‘When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God. For six years you shall plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the land…” [Lev. 25:1–5].
Behar opens with the laws of Shmitah, a Sabbatical for the Land of Israel, paralleling the weekly Sabbath for people.
Ordinarily, Jewish law divides along the requirements between humans and God, and between one person and another. But there’s a third realm: the requirements of a Jew toward the land. In fact, the very climax of Leviticus emphasizes precisely this third realm, “bein yehudi l’artzo,” between a Jew and the land, replete with laws of tithing, allowing the land to lie fallow during the Sabbatical year, and returning all property to its original owner in the Jubilee year.
But in order to grasp the full symbolism of a Jew’s relationship to the land, we must take note of an incident at the dawn of our history, when Abraham purchased a burial plot for Sarah, paying an astonishingly high sum for a tiny piece of property.
Abraham’s purchase is not only evidence that our deed to Hebron reaches back to our earliest beginnings; it unites our history with a specific gravesite for our matriarch Sarah, linking the founders of our faith-nation with the Land of Israel in an eternal bond, within God’s initial covenant with Abraham.
The Talmud derives a wedding’s kiddushin (with a ring or an object of material value) from Abraham’s purchase of Sarah’s burial plot [Kiddushin 2a]. The Talmud deduces the “taking” of marriage from the “taking” of the land. Thus, halacha creates a parallel between marriage, land and eternity, alluding to the eternal love and commitment to the Land of Israel paralleling the eternal relationship of love and commitment to our spouse.
In order to understand what it means to be “engaged or married” to the land, let’s first isolate three elements of marriage, and then trace these elements back to our portion of Behar. First, marriage contains the physical or sexual component, called “biah” (entrance), which expresses the exclusivity of the love relationship. Second, there are the monetary obligations the couple has to one another, specifically outlined in the Bible and the tractate Ketubot. Third, the Torah essentially sees marriage as eternal. Abraham’s obligations to Sarah continue even beyond her lifetime, and the prophet Hosea describes God’s engagement to Israel: “I shall consecrate you unto Me forever” [Hosea 2:21]. Although divorce is an allowable option, the rabbinic view at the conclusion of the tractate Gittin remains operative: “Even the altar of the Holy Temple weeps when a husband and wife are divorced” [Gittin 90b].
Undoubtedly, the ideal is the eternal relationship, and even when relationships collide, the birth of a child, and the eternal potential of that child continuing after the death of each spouse, asserts the true continuity of the marital relationship.
We find that these three elements relate to the Land of Israel as well. “When you come into the land,” utilizes the verb whose very root refers to sexual relations specific to husband and wife (biyah). And when we’re told to hallow the fiftieth year (Lev. 25:10), the Torah’s word is ‘kiddashtem’ — the rabbinic expression for marriage. The Torah parchment unfurled in Behar seems to weave a mystical marital canopy uniting the people of Israel with the Land of Israel.
Second, no sooner have we entered the land than the Torah instructs us concerning our obligations. For six years we are obligated to plant the fields, prune the vineyards, and harvest the crops, “but the seventh year is a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the land … you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards … since it is a year of rest for the land” [Lev. 25:4–5]. The land must lie fallow every seventh year when its produce belongs to the poor who eat freely from the crops. And, in an uncanny, human fashion, resembling the husband-wife relationship, the land responds to our actions, or our lack thereof. If we maintain our obligation to the land, the land will respond to us with abundant produce. If not, the land will grow desolate, enjoying “the Sabbatical rest that you would not give it when you lived there” [Lev. 26:35].
Third, just as there is an eternal aspect to marriage, there is an eternal aspect to the land. During the Jubilee, the Torah commands that land one may have been forced to sell returns to the original owners [Lev. 25:13]. This is called redemption of property (geulat karka). Land remains in the family for perpetuity, even when dire circumstances force a sale. The eternal link between the land and its owners is the issue addressed in the haftara of Behar when Jeremiah, the prophet of the Temple’s destruction, redeems his uncle Hananel’s land for him. Despite the destruction at hand, Jeremiah knows that eventually the Jews will return to the land. God’s promise of an eternal covenant is paralleled in the eternal rights of a family toward its property.
Throughout the world, people love the land in which they are born, a love so central that a homeland is often called a “motherland” or “fatherland.” These terms are absent in Hebrew; our relationship to the land is more akin to a husband or wife. May we be worthy of the land and may the land properly respond to our love and commitment in this generation of return and redemption.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone.
Shabbat Candles: 7:57 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 25:1-26:2
Haftarah: Jeremiah 32:6-27
Havdalah: 8:57 p.m.