This week we read the double portion of BeHar/BeHukotai. Parshat BeHar opens (Lev. 25:2-4) with the mitzvah of the Sabbatical year/Shmita, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard./דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַה’. שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְרַע שָׂדֶךָ וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְמֹר כַּרְמֶךָ; וְאָסַפְתָּ אֶת-תְּבוּאָתָהּ. וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַה’, שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרָע וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר.”
The Sfas Emes* teaches (Parshat BeHar 5648) that these verses remind us that Hashem gave us the Land of Israel and for us to know that it in fact belongs to God. As it is taught in another Midrash (Tanḥuma), God gave the world to Abraham and he returned it and gave it back to God. This is the mitzvah of Shmita, that the Land is given to the People of Israel anew, after every seventh year. And the People of Israel are ready to accept this gift every time, as the verse says (Lev. 25:23), “with me you are but aliens and tenants/כִּי-גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי.” The Sfas Emes explains that this is actually a praise given to the People of Israel who know that they are tenants, and they make clear for all to see that the Land belongs to God. I was actually In Israel two years ago during a Shmita year where we could not easily eat local produce and the price of fruits and vegetables was significantly higher. This is one practical way to see this process play out even today. For that year, we practice giving the Land back to God. And the following year we receive again.
Ray Kinsella did not understand this concept. He assumed that since he had the deed to the farm, that he owned the land and could do whatever he wanted on it. This Parsha comes to teach us humility in that respect. Next week, we will celebrate the miraculous victory of 1967 and the liberation of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is our people’s capital. And yet we must always remember that we alone do not hold the deed. Our shared ownership with God places a demand on us to live up to the city’s name, The City of Shalom/Peace. May we merit to continue to hold onto the gift of Jerusalem, and may we see the blossoming of a more full redemption. May we see it speedily and in our days.
*Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (15 April 1847 – 11 January 1905), also known by the title of his main work, the Sfas Emes (Yiddish) or Sefat Emet שפת אמת (Hebrew), was a Hasidic rabbi who succeeded his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, as the Av beis din (head of the rabbinical court) and Rav of Góra Kalwaria, Poland (known in Yiddish as the town of Ger), and succeeded Rabbi Chanokh Heynekh HaKohen Levin of Aleksander as Rebbe of the Gerrer Hasidim.