We are still at the Mountain, and we’ve been here for a long time.
In this week’s parasha Behar, we are still at the base of Mt Sinai, hearing more about what life is going to be like once the Israelites get to the Land. And it’s the Land that Moses begins to direct his instructions. First, there will be a “Sabbath” for the land every seven years (Shmita), when the crops lie fallow. Then, every seven-times-seven years, it is the Jubilee Year, when not only the land lies fallow, but land and property revert to original owners. Like Shabbat is a re-set for the person, Shmita and Jubilee are re-sets for the society. It’s not just about the Land in an agricultural sense, it’s the Land in terms of the entire society. Rules are set out for returning property to owners, regardless of whether it’s land or houses. Follow the rules, and society will function not just smoothly, but with justice.
Who knows if the Jubilee year ever actually played as described in this parasha. But to me, the important part of the parasha is what comes after the description of the Jubilee year. The text tells of redeeming the land, or the house; what to do if someone is in bad straits and needs help redeeming his land or house. The community comes to his aid. And the text continues: “If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority [as in becoming an indentured servant], and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side; do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman.” (Lev 25:35-36)
If your kinsman is in straits. If your neighbor is in need. The holiness of the Land is intact only so far as the holiness in your relationships with your neighbors. You don’t treat someone who is in need any differently than anyone else. You don’t ship them off to a poorhouse, but you let them live among you. You don’t take advantage of someone in need through extortion. Why? “Because I am Adonai who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Lev 25:38)
This way of living is the antithesis of what happened in Egypt. People aren’t property, people have dignity, people have honor, people have value.
That’s what makes the Land holy. Holiness comes from how we treat each other. Holiness is what we do, and how we do it.