Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2; Parashat HaShavua for Shabbat, May 25, 2024

We live in a materialistic world and a society that values continued growth, consumption, and acquisition. In short, we can never have enough. There is always something more to acquire: more money, more power, more fame, or more things. While modern industrial society has provided many of us with a standard of living that was unimaginable to earlier generations we pay a price for this value system:  constant feelings of unease or anxiety, judging our worth by comparing ourselves to others, never feeling satisfied or at peace with our lives; and there is a profound, negative environmental cost to all of our producing and consuming that threatens human life on our planet. 


Judaism accepts materialism. We recognize that human beings must work and produce to build and sustain society, but Jewish values also place limits on all this making and getting. Those limits are based on an understanding of God’s place in the Universe, our place in the Universe and our relationship, our covenant. This week’s Torah portion describes the Sabbatical (Shmita) year, which comes every seven years and the Jubilee (Yovel) year, which comes every fifty years. In the Shmita year the land was allowed to rest, Hebrew slaves were set free, and land that was sold could be repurchased. In the Yovel, in addition, all land acquired over the last 49 years was returned to the family that originally owned it. In an agricultural society it was like an economic reset button. No one could be enslaved forever, no one could acquire too much land, every family got a fresh start.


Why was this so important? We read, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” (Leviticus 25:23) From our limited, human perspective we think we can acquire land, possessions, and wealth, but from God’s broader, sacred perspective nothing can ever be ours. We just hold it for a short period of time, in trust, because we are mortal. We abide for a short time on earth before we die and a new generation steps into our place. As we read in Kohelet (Ecclesiates 1:4) “One generation goes, another comes, But the earth abides forever.” Perhaps if we took the long-view, the sacred view, our lives would be better, our earth less at risk, and our society stronger.