Behar: The Injustice of Wealth

The rich get richer, and in the process they make the poor get poorer—unless the law of the land intervenes. It was true in the Ancient Near East, and it is true throughout the world today.

The wealthy in the book of Genesis owned livestock and slaves, but by the 8th century B.C.E. wealth was measured by the ownership of farmland. Rich landowners accumulated more land by buying it when poor farm-owners fell into debt—perhaps because of a drought or another circumstance beyond their control. The first part of Isaiah, written in the 8th century B.C.E.,  addresses the greed for land:

Hoy!1 Adding house to house

            They attach field to field

Until there is no space left

            And you alone are owners in the midst of the land! (Isaiah 5:8)

According to the Torah the poor can sell their farms to pay off debt, but once all their land is gone they have to become hired workers, who earn less than farmers who have their own crops to sell. If they fall into debt again, they sell themselves as slaves. The poor also sell their children as slaves when they can no longer afford to feed them.

How could a former small landowner get a second chance? How could his son get even a first chance?

Code of Hammurabi carved on an 8th century BCE stele

Law codes elsewhere in the Ancient Near East, including the Code of Hammurabi2 , accepted that there were two permanent classes of people, superiors and inferiors, and established two different sets of rules for them. But although the Hebrew Bible recognizes hereditary kings and priests, all male Israelites are subject to the same rules. And the bible rails against rich Israelites who disobey God by cheating or mistreating the poor.

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, outlines three possible solutions to the problem of social injustice due to concentrated wealth.

Do not charge interest

You must not take interest or an increase [in the repayment] from him; you shall fear your God, and let your brother live along with you. (Leviticus 25:36)

Interest is also outlawed in Exodus and Deuteronomy.3 If a debtor did not need to pay interest, the debt would be somewhat easier to repay. But then what motivation would a selfish rich man have to make a loan in the first place? According to Isaiah, debtors were often unable to repay a loan in produce or silver, so they had to turn over some or all of their land. The rich got richer by accumulating farmland.

With less farmland of their own, the poor were more likely to need another loan the following year. Thus prohibiting creditors from charging interest was not enough to solve the problem of the rich taking advantage of the poor and further impoverishing them.

Refund the Sale

Unlike property sales today, the system in the Torah is more like a lease. The buyer pays for the full use of a parcel of land and the buildings on it—knowing that at any time the original owner, or a close relative of the original owner called his “redeemer”4 can buy back the property.

The Torah portion Behar reiterates the concept that a tract of land that has been sold can and should be redeemed by the seller’s nearest kinsman.5   The buyer must accept the redeemer’s payment, pro-rated to reflect the number of years of his possession, and return the land.

If your brother becomes impoverished, and he sells some of his property, then his closest redeemer shall come to [the buyer] and redeem what his brother sold. And if a man does not have a redeemer, but his [own] resources increase and he finds enough for his redemption, then he shall reckon the years since selling it and repay the remainder to the man to whom he sold it. Then he can return to his property. (Leviticus 25:25-27)

The Torah also requires the redemption of slaves whenever possible, by paying all or part of the sales price to the buyer.6

How do the buyer and the redeemer know how much silver must change hands? This week’s Torah portion explains that the land or the slave must not be sold not in perpetuity, but only for the number of years until the next yoveil year. Therefore the original purchase price can be pro-rated.

No sales are final

Shofar made from a ram’s horn

All slaves and all landed property must be released every fifty years, God commands in this week’s Torah portion. A ram’s horn is blown to announce the start of the year when farmlands revert to their original owners or their sons, and slaves are automatically emancipated.7

And you shall make the fiftieth year holy, and you shall proclaim emancipation in the land for all its inhabitants; a yoveil it shall be for you. And you shall return, each man, to his property, and you shall return, each man, to his mishpachah. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:10)

yoveil (יוֹבֵל) = ram’s horn; year of release; “Jubilee” in old English translations.8

mishpachah (מִשְׁפָּחָה) = extended family, clan.

Since all land reverts to the original owner or his family, the price of land is set accordingly to the number of years left before the next yoveil; a buyer pays more for a field he can use for 40 years than for a field he can use for only 10 years. And if the former owner or his redeemer buys back the land before the yoveil, he subtracts the value of the years the buyer uses the land from the purchase price, and pays only for the number of years remaining until the yoveil.

