Divrei Torah

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May 20, 2022 - Parashat Behar 5782

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Behar
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

This week in Parashat Behar we learn about the laws of Shemitta, the sabbatical year. For six years we work the land and then in the seventh year the land is granted a Shabbat, a rest. Just as we are entitled to a rest on the seventh day of our week, so too the land deserves a period of rest to reset. But what exactly is our relationship to the land and our responsibility for allowing it to rest?

In Genesis God blesses the first humans with the imperative to conquer (וְכִבְשֻׁהָ) the earth and to subdue (רְדוּ) its creatures (Gen. 1:28). Yet, we are also told that humanity is brought to the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it (Gen. 2:15). There is a dual directive to conquer and to protect, to become masters of the land but also to preserve it. In this week’s parasha we learn more about our relationship to the land. God tells the people that “the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25:23). Ultimately the land belongs to God and we are but strangers residing upon it – גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים. This combination of the term גר, which implies a stranger or foreigner living in a particular context, and תושב, which connotes the more settled person living in a place, appears several times throughout the parasha (Lev. 25:625:3525:4525:47), encouraging us to pay attention to what it can teach us.

This combination of words already appears back in the Book of Genesis when Abraham goes to the people of the land to purchase a burial site for Sarah – “I am a resident alien (גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב) among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial” (Gen. 23:4).

The Midrash unpacks the meaning of this phrase as it appears in Genesis:

“’A stranger and a resident’ – a stranger that lives there, a resident that is the master of this house. If you want, I am a stranger, if not, I am a master of this house, since the Holy One of Blessing said to me “this land I will give to your seed” (Genesis 15:18)” (Bereisheet Rabbah 58).

The Midrash highlights the dual dimensions of Abraham’s relationship to the land and its people – he is both a stranger, the one who does not have ownership or rights, and the master, the owner who has control. The Etz Yosef commentary elaborates: “stranger – that is to say, he sojourns there but does not have a possession in [the land]; resident – is the one who has a possession; and this is like two sides of a single subject.”

Our ancestor Abraham had a dual relationship to the land, as both master and guest. The usage of the expression גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב in the context of Abraham mirrors the relationship that emerges from our parasha: The land belongs to God (“the land is Mine”) and we are but strangers, but we also are free to work the land for six out of seven years. We have a directive to be the masters of the land and conquer it, but also to guard it and allow it the freedom to rest as we augment our dependency upon it (Lev. 25:20-21).

As I look at my local weather forecast for this weekend and see the jump from 50 degrees Fahrenheit earlier this week to nearly 100 degrees over the weekend, I can’t help but think that we are failing at our task to guard the earth and allow it to rest. While humanity has certainly excelled at conquering the land and subduing it, we have a long way to go when it comes recognizing that we are the strangers in a world that does not wholly belong to us. And hopefully we can recognize this and take action before it is too late.
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Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation.