Behar 5771 — The earth is the Lord’s

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Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruit; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest to the land, a sabbath for the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard.  …Leviticus 25:3-4

And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it; it shall be a jubilee to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family.   …Leviticus 25:10

The earth is the Lord’’s, and all that fills it; the world, and those who dwell in it.   …Psalm 24:1

Why does God order us to allow our fields to lie fallow every 7th year?

There are those who say it’s because allowing fields to lie fallow one in seven years is better for the crops.  Salt accumulates in the soil otherwise, nitrogen and other important ingredients can be depleted, the land needs to rest.  And crop rotation is indeed an important part of modern agriculture.

But if it was about agriculture, we would not need to let our fields all lie fallow at once.  Every farmer could just leave 1/7 of his land fallow every year, and it would have the same beneficial effects on the crops, without the enormously disruptive effect of stopping all agriculture in the country for an entire year.

If it’s not about helping the crops, what is the Shmita (Sabbatical) year about?  There are several possibilities.  It could be about faith in God.  A test in a way: will we have sufficient faith that God will see us through a year without working the land?

But if you consider other rules of the Shmita year, such as the forgiveness of debts, and the other major innovation in this week’s Torah reading, the Yovel, or Jubilee year, when land goes back to its original ancestral owners, I think the main point is something else.  The main point is to show that God is the ultimate owner of everything.

We like to think we “own” things, but the truth is God is the ultimate owner, He only lets us borrow things.  In our daily prayers, we call God koneh hakol, the Creator of everything.  Yet in modern Hebrew, koneh means “buyer,” or you could say “owner.” God is the owner of everything: as it says in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’’s, and all that fills it.”  You think your land is yours?  God says no, once every seven years you are going to let it rest.  Once every 50 years you are going to return ownership of the land to the person who has inherited it from his ancestors.

Not only that, you think your money is yours?  Once every seven years you have to forgive debts.

God is asserting His true ownership rights.  It’s similar to how in American law if you own a piece of land that people walk through all the time as a shortcut, at least once a year you need to close it to the public to demonstrate that you own it and people can take the shortcut only because you are allowing them to do so.  If you never assert your ownership you can be deemed to have given an easement to the public, and lose the ownership rights to the land used by the public.

The idea that “God owns everything” shows up in other places in our tradition as well.  For example, it is well known that Judaism forbids tattoos.  Why?  God owns even our bodies, and we are not allowed to deface God’s property.

This week I had a very harsh reminder that God owns even our bodies: a dear colleague, Lisa Latchaw, z”l, a 46 year old mother of two young children, passed away after a brief illness.  Her family is devastated, and we, her colleagues, are still in shock.  We like to think we own at least our bodies, but our mortality shows that God truly is the owner of all.

While God is the owner of all, I have trouble with the concept of hashgacha pratit, “Divine Providence,” the concept that God directly controls every detail of what happens in the world.  I simply can’t believe God ordered the Holocaust — I have to believe with all my heart that such horrors are the result of people abusing the greatest gift God gave them, free will — and I can’t believe that God orders sickness and illness as punishment for misbehavior, or for some “mysterious” reasons we don’t comprehend.  Instead I believe what Rambam, Maimonides, says about the way the world works in such matters.  Rambam said God created the world in such a way, with a certain amount of randomness built into the nature of the world, and some people will get sick, some will die prematurely, and it does not mean God was mad at that person.

But ultimately, God is the owner of all and decides who will live, who will die, who will receive a miraculous recovery and who will not.  God’s ownership over our bodies is demonstrated in a very moving story from nearly 2,000 years ago about Rabbi Meir and his wife Beruriah: 

Rabbi Meir sat learning Torah on a Shabbat afternoon in the House of Study. While he was there, his two sons died. What did their mother, Beruria do? She laid them upon the bed and spread a linen cloth over them. At the end of Shabbat, Rabbi Meir came home and asked her, ‘Where are my sons?” She replied, ‘They went to the House of Study.” He said, “I did not see them there.” She gave him the havdalah cup and he said the blessing for havdalah. Then he asked again, ‘Where are my sons?” She said, ‘They went to another place and they are coming.” Then she gave him food to eat, and he ate and said the blessing. Then she said, “I have a question to ask you.” He said, “Ask it.” She said, “Early today a man came here and gave me something to keep for him, but now he has returned to ask for it back. Shall we return it to him or not?” He replied, “He who has received something on deposit must surely return it to its owner.” She replied, “Without your knowledge, I would not return it.”

Then she took him by the hand, brought him to the bed, and took away the cloth and he saw his sons lying dead upon the bed. Then he began to weep and said about each, “Oh my son, my son; oh my teacher, my teacher. They were my sons, as all would say, but they were my teachers because they gave light to their father’s face through their knowledge of the Torah.” Then his wife said to him, “Did you not say to me that one must return a deposit to its owner? Does it not say, “The Lord gave, the Lord took, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21 )?

The last verse Beruriah quoted her husband, ” “The Lord gave, the Lord took, blessed be the name of the Lord” is a verse we recite at funerals, and it was recited yesterday at Lisa’s funeral.  May Lisa’s family be comforted and appreciate what God gave them during the years Lisa was among the living.  May her memory be a blessing.

Reb Barry

PS: See “Today I am Boycotting God” by my colleague Devora Mason for more about Lisa.

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