If the land is redeemed by a kinsman, then the redeemer gets to use it until the yoveil returns it to the original owner.

This week’s Torah portion assumes that people sell their farmland only out of poverty. The system of temporary property sales puts a time limit on poverty. It also reminds the Israelites that their ownership is conditional anyway, since God rescued them from Egypt and arranged for them to conquer Canaan. God is the real owner of all the land.

And you must not sell the land as a permanent right, because the land is mine, and you are immigrants and resident aliens with me. (Leviticus 25:23)

The laws in the portion Behar about interest, redemption, and the yoveil year are remedies only for Israelite men who are impoverished by the rich in Israelite kingdoms. Women are not mentioned. And Israelite men can keep any land they acquire from foreigners (through purchase or war), as well as any foreign slaves, and pass down both categories of property to their heirs.

Nevertheless, the method this week’s portion outlines for correcting the concentration of wealth is a bold plan for redressing injustice. However, there is no evidence that the laws about the yoveil year were ever implemented; then, as now, wealth means power and the powerful protect their wealth.


The yoveil plan would be completely unworkable today. For the ancient Israelites, the well-being of an extended family or clan was paramount, so an act of social justice could wait for a generation or two. In modern western culture, individualism and nuclear families are more important, so opportunities and privileges need to be distributed fairly on a continuous basis.

For example, modern social justice calls for immediate financial relief for an individual who acquires a major debt because of a job loss or a health catastrophe. Modern ideals also call for equal opportunities for all children, regardless of the poverty of their parents. A public education system is one part of the solution, but children must complete their education before the age when they are expected to live independently.

Emergency relief and public education are necessary but not sufficient for social justice today. Wealth in a modern capitalist system, like wealth in the ancient Israelite kingdoms, becomes so concentrated that hard-working poor people no longer have a fair chance unless further measures are implemented.

Since a yoveil year would not work well in modern society, what other ways can we redistribute wealth while being fair to the rich as well as the poor?

A true graduated income tax is a giant step. It was actually implemented for a while in mid-twentieth century America, and is currently in force in many European countries. Government programs such as Social Security and Medicare still help to save retired Americans from poverty by letting them redeem their earlier taxed earnings. Laws providing universal access to such things as utilities, roads, medical care, and police protection also help.

But instituting or maintaining any of these programs requires an idealism that rises above the natural greed of the rich. Can our larger culture achieve this idealism once more, even in the troubled United States? Can we achieve more than the reformers in Leviticus, by making our ethical ideals for society the law of the land?

  1. The Biblical Hebrew interjection Hoy (הוֹי) usually means the same as the Yiddish Oy: “Alas!” or “Oh, no!”
  2. The eight-century B.C.E. law code of Babylonian King Hammurabi.
  3. Also in Exodus 22:24 and Deuteronomy 23:20.
  4. Go-eil (גֺּאֵל) = redeemer: the kinsman responsible either for buying back an enslaved man or his land, or for avenging his relative’s murder.
  5. Jeremiah 32:7-8; Ruth 3:9-13, 4:4-6.
  6. Leviticus 25:52-53.
  7. Exodus 21:1-11 and Deuteronomy 15:12 say that anyone who buys an Israelite slave must set him free in the seventh year. The book of Leviticus seems to be unaware of this tradition.
  8. Everett Fox translated yoveil as “Homebringing”, based on cognates in Akkadian and Ugaritic and the use of a ram’s horn to call a flock of sheep home. (Everett Fox. The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 628.)
  9. Leviticus 25:44-46.


Behar & Jeremiah: When Someone Needs Help

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra is packed with laws for ethical human interactions, as well as rules for religious rituals.  This week Jews read a double Torah portion in Leviticus, Behar and BechukotaiBehar introduces the idea of the yoveil (“jubilee”) every 50 years, when every plot of land in the future kingdom of Israel returns to the family that originally owned it, and every Hebrew slave goes free.1  The reason given is that the real owner of all the land, and the real owner of all Israelite slaves, is God.2  Periodically things must be restored to the way God set them up.

For Israelites who have fallen into debt, the yoveil year is the last resort.  Obviously people who had to sell their land, or themselves, benefit from a clean slate every 50 years.  But the Torah portion also provides instructions for wealthier relatives to “redeem” the land or the slave by serving as the buyer.  If they cannot afford it at the time, they buy the property or person from the first buyer as soon as possible.

