This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Behar, describes the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the latter of which was an economic “rebooting” every 50th year when slaves and prisoners were set free, debts were forgiven and all land was returned to its original owners. While there is much to say about the radical economic philosophy embedded in the laws of the Jubilee year, I’d like to focus attention on one verse in particular:
But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. (Leviticus 25:23)
Earlier, God describes the land given to the Israelites as an “achuzzah” – or tenured land (see verse 13). As commentator Baruch Levine points out, “The Israelites are God’s tenants, so to speak. They do not possess or rule the land as a result of conquest, and they do not have the right to dispose of it as if it were entirely their own.” (“The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus,” p. 172.)
It is also notable that the Israelites are referred to as gerim (translated here as “strangers”), a legal term that denotes a resident non-citizen. It is the same term used in the well-known and oft-repeated commandment “Do not oppress the stranger, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In those cases, the commandment was presented to the Israelites as they prepare to assume a position of power in the land. But in the context of the Jubilee year, the Torah is very clearly leveling the playing field – saying to the Israelite nation in a sense, “When it comes right down to it, you are all strangers here.”
While God’s statement, “all the land is Mine and you are but strangers resident with Me” certainly has powerful economic and environmental implications, it also has a great deal to teach us in the age of Zionism – an era in which an ethic of Jewish entitlement to a specific piece of land has run rampant. Indeed, while Zionists commonly claim “God gave this land to us,” the laws of the Jubilee suggest otherwise. The land does not “belong” to anyone but God, and we are at best tenants upon it.
In the end, although many Zionists treat the Torah as the Jews “deed of sale” to the land of Israel, it might be more accurate to describe it as a “lease with very explicit conditions.” Later, in Deuteronomy, this conditional language reaches its apex. As the Israelites prepare to enter the land of Israel, Moses reminds them that they could be exiled from the land in an instant if they do not remain faithful to God’s covenant (see for instance, Deuteronomy 28).
This much seems clear: we will not be worthy of the land if we betray our own religious teachings and cling to misguided, exclusivist claims. As the Torah teaches us: those who insist that the land “belongs” to them and them alone will only endanger the collective future of all who live upon it.