It’s tempting to think the entire Torah is about real estate, and in some ways, it is. But this week’s parasha is really about real estate. In Behar, we learn about the Jubilee year. “The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, neither shall you reap the aftergrowth or harvest the untrimmed vines, for it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you: you may only eat the growth direct from the field.” (Lev 25:11-12)
It sounds like it’s simply a good farming idea to let the land lie fallow, and in fact, the “shmita”, or resting the land every 7 years, is a good idea. But there’s more to the jubilee than letting the land lie. In the jubilee, the land will revert back to its original owner. “In the jubilee year, each of you shall return to his holding….”(Lev 25:13).
When you actually try to think this concept through, it gets unwieldy. I once read an article that questioned whether the jubilee laws were ever observed at all. But as with much of Torah, there are the concepts under the surface that really reach us and teach us.
The land is supposed to revert back to its original owner. Depending on how close or far that next jubilee year is, well, wouldn’t that change how you charge for land? Yes – the Torah thought of that. “When you sell property to your neighbor or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.. In buying from your neighbor, deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee, and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years.” (Lev 25:13-15). The closer to the jubilee, the lower the price. The further away, the higher the price, because you’d be getting that many more years of crops out of it. “You shall not wrong one another.” The commentaries spend a lot of time and energy on the principles of buying and selling; is it “moveable” property or just the land? What if you live in a city? Does it apply to houses, too?
All of these details point to a deeper awareness. There is holiness in how we treat the land, and if how we treat the land can be holy, then what we eat from it can be holy, and how much more so are the people themselves who live on the land. “You shall not wrong one another.” Holiness is as much a part of your business practices as the blessings you may make over your food. It’s no accident that this parasha also contains laws on what to do with slaves in the jubilee year: they are free. And if they have built a family during the time they’ve been with you, you have to free the entire family, keeping them together. However incompatible the idea of owning slaves is with our ethics today, we can at least see the underlying concept of the dignity of a human being, the fact that one’s servitude must end (by law) and the family must stay intact. Behar tells us this is true also for the indentured servant, the one in dire straits. “He and his children with him shall go free in the jubilee year.” (Lev 25:54)
The jubilee is a reset button. We reset ourselves all year long – once a week on Shabbat, once a year on Yom Kippur. Even the land gets a Shabbat every 7 years, and then after seven times seven, it’s a really big reset. Just as on Shabbat we try to “reset” ourselves back to Eden, in the jubilee year, we try to return there, too. We are both liberated, released, redeemed. We rest, we return, we begin again.