The redeemer gets to own the property or person until the yoveil year, but he must treat them well.3

And if your brother under you is [further] impoverished and sells himself to you, do not work him with the work of a slave.  Like a hired or live-in laborer he shall be to you, until the year of the yoveil.  (Leviticus 25:39-40)

In this context, “brother” means any male kinsman.

Similarly, the rules about redeeming a poor kinsman’s property are not just about keeping land in the extended family consisting of descendants of the family that was originally allocated the land in the time of Joshua.

If your kinsman becomes impoverished and must sell part of his property, then his nearest go-eil shall come and ga-al what his kinsman is selling. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:25)

go-eil (גֹּאֵל) = redeemer; deliverer.

ga-al (גָּאַל) = redeem; prevent purchase by an outsider, buy back from an outsider.

The impoverished man’s nearest go-eil is his closest relative who can afford to buy or buy back, the land.  The go-eil can keep the property and use it himself until the next yoveil year, when all lands will return to the descendants of their original owners.  But he cannot kick his poor relative off the land; the poor man and his family continue to live on the property and become tenant farmers for the new owner.

And if your brother is impoverished and comes under your hand, and you take hold of him [as if he were] at resident alien, then he must thrive with you.  Do not take interest or extra charges from him.  (Leviticus 25:35-36)

The haftarah reading from Jeremiah that accompanies the Torah portion Behar demonstrates that the law for redeeming land also requires the go-eil to look out for the kinsman whose land he has purchased.

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch in prison, by Gustave Dore, 19th cent. CE

In the haftarah, King Zedekiah of Judah has thrown the prophet Jeremiah in prison because he kept declaring that the king should surrender before Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar’s troops.  While Jeremiah is in prison, God tells him:

Hey! Chanameil, son of your uncle Shulam, will come to you saying: Buy yourself my field that is in Anatot, because yours is the duty of the ge-ulah to buy it. (Jeremiah 32:7)

ge-ulah (גְּאֻלָּה) = right of redemption; responsibility to redeem. (From the same root as ga-al.)

Sure enough, Jeremiah’s cousin Chanameil does visit him in prison with the news that he is in debt and has to sell the farm.  He is offering the land to Jeremiah first, as the law of ge-ulah requires.  Jeremiah pays his cousin in silver, solving Chanameil’s immediate problem.  He is meticulous about following his country’s legal procedures, even though he knows the whole country will eventually fall to the Babylonian army.4

A few chapters later in the book of Jeremiah, the Babylonian army temporarily lifts the siege of Jerusalem.

And it happened that the Babylonians removed the front-line troops from around Jerusalem, on account of the advancing troops of Pharaoh.  Jeremiah was leaving Jerusalem to go to the territory of Benjamin there lachalik among the people.  And he was at the gate of Benjamin, and there the commander of the guard …arrested Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “You are defecting to the Babylonians!” (Jeremiah 37:11-13)

lachalik (לַחֲלִק) = to participate in the division or distribution of property.

There is no consensus among translators about what lachalik means in this context.5  What other reason would Jeremiah have to leave the shelter of the city, when he knows the Babylonian army will return, except to defect?  One answer is that he is concerned about the land he bought from his cousin in Anatot.  He wants to make sure the sale of his cousin’s land was carried out according to the documents he had prepared.

Jeremiah is not concerned about his ownership of the property, since God has told him the Babylonians will win and everyone will be dispossessed.  He probably wants to check up on his cousin Chanameil and make sure no outsider has kicked him off the land that he is now, technically, farming for Jeremiah.  Until the kingdom of Judah finally falls to the Babylonians, Chanameil needs to farm that land to support himself and his family.

I believe Jeremiah is acting in the spirit, not just the letter, of the law in the Torah portion Behar.  He is his cousin’s go-eil, and as long as possible he will strive to redeem him from poverty.  It is bad luck that he is intercepted at the city gate and thrown into prison, so he cannot carry out his intention.  (You can read more about this haftarah by clicking on this link to my post: Haftarat Behar—Jeremiah: The Redeemer.)

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks in the book of Genesis.6  Jeremiah’s actions say yes, as his cousin’s go-eil he is also his cousin’s keeper.  Even after he has redeemed Chanameil’s land, Jeremiah tries to continue to look out for him.


