This week's Torah portion, Behar, is suffused with redemption. The portion legislates how land, houses, monies, and selves can be divested and then reclaimed. Almost nothing can be lost permanently, since every 50th year society reverts to ground zero. All fields return to their original owners, all debts are forgiven, and all Israelite slaves are freed. Society is given the chance to regroup, recharge, and begin again.
The parsha (portion) begins by first detailing the laws of the shemittah (sabbatical year). Every seven years, the land must be given a rest. Nothing may be planted or harvested during the shemittah year, and instead the fields are left open so that owners, slaves, hired workers, strangers, and animals can gather and graze at will (Leviticus 25:4-7). After seven cycles of seven years, the shofar is blown on Yom Kippur, and the Jubilee year is proclaimed (Leviticus 25:10). In the Jubilee year, as in the shemittah year, all working of the land is prohibited. Yet the social impact of the Jubilee is far more radical. Each person returns to his or her own estate at the Jubilee, and so land is never sold permanently. The Torah warns that the Jubilee must be factored into the selling price of the land, so that both buyer and seller are aware that it is but a temporary transfer of ownership (Leviticus 25: 14-17). In addition, those who sell their fields maintain the right to buy back their property before the Jubilee, and if the original owner cannot afford to redeem the land, other family members are required to provide assistance. If all else fails, the land returns at the Jubilee.
If an Israelite man--Israelite girls cannot be slaves once they reach puberty--becomes impoverished and is sold as a slave, he is freed at the Jubilee. Should he become enslaved to non-Israelites, it is the duty of his relatives to redeem him, and if that fails, he too is redeemed at the Jubilee (Leviticus 25: 47-54). (Ibn Ezra explains that the man has become enslaved in one of two ways--either he has sold himself or he has stolen an item and has not been able to repay it, so the court has sold him.)
The basic impermanence of human transactions is the theme that undercuts all these laws. Since all land and people belong to God, all transactions must be tempered with the knowledge that we are but stewards of our possessions and ourselves. Behar emphasizes this theme in three key verses. The first appears at the end of the section explaining the rules of shemittah and Jubilee: "And the land shall not be sold permanently because the land is Mine and you are sojourners and dwellers in respect to me" (Leviticus 25:23). The Torah explains that the land laws are not just rules regulating use, but are in fact intended to promote a particular worldview. We are to see ourselves as lessees in God's world, not as authoritative owners. It is not just that we cannot dispose of land at will, but we must approach the land as respectful caretakers fully aware that the earth that we dwell on is not our own.
The second central verse interrupts the section dealing with the Israelite who becomes impoverished and is sold as a slave. The Torah warns the master that the Israelite is not to be treated as a slave, but rather as a hired worker, and that at the Jubilee the Israelite returns to his family and his familial land. In explaining the motivation behind these laws, the Torah declares, "For they are my slaves whom I took out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves are sold" (Leviticus 25:42). I find this verse fascinating because it is not at all as I would have anticipated. I would have thought that the Israelites cannot be sold as slaves because having been liberated by God from Egypt, they are essentially free. Instead, we are told that they cannot be treated as slaves because they are God's slaves. As the famous medieval French commentator Rashi explains, God has a previous deed of ownership that cannot be superseded.
This verse gives us a deep insight into the Torah's understanding of our relationship with God. Our ultimate freedom comes from being slaves of God--not "free" in the usual sense of the word, meaning independent or autonomous.
The third thematic verse echoes the second: "Because the children of Israel are slaves of Mine, they are My slaves whom I took out of the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 25:55). Behar, with its legislation of redemption, grounds us in the idea that we do not ultimately own ourselves and that we are responsible to God for how we treat ourselves and others and the environment in which we live. Redemption does not, therefore, free us to live in any fashion we desire, but rather imbues us with the grave responsibilities that come from being tied to God.