Laws that teach faith and hope in the future


This week’s Torah portion is Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2.

This week, we will read a relatively short Torah portion. Most years, it is combined with the one that follows, concluding the book of Leviticus. Since this is a leap year, giving us an extra month of Shabbatot, we read the portions over two weeks.

The thrust of the portion is about the Israelites’ stewardship of the land. It contains two distinct but related laws:

The Sabbatical year — shmitah — in which the land was to lie fallow one year in every seven.
The Jubilee year — yovel — which occurred every 50 years. During this year, properties which had been sold were to return to their original owners, or to their families.

The underlying concept of both these institutions was that the Holy Land, which the Israelites would soon enter, belongs to God and that the so-called owners were merely tenants. It was their responsibility to care for the land through a rudimentary system of crop rotation.

Observing the shmitah and the yovel were acts of faith. Allowing the land to lie fallow meant that the people would subsist on what had been harvested in the previous year. This would be easy if the sixth year had yielded a bumper crop. But if the previous harvest had been merely adequate, relying on it would require a significant faith that there would be enough over a two-year span.

The haftarah for this week demonstrates how observing the yovel was also an act of faith. The passage tells a story about the prophet Jeremiah, who lived at one of the most trying times in biblical history (around 586 BCE). The kingdom of Judea was under attack by Babylonia. The entire city of Jerusalem was threatened with destruction.

Jeremiah had predicted that this would happen. In the midst of this trying time, Jeremiah received a message that a piece of property in his family’s ancestral home was for sale. With destruction and exile imminent, Jeremiah would have been justified in thinking that purchasing this land would be foolish. Instead, however, he purchased the land to keep it in the family.

This purchase of the land, so near to the yovel, was an act of faith. Jeremiah demonstrated his belief that after the predicted destruction and exile, there would be a return and a renewal. This demonstrated a profound faith in God, and in the future of the Jewish people. And 70 years later, the people were allowed to return to the land and restore Jerusalem.

Although the yovel hasn’t been observed for 2,000 years, the concept carries a significant message for today. After the Holocaust, European Jews could have given up all hope of a future. And yet, those who survived found hope and life; survivors readily married and had children, and made plans to move to places where they could rebuild their lives.

Similarly, with the birth of the State of Israel, Jews asserted that they had faith in the future. Even though they had been abandoned by most of the world during the Holocaust, the founders of Israel acted on their belief that they would create an enduring homeland.

When we face times of trial and crisis, we should remember the example of Jeremiah during the yovel.

Even in the midst of troubles, there is reason to hope. God will be with us, and we will persevere to see a better day.

Rabbi James Michaels is the director of clinical pastoral education at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities.

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