The Torah portion of Behar opens with the fundamental laws of Shmitah, the seventh year of rest for the land of Israel, paralleling the Sabbath day of rest for every Jew. During these days, when the issue of land is the ultimate question on everyone’s mind we have to remind ourselves that, despite almost two thousand years of exile, the Jews never stopped dreaming of their return to the Land of Israel. Was it something miraculous and mystical that sustained this relationship of a people to land for so long? Wherein lies the origin of this unique relationship?
Ordinarily, Jewish law divides along two lines: requirements between human beings and God, and requirements between human beings. But there is also a third realm: the requirements of a Jew toward his/her land. In fact, the very climax of the book of Leviticus emphasizes precisely this third realm, between the Jew and his land,
We must take note of a much earlier biblical incident at the very dawn of our history, when our first patriarch purchased a plot for his wife’s gravesite, paying an astonishingly high sum for a relatively tiny piece of land.
Abraham’s purchase of this property not only provides us with biblical evidence that our deed to Hebron reaches back to our earliest beginnings; it unites our history with a specific parcel of earth, a grave site for our first matriarch Sarah.
No sooner have we entered the land than the Torah instructs us concerning our obligation to that land: 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.” If we maintain our obligation to the land, the land will respond to us with abundant produce. If not, the land will grow desolate.
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 destruction of the holy Temple, 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 finished property.
May we be worthy of the land and may the land properly respond to our love and commitment to it in this generation of return and redemption.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.