The Torah portion Behar sanctions, indeed requires, helping an impoverished member of one’s extended family in a way that also benefits the one who does the good deed.  Today we can write a check to a program for reducing poverty and write it off on our taxes, or do a kindness to a member of our family or community that also burnishes our own reputation.  But I believe we should not stop there.  Like Jeremiah, we should follow up on the results of our action, as long as we are able.

Ethical behavior is not an abstraction or a punch list.  Let’s make it personal.

  1. Leviticus 25:8-16, 25:39-54.
  2. Leviticus 25:23-24, 25:55.
  3. In the world addressed by the Torah, men own all the wealth and women are treated as the property of their husbands, fathers, or masters.
  4. Jeremiah 32:9-14.
  5. Robert Alter even suggests lachalik means “to hide” here, based on an Akkadian cognate, although the word appears to be a hifil form of the kal verb chalak (חָלַק) = divided up, allotted shares. (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Volume 2: Prophets, W. Norton & Co., 2019, p. 983)
  6. Genesis 4:9.


Behar: Slave Owners

Shmitah Observance in Palestine, by Chief Rabbi Abraham Kook, 1924

Every seventh year is the shmitah year, the year of letting things drop, according to this week’s Torah portion, Behar (“On a mountain”).  That year the owners of fields must let them lie fallow, and the owners of vineyards must leave them unpruned, so the land can rest.

It will be a sabbath for the land; [its] food  is [only] for eating, for you yourself, and for your aved, and for your amah, and for your hired laborer [who is] resident with you.  And for your cattle and for the wild beasts that are in your land, they shall all come in to eat.  (Leviticus 25:6-7)

aved (עָבֶד) = a male slave or a servant.  (From the root verb avad, עָבַד = slaved, served, labored.)

Slave (noun) = a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.

Servant (noun) = a person employed to perform duties for others, especially in a house, [or] a devoted and helpful follower.1

amah (אָמָה) = a female slave or a servant.

The list of people who can eat the produce of a field or vineyard during the seventh year includes the owner and his family, his male and female slaves, and his employees who live with him (as well as his livestock and any wild beasts that wander in).

Although the Torah uses the same word for a slave and a servant, whether male or female, native or foreign, in this passage the slaves are listed separately from the free employees who serve the master to earn wages.

Egyptian beating a slave

Slavery is an accepted part of society in the Torah, as it was throughout the ancient Near East.  In Exodus/Shemot, all the Israelites are slaves in Egypt until God rescues them and leads them through the wilderness.  In Exodus alone, God gives them more than a hundred laws at Mt. Sinai, from the Ten Commandments to case law such as:

If you acquire a Hebrew eved, six years ya-avod and in the seventh he shall leave free, without charge.  (Exodus 21:2)

ya-avod (יַעֲבֺד) = he shall serve.  (A form of the verb avad, עָבַד  = served or slaved.)

In other words, one can only acquire fellow Hebrews or Israelites as an indentured servants: debtors who are forced to work for their masters for a fixed period of time.  At the end of that time, they are free.  Israelites acquired their countrymen as indentured servants when impoverished men sold themselves or impoverished parents sold their children.  These temporary slaves could be redeemed at any time by a kinsman who paid off their owner.  If they were not redeemed, Exodus says, they must be given the option of freedom after six years.   (See my post Mishpatim: On Slavery.)

The lawgiving at Mt. Sinai continues in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, and returns to the subject of slavery in this week’s Torah portion.

And if your kinsman with you becomes poor and is sold to you, lo ta-avod him at the avodah of an aved.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 25:39)

lo ta-avod (לֺא תַעֲבֺד) = you may not enslave, you may not force to work.  (From the root verb avad.)

avodah (עֲבֺדַה) = service, labor for another.  (Also from the root verb avad.)

In other words, you may not force a fellow Israelite to do the work of a foreign slave.  Israelite slaves must be treated like hired employees who live in the master’s household.  According to Sifra, that means their owner must provide them and their wives and children with food as well as lodging, and assign them work in a craft they already know.2   This week’s Torah portion prohibits charging indentured servants for their food and adding it to the debt they are working off.3

He shall become like a hired worker, like a temporary worker living with you.  Until the year of the yoveil, ya-avod you.  (Leviticus 25:40)

yoveil (יֺּבֵל) = ram; the year of remission, which comes every 50 years and is announced by the blowing of a ram’s horn.  (Called the “jubilee” in English.)

