What Is Mine? Finding Humbleness, Not Entitlement, in Shmita

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October 2, 2014

The Moroccan-born 18th-century biblical commentator Or HaHayim (Hayim ben Attar) insightfully observed that the reality of war in the world causes fear and pain, even to those who do not reside in the war zone but who live lives of material comfort and safety.

This insight mirrors my experience and emotional state as we begin 5775: While deeply grateful for the abundance of blessings in my life, I don’t feel at peace given current events and the suffering that persists in our world.

And so I’ve kept Or HaHayim’s words in mind, with the hope that we may all be able to approach this season next year with a greater sense of security, calm and blessing in our own lives and throughout the world.

Seven years ago, I was in Israel for the start of the new year. It was 2007, a moment of relative political and military calm, and the most heated public debate I remember from that trip was around whether local rabbinical councils should be given greater autonomy over how to implement the laws of the impending shmita (sabbatical) year in their jurisdictions.

Seven years ago, the debates over shmita were ritualistic, personal, spiritual. Spending time in Israel during those weeks sparked my interest in exploring the spiritual values underpinning the practice of a sabbatical year.

Seven years later, as the start of the next shmita year follows on the heels of a tragic and war-torn summer, shmita is taking on new resonance for me. This year, I’m wondering how the spiritual and ecological wisdom of this practice extends in some way into the political realm.

I’ve thought, taught and written a lot about shmita. Until now, though, I had never explored one brief phrase that appears in Vayikra 25, the biblical passage that spells out the parameters for the sabbatical year, and the larger 50-year cycle that culminates in the yovel,the Jubilee year. It has been this particular phrase that has kept coming to mind: Ki li ha’aretz, for the land is mine.

In explaining the rationale behind the demand that all land must revert back to its original holders in the yovel year, the Torah states that “the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine (ki li ha’aretz). For you are strangers and settlers with Me (imadi).

In other words, while I may have bought, traded, or otherwise acquired a piece of land at some point in the 50-year cycle, I should never believe that holding a title or deed signals my enduring entitlement to a given piece of property. Rather, yovel — and its seven sequential seven-year cycles — reflects the notion that we are embraced by God as geirim and toshavim, strangers and settlers. It demands that we acknowledge the true divine ownership of the land. Through the practices of shmita and yovel, we come to humbly accept that our ability to live in the land is a gift from God.

The phrase ki li ha’aretz appears in only one other place in the Torah, just before Bnai Yisrael encamp at Sinai and prepare for their encounter with the divine. At this moment (Shmot 19:4-6), God says to Moshe:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings, and brought you to me. Now, if you will listen closely to my voice, and keep My covenant, then you will be My treasure from among all peoples, for the entire earth is mine (ki li kol ha’aretz); and you will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Children of Israel.

Wait. This phrase, ki li mol ha’aretz, feels seemingly out of place in these verses. What does God’s ultimate ownership of the land have to do with the covenant and the relationship between the people and the divine? For me, the key to understanding this phrase is how they are linked. The entire land is God’s, and the people shall become a holy nation. The ultimate religious aspiration of the Jewish people — to embody and live out an identity of holiness, as individuals and as a collective — is entirely bound up with the humble recognition that what we believe is ours is not ours at all.

For decades, the rhetoric and narratives surrounding the ongoing conflicts in the land of Israel have been tinged with the language of entitlement, with claims of ownership, with insistence that the land is “ours.”

The Torah tells us otherwise. The land, in fact, is not ours. The land, in fact, is God’s. Ki li ha’aretz.

Ki li ha’aretz does not demand or assume a particular political view in the contemporary Israeli landscape. I am not suggesting that through this phrase the Torah instructs us in how to draw the borders for a two-state solution, how to relate to Palestinians, when to go ahead with military action. I am suggesting that to use the language of human ownership is to speak from a posture that is antithetical to what it means to be in relationship with God through the land of Israel.

This phrase reminds us, instead, that no matter what our political beliefs, we are to engage in debate and express our position with a humble acknowledgement of the land’s true owner.

When we internalize this relationship to the earth, when we see ourselves as stewards and not proprietors of God’s world, we achieve the greatest level of holiness that God imagines for us. And as the laws of shmita and yovel teach, by approaching our relationship to the land in this way, we become able to dwell in the land with God (imadi).

May this coming year of shmita bring us closer to an enduring rest and a lasting peace, for the land, for our souls, for the Jewish people, and for all humankind.

Shuli Passow is a Jewish educator and communal professional. She has taught widely in youth and adult education settings, and is passionate about exploring issues of justice, compassion, environmentalism and economics through Jewish text. Shuli is currently pursuing rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary and serves as a rabbinic fellow at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University. Before that, she served as the director of community initiatives at Jewish Funds for Justice, where she worked with synagogues across the country to support their involvement in congregation-based community organizing. When not studying 18th-century biblical commentary, Shuli can be found standing on her head or in any number of other yoga poses.

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