You know you’re really attached to a piece of land when you start making laws that apply the same to people as they do to real estate. Welcome to Behar, the first of this week’s double parasha Behar/B’chukotai. The Israelites, who are still camped around Mt. Sinai, by the way- they haven’t moved on since Exodus, just still at the base of the mountain, camping and listening to Moses give out the rules of Leviticus – have already heard about keeping the Sabbath. Work six days, take the seventh day off. Got it.
Well, it’s the same for the land. Work the land for six years, and take the seventh year off. It’s called shmita, and during the shmita year, debts are forgiven, land lies fallow, private land yields become open to all, and food is generally redistributed so everyone gets enough, and no one goes hungry while crops are left alone.
It’s not widely believed that shmita, with all its contractual real estate intricacies, was ever really observed fully. What is interesting, however, is the body of language and law that surrounds this one commandment to let the land lie fallow.
Suddenly we get all this wonderful social commentary. What would the business of agriculture look like if you had to leave land alone for a year? How do you distribute food when ownership is given a year off? How do you make sure everyone has food? When do you buy land, and what happens to land prices if you know your ownership is time-limited? The land is to be left “free for all”…how does that change community responsibility, making sure no one goes hungry? Whose land is it anyway? What if you’re in debt, or you can’t pay your bills without the crops that come from the land?
These are real problems, especially today. None of us has to work too hard to imagine a family that has come on hard times, with underwater houses and bankruptcy filings backed up for years. In this section of text, we read about what to do if “a kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding, his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold” (Lev 25:25) That is, if someone is in such need that s/he has to sell everything just to stay above water, someone (and the Bible usually assumes this to be a relative) has to come forward and help that person keep his/her home. And no buyer can prevent this, just to collect a debt, says Rashi, the great 12th c French sage. You can’t strip a person of everything they own. We must always protect the dignity of an individual, even if they are the poorest of the poor. And you still have to make sure they eat.
In fact, Rashi continues, when verse 26 says, “if a man has no one to redeem for him….”, he asks quite pointedly if there is any such thing as a person who has no one to redeem for him? Is anyone so alone in the community that there is no one to help?
The kind of community we need to create is one where the answer is a resounding, “No!” Whether or not it’s the year off for the land, we must be aware of those in need, those who must be “redeemed”, those who must be given an opportunity to get on their feet again. This is what makes an am kadosh, a holy community. The laws of shmita help point us in that direction. It’s up to us to make it real.