Behar: Redeeming Yourself

(May this posting redeem the half-finished blog post that I sent out last night by a slip of my finger.)

The word “redeem” and its Biblical Hebrew equivalent, “ga-al”, both mean to buy back something that was lost, or sold, or that should be yours anyway. The difference between the English word and the Hebrew word is in what kinds of things get redeemed.

Both “redeem” and “ga-al” cover buying a slave’s freedom.  In America, you can also redeem your own reputation or moral standing. And you can redeem a coupon for something of value.  In the Torah, the word “ga-al” also covers buying back property that was sold to someone outside the family, giving a childless widow a legal heir, or executing a murderer.

The double Torah portion for this week, Behar (on the mountain) and Bechukotai (with my decrees), introduces the concept of the yoveil every 50 years.

You shall make every fiftieth year holy, and you shall proclaim emancipation in the land for all her dwellers;  yoveil it will be for you, and you shall return each man to his holding, and you shall return each man to his family (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:10)

yoveil = year of the ram’s horn; “jubilee” year every 50 years when all Hebrew slaves went free and any property sold during the last 50 years was automatically returned to the original owner.

And for every holding, you shall provide redemption (ge-ulah) for the land. If your brother becomes poor and sells some of his holding, his redeemer (go-alo) who his closest relative shall come and redeem (ga-al) what his brother sold. And a man who does not have a redeemer (go-eil), but whose hand has increased, so he finds enough for its redemption (ge-ulato)–he will calculate the years of his sale and he will return the remainder to the man to whom he sold, and then he will return to his holding. But if he did not find enough in his hand to return, then what he sold will be in the hand of the buyer until the year of the yoveil. Then he will go out, in the yoveil, and return to his holding. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:24-28)

Since all land reverted to the original owner or his heir, the price of land was set accordingly to the number of years left before the next yoveil; a buyer paid more for a field he could use for 40 years than for a field he could only use for 10 years. Furthermore, a buyer could not even be sure he would keep the land until the yoveil.  Any time after the first two years, the original owner or his close relative had the option of “redeeming” the land by paying the buyer for the remaining years of use before the yoveil.  If the land was redeemed by a kinsman, then he got to hold and use it until the yoveil year returned to the original owner (or his son, or closest heir).

Can you imagine selling your house, but retaining the right to buy it back any time?  Knowing that if you could not afford to “redeem” it, your brother or uncle might do it, and move into your house until the magic year when the house would return to you anyway?

I remember the house I lived in 50 years ago, when I was a small child.  I loved our yard, with the lady-slippers blooming under the pine trees in front. I had my own patch of garden along the curved walk to our front door. I watched robins and blue jays struggle over nests in the big maple tree, and I explored the swampy woods in the back yard, building shelters out of old logs and catching salamanders. I have memories of every room inside the house, as personal as the bite-marks I made on the windowsills when I was teething.

The last time I went back east and drove past that house, I saw that someone had cleared all the trees in front, turned the garden into lawn, and built two additions that changed the look of the whole house. The woods in back was the only thing that still looked like my childhood.

What if this were a yoveil year for the United States, and that house returned to my family?  What if the house my husband and I are paying a mortgage on now suddenly reverted to whoever owned it 50 years ago? It sounds great in terms of finances.  But my childhood house has been changed so much, it would not really be my old house. And I’m not sure I want to move back to New England, now that I’ve built a life in Oregon.

But redemption, ge-ulah, also means release from servitude and return to one’s family.  For us, the idea of a  yoveil year could also mean a reinvestment in family relationships. And the idea of returning to your original land could also mean a return to your own original personality, before you started acquiring other people’s concerns and giving up on your own concerns.

It’s easy to get caught up in the transactions of the world, and forget what is really yours. After you turn 50, you can reclaim the God-given parts of your soul.  And you can release the other people in your life from your expectations, so they can redeem their own souls.

But according to this week’s Torah portion, you don’t even have to wait 50 years.  If you have the means, the courage and mental resources, you can redeem yourself and free others at any time.  If you don’t, someone close to you may help you to do it. There are more paths to recovery than we think.

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