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Behar: Land, Giving and Belonging

The issue of our relationship to possessions is at the heart of most world's great spiritual traditions. And for good reason.

Being and Having

A large part of the human game we play throughout our lives, more or less seriously and more or less consciously, revolves around the question of Having:

what we have and what we don't , what we had and what we will , what we could lose and what we have lost—and especially, too often, what the neighbor has, what they took from us or what we can take from them.

The spiritual question then would be: where is God in this zero-sum game? Parashat Behar comes as a corrective to Human greed. But it offers much more.

Sliding Scale Shabbatot

The first instructions Moses receives at Mount Sinai at the opening of the parasha concern a strange fact:

"When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a Sabbath for the Lord" (Leviticus 25:2).

כִּ֤י תָבֹ֨אוּ֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֖י נֹתֵ֣ן לָכֶ֑ם וְשָֽׁבְתָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַֽיהֹוָֽה:

This is the commandment of shmita, the year of rest for the land, to which we are invited every seven years. The text then proceeds with describing by the yovel, the jubilee, which every 50 years enjoins us to liberate all properties—fields and buildings, debts and slaves.

On this day of Lag B'Omer (the 33rd day of the Omer), as we are in the heart of the seven-week bridge between Passover and Shavuot, we are reminded of another count of seven.

At heart, the goal is the same:

Letting go of our grasp on the material world, remembering our true place in the world, reconnecting with the divine.

This is the Art of Shabbat, which Shmita and Yovel are other instances of: an invitation to literally "cease" acting on the world to better reconnect with the Oneness behind the surface appearance of this world of divisions.

To Cease is to be free

During Shmita, as we cease to work the earth, something else happens:

By laying down the plow, we lift our hands off, in a gesture that signifies that we relinquish what we believed to be our "property," allowing returning nature to its true source: the Source of Life.

But there is another meaning to it.

The act of relinquishing our properties is not just one of humility, of abdicating the idea of our power over things, or of recognizing something greater than ourselves.

More profoundly, it is a liberation.

The theme of liberation through "letting go," literally, of what we possess, is central to most of the world's wisdom traditions.

According to Buddhist philosophy, the key to peace of mind is to possess nothing. Not owning anything would free ourselves from attachment (Dukkha), the source of human suffering according to the doctrine of Siddhartha Gautama. The same approach explains the ethos of renunciant sadhus in India, or the Christian monastics.

But from a Jewish perspective, the invitation is different.

To Return is to Give

For the Hasidic master Mei haShiloah’, the instruction of shmita illustrates the luminous teaching from Pirkei Avot (5:10)—the Ethics of the Fathers, which we read every year between Passover and Shavuot:

"What's mine is yours."

שלי שלך

When we stop working the land during Shmita year, for the Mei Ha Shiloa'h, we give back what we otherwise look at as ours.

Letting the land rest from us, we remind ourselves that what we possess, really, is not truly ours.

Not that, on a surface level, we don't possess. And not that it doesn't have its intrinsic value.

Unlike world traditions centered on various forms of renunciation, the Torah does not invite to relinquish of worldly goods.

"Humans," he reminds us, "have the right to acquire land, from which they can bring forth all the goodness in the world for themselves."

שיש לאדם קנין בארץ שיוכל להוציא לו ממנה כל הטובות שבעולם,

Enjoyment, and personal interest, are part of the picture.

And then, to explain the release of the Land in the seventh year, the Mei HaShiloach seems to hint to a beautiful interpretation, just by his choice of words:

ובשביעית יתן הארץ להש"י

"And on the Seventh year, one gives the land to Blessed Hashem." He doesn't write "return", but "to give".

We can only give what we possess.

This implies that we humans are given true agency on this planet. We are given the power to acquire, the power to enjoy, and, ultimately, the power to give.

And through giving what is, on a certain level, truly ours, the giving makes more sense. It becomes an opportunity to free ourselves from the illusion that we truly own what property titles say . It is an invitation to see owning in a different light: yes on a surface level it is mine. I acquired it. I worked it. I enjoyed it. But deep inside, it was never mine. It is all just a game. Perhaps then I can enjoy what I "have" without worrying so much.

Giving is Freeing

The Jewish art of non-attachment does not involve renunciation.

It means enjoying the world without taking it as our own.

Owning stuff it is an invitation for joy and human creativity, for generosity and gratitude.

All that matters is to remember that deep down, nothing is really ours. All belongs to the Source of Life, just as we do. This is why in the year of Yovel, the Mei haShiloach adds, all will return to where they belong.

Returning to where we belong- Torah in a post-October 7 world

By "giving" our land back to the Source during Shmita , perhaps more than anything else, it is ourselves who we free.

We free ourselves from the illusions that anything- and especially, any Land, truly belongs to us. This may be an invitation to rethink Zionism in a new light: who belongs to whom?

Since October 7, anti-Zionism, the new face of anti-Semitism since the turn to the twenty-first century, seems to have become a norm in the Global Public Opinion. Just last week, as Israel is fighting Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Iran and the Houthis between Gaza, the Lebanese border, Syria, Yemen, and Iran to protect its very existence, three European States have just decided to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state. That this had been proposed, and refused, multiple times, in the multiple attempts made to recognize everyone's right to their existence on a shared land, doesn't seem to be part of this conversation.

In the name of the defense of Indigenous People's Right of Return, deny one of them, the people of Israel, any claim to its own ancestral land.

But the Jewish relationship to its Land, encapsulated at the heart of the Israeli national anthem, says something different:

The call to a return to the "land, Zion" (Eretz Tsion) is a call for us to return to ourselves .

The land does not belong to us.

We belong to it.

What would the world look like if everyone stopped denying others' belonging? What would happened if we all claimed our belonging not as a due, but as a gift—a gift of oneself?

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