At this point, the law in Leviticus appears to disagree with the law in Exodus.  Leviticus says all Israelite slaves in the country must be freed every 50 years; Exodus says each Israelite slave must be freed after he has served for six years.

In the 11th century CE, Rashi wrote that an Israelite slave was freed either after his own six years of service were completed, or on the yoveil year, whichever came first.4

In the 19th century, S.R. Hirsch wrote that the slave who decided to remain with his master “forever” instead of being freed in the seventh year (Exodus 21:5-6) was nevertheless freed when either his master died, or the yoveil year began, whichever came first.5

But 21st-century translator and commentator Robert Alter wrote that the books of Exodus and Leviticus simply disagree on when an unredeemed Israelite slave must be freed.6  The Exodus version guarantees that after six years every Israelite slave can choose whether to go free or become a permanent slave.  The Leviticus version guarantees that when all Israelite slaves are freed in the yoveil year, they can go home to their own families’ plots of land, which are returned that year to the families that originally owned them.7

Then he shall leave you, he and his children with him, and he shall return to his clan and to the property of his forefathers.  (Leviticus 25: 41)


Even if Israelites sell themselves to resident aliens rather than to their fellow Israelites, their kinsmen have the option of redeeming them paying their master their purchase price.  And if no one redeems them, then they, too, must be released in the yoveil year.8

If he is not redeemed in these ways, then he shall leave in the year of the yoveil, he and his children with him.  Because the Israelites are avadim to me, my avadim, who I brought out from the land of Egypt.  I am God, your God.  (Leviticus 25:54-55)

avadim (עֲבַדִים) = slaves, servants.  (Plural of aved.)

Why must all Israelites who have sold themselves be freed, even if they have to wait up to 49 years?  Rashi wrote that “Because the Israelites are avadim to me” (Leviticus 25:55) means: “My contract came before.”9

An aved cannot have two masters.  And all Israelites are God’s servants, even God’s slaves.  Treating Israelites that you bought as if they were your exclusive property forever would violate God’s previous claim as their ultimate owner—and yours.

Assyrian army of Tiglath-Pilesar leads captives


A foreign slave, on the other hand, is permanent property, and can even be inherited.  The usual practice in the ancient Near East was to enslave foreigners captured in battle.

And your aved and your amah from the nations around you that became yours, from them you may acquire eved and amah.  And also you may acquire [slaves] from the children of the alien residents among you, and from their families they gave birth to while among you in your land.  And they shall become yours as property.  And you may bequeath them to your children after you to inherit as property forever …  (Leviticus 25:44-46)

The book of Leviticus does not think of non-Israelites as God’s people.  Anyone who does not serve the God of Israel can become a permanent slave of a human master.


In the United States, what made the difference between permanent slaves and temporary indentured servants was not religion or ethnicity, but “race”.  Until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 banned slavery, native Africans and their descendants, as well as some Native Americans, were seized and enslaved, resold, and inherited by European-Americans.  Their owners might choose to free them, but like the foreign slaves in the Torah, they had no right of redemption, nor a right to release after any number of years of service.  Impoverished Europeans and their American children could sell themselves as indentured servants, bound to obey their masters’ whims only until their contracts expired.

Today slavery is officially illegal everywhere in the world, but there are still millions of people who are acquired or inherited as property and forced to obey their owners.

What if we stopped separating people into “us” and “them”?  What if we had a God of Everybody, instead of a God of Israel or a God of (fill in the blank)?  What if we came to believe that all human beings are holy?  Would slavery disappear?

  1. Both definitions are from Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Tenth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2002.
  2. Sifra (a 3rd-century CE collection of legal commentary on Leviticus), Behar Chapter 7, translated in
  3. Leviticus 25:37.
  4. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) on Leviticus 25:40, translated at
  5. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Exodus 21:6, translated by Daniel Haberman in The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 370.
  6. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 658.
  7. See my post Behar: Owning Land.
  8. Leviticus 25:47-54.
  9. Rashi, ibid., on Leviticus 25:55.

Behar, Psalm 100, and Psalm 123: Master and Slave

Who owns you?

