This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Behar-Bechukotai, Leviticus 25:1–27:34.
What does it mean for a human to own something? More importantly, do we really own anything?
A theme of this week’s parsha is ownership of land. The sabbatical year (every seventh year) and the jubilee year (the 50th year) remind us that the land (specifically, in Torah, the land of Israel) does not belong to us but rather to God. Land that has been sold eventually must revert to its original owner:
“But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” [Leviticus 25:23].
This notion that we are “but strangers” with God, resident aliens or temporary tenants here on earth, is not simply a statement about land ownership. It is also a claim about what it means to live a human life. At the very least, it is a striking corrective to our sense of security about everything that we believe we own. The blessings that we recite throughout the day are acknowledgements that the bread, the wine or the fruit we consume are not ours, but rather God’s possessions which are on loan to us.
The idea that we are temporary residents and strangers on this earth yields a number of lessons. One is that we cannot truly possess anything or anyone. We will not be able to take any of the wealth or the materials possessions we own with us into the next world. There is no absolute ownership over anything or any person or group of people. Because the earth is the Lord’s, we do not even own our own bodies. Thus on Kol Nidre night the cantor sings, “The soul is Yours; the body is your handiwork.”
The Torah often teaches that we should be kind to the stranger, even love the stranger. We don’t often think of ourselves as strangers or temporary residents. Yet we all pass through this world. Our stay is temporary.
There are several spiritual lessons in thinking of ourselves as temporary residents. One lesson is to restrain our desire for material possessions. If we cannot take it with us, we should be intentional about what material things we need to own.
If we really cannot possess other things, then we should share more with the poor and the strangers among us. If material possessions have no lasting value, then helping the vulnerable certainly does. A second lesson is to identify values we would make sacrifices for. Ask yourself, is there anything you might risk your life for? Do you believe that your soul is more important than your body?
The verses in this week’s reading which stress that we really don’t own anything physical provide the basis for the primacy of the spiritual. They provide the basis for the spiritual teaching that there may be times in our life when we will risk our lives for fundamental value we believe in. They provide the basis for giving up some of what we possess to help those in need. We will do so because we know that we are ultimately temporary residents in this world.
Rabbi Charles Feinberg is the executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights.