In this section of the Torah, Parashat Behar, we have several precepts that were more than renewals for the society of that time in which they were promulgated—some of which we are not even certain that they have ever been fulfilled. I am referring to Shnat Shemitah and Shnat Yovel, the Sabbatical year for the land and the year of jubilee.
Beyond the concept of the need for rest for the land, which was incorporated into agriculture many years later, the year of Shemitah and Yovel, incorporated concepts of social justice that were unique for the time, and even for our times. As an example, during that year in which the land could not be cultivated or worked, what was produced by the earth spontaneously and grew without the help of the hand of the human being could not be exploited. It should be left for the poor and needy of the town, who could use it without fear, and thus feed themselves.
The idea of the year of jubilee, in which the land returned to its original owners, regardless of the sales that had been made on it during the 50 years since the last jubilee, was extremely new, and controversial.
All this revolves around a fundamental concept: this land, the one that caused wars, mortgages, debts and fights between friends, brothers etc., etc., IS NOT OURS. IT DOES NOT BELONG TO US AT ALL. We barely have it on loan during the few years we spend in this world. And perhaps we can give it as an inheritance to children, and our children's children; but in truth...it is God’s. The true owner of the Creation is the Kadosh Baruch Hu. Adonai. God, or however we want to address Him. The rest... is a misunderstanding of the power and dominion that we supposedly have over things.
Interesting. Especially because, precisely in this parashah, and more precisely in chapter 25, verse 23 of the book of Vaikra, the Creator clearly tells us וְהָאָ֗רֶץ לֹ֤א תִמָּכֵר֙ לִצְמִתֻ֔ת כִּי־לִ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֧ים וְתוֹשָׁבִ֛ים אַתֶּ֖ם עִמָּדִֽי׃—“And the land cannot be sold in perpetuity, because the land is mine; for pilgrims and dwellers you are for me”.
If we analyze the situation in a somewhat more rational way, we will quickly come to the conclusion that our lives are ephemeral and that this world is only a temporary abode. Reason will tell us that we can take nothing from this world, except for our good deeds and a good legacy.
The idea is rounded with the pasuk we find in Vaikra 25:55 כִּֽי־לִ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ עֲבָדִ֔ים עֲבָדַ֣י הֵ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃—“Because the children of Israel belong to me as slaves. My servants are those whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God.”
It is rare to think of ourselves, the Sons of Israel, as slaves or servants even of the Kadosh Baruch Hu, and I try to shed some light on this question, resorting to the meaning of the Hebrew root עבד.
In Hebrew the word "avodah" means "work". It is similar in sound to the word "avdut" which means "bondage", but "avadim" in the verse is better translated as "servants" than "slaves"; especially since our parashah is particularly concerned with the issue of true slavery and freedom.
The same root to unfold a universe of meanings. Avodah, is work and is service.
"Avodah" is used in the expression "avodat adonai", divine service, "avodat hakodesh", the service of the consecrated, as well as in the expression "avodat halev", service of the heart (the prayers that today replace the rite of the offerings of the Temple period).
But Avodat Halev is also the work that is done on oneself to feel good in the depths of one's being and to give meaning to one's own life. So, is work a form of slavery or is it a liberating action, which has positive and lasting results on us and our environment?
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) approached the subject by differentiating the word "work" from the word "labor". Through labor, consumer products are obtained to meet the needs of our bodies, for example, food.
Through work, human beings produce objects that have a certain durability in which we express our particular view of the world, our culture, our values—for example, the products of a craftsman.
Thus, Arendt distinguishes between the animal laborans, which is merely dedicated to subsistence, and the homo faber, which creates the world that human beings share with each other. To labor is then, according to Arendt, to be active to satisfy our primary needs: food, shelter, clothing, etc.
Arendt relates work to the cyclical and biological processes of our body and its basic and primordial needs, while work is related to what we are capable of producing or modifying in the objects and in the world in which we are inserted.
Working is carrying out an activity that is not directly related to our animal body, which will last over time, which may exist longer than us.
As for our tradition, it asks us to work so that our family unit is not dependent, that it be as free and autonomous as possible (Tehillim 128).
The ideal is, of course, not to have to work to gain freedom (like the Hebrew slave, of which our parashah speaks), but to be able to develop ourselves and make to the creation significant contributions of important works in the long term.
I reread this disturbing verse, place it in the context of the entire parashah and our reality today, and I see that we are called to recognize that servitude is a temporary condition, that no matter what desperate straits we may enter due to economic or financial needs, once at least throughout our lives, we must proclaim Yovel, Jubilee Year, wipe the slate clean and help each other to start again and work.
Hopefully we are all capable of doing it, so that our Avodat Halev has a transcendent meaning. Concluding: the words of the parashah are true, at times we are pilgrims in this world, and at times we are dwellers.
When the Torah says "...the land is mine, because you are strangers and residents to me", in reality it means: "Do not behave in this world as owners of a house. There is no man who can take from this world any good".
“And while you spend your lives in it, do more than just produce food and acquire items. I gave to all of you the ability to do something more meaningful than that. Just do it.”