on the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest” (Leviticus 25:3–4). You might think, “Of course, ancient farmers, being close to nature, knew that farming the same land over and over constantly is bad for the earth; crop rotation is nothing new.”
You would be right — except that shmita, the Jewish agricultural sabbatical year, is not just crop rotation. Crop rotation is beneficial anywhere in the world. But shmita and the jubilee — the 50th year when the land goes back to its original owner and all slaves are proclaimed free — are applicable only in the Land of Israel.
Further: This is not about different parts of a field resting at different times. This is a total rest for the whole land at the same time. Shabbat and shmita are based on like ideas — a pause in the workweek and a pause in the land for everyone at the same time.
If we should wonder, “What are we to eat?” God promises “there will be grain for the upcoming three years” (Ibid, 25:20–21). When we come upon the jubilee, there will be enough produce in the sixth year of that cycle for that year, for the following (sabbatical) one, for the 50th, and for the one after that (ninth in that cycle), until the new growth is available. What a promise, and what an exercise in trust!
Historically, when the children of Israel came into the Promised Land, each tribe got its own area. Within that area, each family got its own private plot. Naturally, with time, economic reality got the best of theory. Some probably acquired another’s land; some had to offer themselves as servants. The ideal began to disappear. The caring extended family turned into a nation with high and low classes, powerful and dependents.
How to prevent excessive capitalism where the rich take over? How to avoid fake equality and forced socialism? How to avert revolutions that might aim to balance society but more often than not shake the system beyond what it can handle, harming its population?
That’s when the shofar blast of the jubilee year is sounded. The day-to-day free trade and business stop not through revolution, demonstrations and bloodshed, but by a commandment from the Torah: “On the jubilee year, each one of you shall return to his own land” (Leviticus 25:10).
A new, unprecedented freedom takes place for master, servant and the land itself. Everyone goes back to the starting line, to once again engage in commerce, expressing ingenuity, creativity, diligence and talent. This system conveys love and respect for humanity, and it is vulnerable while allowing healthy competition and growth. It’s a balance between altruism and egoism. Society must restructure itself and continue its progress in an upward spiral.
So far, so good. But one more detail “seals the deal” and makes the arrangement sustainable: “And the land shall not be sold, for the land is Mine. You are but temporary dwellers and sojourners with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). Rashi adds: “Don’t be upset, for it is not yours.”
Only when we give up the possibility of eternal ownership and take our place as partners in creation can we treat the land — and its inhabitants — fairly.
In the past century Israel has gone from inventing the kibbutz all the way to modern capitalism in a short few decades, with huge gaps now between rich and poor. Last summer, when thousands took to the streets seeking social justice, their call emulated the ideals in this Torah portion: no more extremes, but a healthy middle ground.
Next month we will gather again for our largest Jewish community celebration: Israel in the Gardens. Thousands will join together, not because we always agree with everything that modern Israel does but because of what it represents to each and every one of us, a place where the ideals are spoken and, sometimes, even come to life.
Michal Kohane is the director of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. She has served in leadership roles throughout Northern California and holds advanced degrees in studies of Israel, psychology and education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.