As we prepare to close the Book of Leviticus, the Torah’s pinnacle, we are left with a message of responsibility, consequences, and possibilities. God presents us with the benefits of making wise choices and the consequences of choosing poorly. Then the Torah provides for the funding of the sanctuary and its staff: our participation with monetary support, pledges of animals or homes. But when it pivots to pledges of land, the Torah shifts gears entirely. Land, you see, is ours to borrow and to use. But humans presume they can own land. In reality, the land makes its claim on us, and we can either open ourselves to its ground rules, or we risk a rootlessness that leaves us clinging when the next sandstorm swirls.
We are, as the book reminds us, “resident strangers (Leviticus 25:23)” on earth. The Land precedes us and the land will bury us when we no longer need our bodies. We are dust, and we return to dust (Genesis 3:19). On some deeper level of reality, it is all just dust, earth, soil.
Judaism directs our attention to the centrality of earth through the regular rhythms of Shabbat (seven days) Shmita (seven years), and Jubilee (seven Shmita cycles). In this last parasha of Leviticus, we are told that when we think we are selling the land, we are actually letting someone else live on it or use it for a finite duration of time. At the next Jubilee year, the land reverts to its designated, original family of caretakers. Land is inalienable, and we are meant to be too.
If one consecrates their land after the jubilee, the priest shall compute the price according to the years that are left until the jubilee year, and its assessment shall be so reduced. And if one who consecrated the land wishes to redeem it, they must add one-fifth to the sum at which it was assessed, and it shall pass back to them. But if they do not redeem the land, and the land is sold to another, it shall no longer be redeemable. When it is released in the jubilee, the land shall be holy to the Lord, as land proscribed; it becomes the priest’s holding (Leviticus 27:18-21).
There is a holiness inherent in the land, a quality not subject to human dominion and not vaporized by human standards of utility. It is that holy something extra that means were are residents visiting the land, and its only really owner is God, who is also holy, meaning beyond human measures of usefulness or control.
Jubilee comes every 50 years to remind us that the worth of creation is beyond our evaluation and does not emerge from ways we find it beneficial. “Proclaim release to all the inhabitants of the land (Leviticus 25:11)” because it is in recognizing that worth and value spill beyond the constraints of practical utility or human benefit that we, too, are released. Our worth and value spill beyond how we can be used too.
Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn and Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Vice President of American Jewish University. He is also Dean of the Zachariah Frankel College at University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti rabbis for Europe.