In parshat Behar, the concept of shmitah (one year in 7 of letting the land lay fallow) and Yovel (return of property to original owners) is introduced. The broad theme is that both nature and things do not really belong to us but rather to God. This concept helps us to remember that our mission in life is not to acquire but to work in partnership with God to perfect our world. Although the economic structure that these laws envision may not be in force or practical today, the broader concept still retains meaning.
“Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord”. This may make agricultural sense, but the deeper lesson is that we are stewards of our land and not just using the land for ourselves. When we remember that, we receive the double blessing of the long-term benefit of letting the land refresh and giving our offspring a sustained natural world.
In regard to the “Yovel”, the Torah states: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” Our tradition understands that wealth and the pursuit of wealth is beneficial. However, by remembering that ultimately the wealth we acquire is a means and not an ends, we can impact our communities in big ways. The Torah uses strong language in saying we are “strangers resident”. It means that we are not permanent. It is a way to remind us of our mortality and that you cannot take it with you. Also, our heritage is that we were once landless slaves and we need to always keep faith with those who are poor. The “Yovel” reminds us of our relationship to God and this world.
Judaism is a practical religion. We are encouraged to be successful and strive for material success. However, as in all things, we are commanded to do this in a holy way. A way that enhances God’s presence in the world. Both “Shmitah” and “Yovel” are ideas that still resonate today..
Rabbi Ed Gelb, Camp Ramah