This week’s portion focuses mostly on the Yovel, or Jubilee (50th) year, during which, according to Leviticus 25:10, property that had passed out of familial ownership would be restored.
The larger question of the relationship of God and of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is implicit but obscure in the description in Leviticus 25. Verse 23 invites us into this complicated conversation (the following annotated translation follows, variously, the classical Hertz Humash, Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses, and Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus in the Anchor Bible series): “And the land shall not be sold — ‘irreversibly’ (Alter), ‘in perpetuity’ (Hertz), ‘beyond reclaim’ (Milgrom) — for the land is Mine (i.e., belongs to God), and you are — ‘resident aliens’ (Hertz), ‘sojourning settlers’ (Alter), ‘under my authority’ (Milgrom) — with Me.”
Contrary to the lyrics of the title song of the film Exodus — “This land is mine, God gave this land to me” — the Torah clearly states: This land is God’s, and God allows Israel to live on it contingent on the Israelites’ covenantal fidelity.
Implicit in this one problematic verse are a number of contested religious ideas: (1) If God is the creator of the entire world, then presumably all lands belong to God; what is the difference between all lands and the Land of Israel? (2) If the Land of Israel is the “promised land” of the Israelites, how can they be described as resident aliens or sojourning settlers, suggesting transience rather than permanence? (3) Is the Land of Israel God’s land before Israel arrives and during the time Israel is in exile from the land? (4) Is the Land of Israel Israel’s land before it arrives from Egypt under Moses and does it remain Israel’s land when Israel is exiled?
That these questions arise in the context of descriptions of the Jubilee year surely is not coincidental. While we have no archaeological or academic documentation that the land restoration process described in Leviticus occurred, one can imagine the social upheaval that might have resulted with people trying to reclaim property on the premise of prior ownership going back 50 years.
Amid all the imaginary social and economic engineering of the Jubilee year we find a verse that seems to convey the key point that whatever relationship people claim to have to a/the/their land, it is never absolute but always implicitly contingent. One might argue that the contingency is conditional on moral and ritual purity and propriety (as did the biblical writers who lived through the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BCE), but the Levitical message seems to be one of perspective: Don’t get so close in to the land that you lose the wider perspective that residence thereon is a privilege, not a right.
Yes, boundaries are real and property has ownership; but pull back far enough and you will see that ultimately we are, each of us, transient resident aliens in a world whose permanence belongs only to God.