This week the Reform luach offers us a Torah reading from parashat Be’Har1 . Leviticus chapter 25 is the only code of practice on the subject of land tenure in ancient Israel that is preserved in the Torah. The seventh year is called “Sabbatical year”, and after a cycle of seven Sabbatical years-every half century- there is to be a Jubilee year. The “Sabbatical year” is also called Shemittah which means release.
The purpose of Shemittah is to give a rest to nature from agricultural labour: Sowing and reaping of fields, as well as the pruning and picking of vines, are prohibited. Men and beast only eat during that year what grows naturally.
The Jubilee goes further. On this occasion the land reverts to its original owner and the indebted person should be redeemed. It is a celebration of freedom and a metaphorical return to the Garden of Eden. Slaves are freed and farmers rest from gruelling daily task… What nature gives is shared equally by the rich and the poor.
The Sabbatical year and the Jubilee are the Shabbat of the land. The fiftieth year is formally consecrated , kiddashtem: you shall consecrate. (Lev 25:10). The verb kiddesh, “To sanctify, consecrate”, is traditionally used to convey the sanctification of Shabbat; by using this verb in connection with the Jubilee, a parallelism between the two is created. The Sabbatical year, the Jubilee, and Shabbat itself, are occasions which drive us out from the daily routine, the world seems to stop, to be timeless… eternal. They are a taste of a messianic era to come.
The base for this relation with the land and its inhabitants is Lev 25: 23-24: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is mine; but you are strangers living with me. Through the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land”. The Hebrew achuzah means possession and it comes from the root אחז which means “to hold”. Therefore we don’t own the land but we hold it and we all are responsible for its preservation.
I try to imagine how different our lives could be if we really believed that we don’t own this world and that it is our task to preserve it for future generations. How would it change our relation with nature? Would we consume in the way we do… how would it affect our shopping basket? I also bear in mind the issue of social housing, and how a too competitive real estate market has turned what should be a basic Human Right into a privilege, as is made clear by the UN Charter:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(Article 25, Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
We certainly don’t own this world and our attitude should be like the one who holds a fragile vessel: A beautiful and old piece of porcelain which has been in the family for centuries and which it is our duty to keep for future generations.
We may think that we can’t do anything but we are more powerful than we think. Something so simple as putting on a jumper and turning off the heating when it is not actually that cold; daily , ordinary things like bringing our own bags when we are going to do the shopping. Doing this we can help reduce greenhouse emissions, landfill toxicity and foreign dependency on oil. Another step we can take concerns meat consumption. A more moderate consumption would help against one of the most environmentally damaging industries today: greenhouse gasses emitted from livestock, from cows and industrial waste, and from farming equipment, not to mention the overuse of grazing land, are becoming unsustainable.
We can make a difference with the small actions of our everyday life, our responsible participation in local and national politics and consuming more ethically. It is good to remember that what we buy determines what is sold.
Once I saw on the TV a report about a Spanish doctor running a project in India. The journalist asked him if it was not too presumptuous to think that his project could make any difference to the very hard situation of that community in India. The doctor was holding in that moment a little baby… his answer was simple and clear and it really touched me. He said, while pointing to the little baby-girl, ‘for her it makes a difference’.
The Mishnah says: “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it”. (Avot 2:21). The task is here and now… in ordinary life. There isn’t a special occasion for action… We don’t need to go far. Every minute can be the heroic minute which changes someone’s life for the better.
1According to the Luah of Liberal Judaism and the traditional Torah reading cycle this Shabbat would be Emor.
Student Rabbi Haim Casas
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.