Behar-Bechukotai: Strangers Upon the Land

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar-Bechukotai

“But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me”    (Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:23)

What a gorgeous morning in the Hudson Valley!

It’s the kind of day which evokes a sense of glorious gratitude for the beauty of the earth and all its flora and fauna (maybe ticks not so much). Lucky for us, this feeling, of being privileged to live upon the land, is addressed in this first of this week’s double Torah portions. The portion Behar first teaches the laws of the Sabbatical [shmitta] and Jubilee [yovel] years; the former is a seven year cycle of debt forgiveness and letting the land rest, and the latter is a 50 year cycle of returning land to its ancestral owners and letting servants go free.

The verse above is a theological foundation for these practices: we are tenants rather than owners of the earth. The phrase translated as “strangers resident with Me” is perhaps even more subtle than that: ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi literally means “you are resident aliens and temporary residents with Me.” A ger in Biblical Hebrew is a non-citizen, a non-Israelite, living among the citizens of the land (the contemporary meaning is a convert to Judaism, more on that another time), whereas a toshav can be understood as a temporary settler, somebody passing through, not living somewhere permanently.

This is quite striking: even in the land of Israel the people are to understand themselves as passers-through, not owners but graced with the privilege of temporary residence on the earth. On the one hand, this is all about feeling intense gratitude for the earth and its glory, and on the other, it’s about the humility of knowing that we depend on the land and its blessings, and feel mastery only at our own peril. This has profound implications for environmental ethics but also for personal spirituality, because in a sense we don’t really own anything, just borrow it for a bit. The sense of attachment, of mastery or command over the material world is an illusion: we are ultimately attached to nothing except the Source of our being, as we are ultimately “residents with Me.”

Read this way, the verse teaches us to think of ourselves as rooted in relationships: with God, with the earth, with each other, with ourselves- rather than rooted in the experience of possession of material things. Relationships are truly within our power to create and make part of ourselves; material objects, even the land beneath our feet, is “ours” only the sense of being entrusted to us for a particular time and use before going on to somebody or something else. To put it another way: go to a cemetery, and read the headstones. The inscriptions often name relationships, like father, mother, brother, sister, son, friend, and so on. Sometimes the inscriptions name a role somebody played in society: doctor, soldier, rabbi, teacher, musician, whatever people do to serve and provide.

I’ve never seen a gravestone mention anything about property, cars or clothes, because in the face of death, people know that these things are impermanent and unimportant. Relationships are real and ongoing, in life and after death. Thus we do well to remember that we are all but strangers and passers-through upon the land, ultimately resident with the Source of our blessings, owning nothing but our love and care, given and received from the earth, the heavens and each other.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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