Many people believe that Jews have a right to the land of Israel. Much ink and blood have been spilled on this claim. So it might surprise us to learn that our last two Torah readings teach the opposite: the tighter we hold onto ownership of the Land the more we risk losing it entirely.
The core of last week’s Torah reading is the commandment of “shemita”, leaving the land alone every seventh year. Many observant Jews don’t eat fruit grown in Israel in the seventh year and many people think this custom is ecological, related to letting the land lie fallow.
But “shemita” is neither of these things. The word is derived from a Hebrew verb meaning “to let loose” and Rashi, the medieval scholar, commenting on Leviticus 25:6, makes clear that the essence of the seventh year lies far away from “not eating”. It is about “not owning”. We may eat as much seventh-year produce as we like if we enter the fields and pick it ourselves. So may our servants, our guests and our beggars, Jewish or not. But we are forbidden to exercise rights of ownership. We may neither trade nor sell seventh-year food; we’re forbidden to harvest it for the warehouse – unless we open the warehouse to the public – and we’re forbidden to improve the land.
In fact, according to a minority view attributed to the school of Shammai, who taught 2,000 years ago, we can’t even acknowledge the ownership rights of a farmer by asking permission to enter his property. If we wish to eat we must go onto his land and pick our food without permission (Mishna Shevi’it 4:2 and Sifra Behar 9) and there’s a comic story in the Jerusalem Talmud about Rabbi Tarfon, a sage of the first century famous for following the school of Shammai, who is beaten up by a night-watchman while eating figs without permission in the seventh year.
Not owning the Land, just once in seven years, may seem a mad idea in itself. But even more extraordinary is the idea, brought in last week’s and this week’s Torah readings of BeHar and BeHukkotai, that if we fail to keep this command, if we fail to “let loose” our ownership of the Land temporarily in the seventh year, then we’re destined to lose it permanently and to go into exile.
How is this connection made? The commandment of the seventh year, towards the end of the book of Leviticus, is closely-followed by a dramatic, poetic conclusion that promises the Jewish people peace and security as long as they keep the Torah’s commandments, and dispersion into exile if they fail.
Rather than associating these promises with the commandments of the Torah in general, the rabbis have connected them particularly to the commandment of the seventh year. Rashi, writing a thousand years ago, comments on Leviticus 25:18 that “Israel was exiled for the sin of not keeping ‘shemita’”. His words echo the Mishnah in Avot (5:12), written just after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, that declares, “Exile comes about because of idolatry, promiscuity, bloodshed and ‘shemita’”. Both of these comments are based on a verse in BeHukkotai (Leviticus 26:35) that links “shemita” to exile.
Read in this way, the rabbinic tradition is paradoxical: it suggests that holding the Land too tightly – failing to renounce ownership in the seventh year – can lead to its permanent loss.
Is this process concrete, deterministic? Might the rabbis be suggesting that keeping the commandment of the seventh year could have stopped the Roman soldiers in their tracks? I don’t believe so; traditional rabbinic thinking is more subtle.
But the rabbis are making a concrete claim, intimately connected to the destruction by the Romans and absolutely rooted in the Biblical tradition. They’re reminding us that no-one has absolute ownership of the Land. That the Land is given conditionally and temporarily, to those who merit it by their actions. And they’re reminding us that those who dwell in the Land do so as guests or tenants, not as owners.
Security and ownership are different: more ownership does not necessarily give us more security. It may even give us less. This lesson is as important today as it was when the Jewish people first entered the Land.