This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“On a mountain”), sets limits on ownership of both humans and land.  God owns all the farmland.  The people are tenants with long-term leases, but God mandates that they must let the land rest every seventh year,1 and every fiftieth year (the jubilee/yoveil) any land that was purchased returns to the family that originally owned it.2  (See my post Behar: Owning Land.)

The same goes for human beings.  God owns all the Israelites.  If some of them become so impoverished they have nothing left to sell but themselves or their children, they can join another household as servants.  But they will not be permanent, inheritable slaves, like the foreign slaves Israelites own.3  Their extended families can buy them back from their Israelite masters at any time, and if they are still serving their masters when the jubilee year comes, they and their children are freed from service anyway—and can return to the land they once sold.4  (See my post Behar: Slave Owners.)  God explains:

Because they are my avadim, who I brought out from the land of Egypt, they may not be sold as an aved.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:42)

avadim (עֲבָדִים) = slaves, servants, subordinates.  (Singular:  eved, עֶבֶד or aved, עָבֱד.)

In this context, the Israelites are slaves of God, and can only become temporary servants or subordinates of human beings.  Even Israelites who sell themselves to resident aliens can be redeemed by their kinsmen, and must go free along with their children in a jubilee year.5

The master-slave relationship between God and the Israelites is a mutual obligation.  The Israelites are supposed to serve God by obeying all of God’s rules and commandments, which number in the hundreds.  God has absolute power over “their” lives, as well as over “their” land.  But just as the human owner of slaves is supposed to provide them with food, clothing, lodging, and all their other needs, God is supposed to take care of the Israelites.6

How did God acquire the Israelites as slaves?  In this week’s Torah portion, God says:

“Because the children of Israel are [already] avadim; they are my avadim that I brought out from the land of Egypt.  I am God, your God!”  (Leviticus 25:55)

In the book of Exodus, after God has rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them as far as Mount Sinai, God tells Moses to tell the people:

“And now, if you really listen to my voice and you observe my covenant, then you will be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.  For all the earth is mine, but you shall be my kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  (Exodus/Shemot 19:5-6)

After Moses has passed this on,

They answered, all the people as one, and they said: “Everything that God says, we will do!”  (Exodus 19:8)

Thus they wholeheartedly accept their new master.7


The relationship between God and God’s slaves is not always peaceful.  The book of Numbers/Bemidbar in particular, which we begin next week in the annual cycle of Torah reading, reports many incidents in which thousands of Israelites refuse to do what God asks, and God kills them.

The psalms offer contrasting opinions of what it is like to be God’s slave.  (Since the two psalms below compare God to a human master, my translations use the pronoun “he” and “his”.)

Psalm 100

A chant for thanksgiving:

            Call out homage to God, all the earth!

                        Ivdu God with joy!

                        Come before him with a shout of joy!

            Know that God is God;

                        He made us and we are his,

                        His people and the flock he is tending.

            Enter his gates with thanks,

                        His courtyards with praise.

                        Thank him!  Bless his name!

            For God is good.

                        His loving-kindness is forever,

                        And his faithfulness goes on from generation to generation.

ivdu (עִבְדוּ) = Serve!  (An imperative verb from the same root as avadim.)


Psalm 123

A song for ascending [stairs].

            To you I lift my eyes,

                        Dweller in the heavens.

            Hey, as the eyes of avadim are on the hand of their masters,

                        As the eyes of a female-slave are on the hand of her mistress,

            So our eyes are on God, our God,

                        Until he favors us.

            Be gracious to us, God!

                        For we have had too much contempt.

            Our soul has had too much ridicule from the complacent;

                        It is moaning over contempt from the arrogant.           

When life is going well, we rejoice in serving a God that is kind and faithful to us.  When life is going badly, we look for God anxiously and beg for succor.

Both of these psalms imply an external god who owns us.  But on another level, they can speak to an inner psychological truth: we do not fully own ourselves.

In today’s world, some people are still slaves to other human beings.  And even those of us who are relatively independent have only limited freedom to make our own decisions.  Most of our behavior is determined by our history, habits, complexes, and abilities.  Usually our conscious minds merely notice what we have already done—and instantly generate reasons for our unconscious decisions, to keep up the illusion that we are our own masters.  Only occasionally does a new bit of information stop us in our tracks, so that we take the time to think out a new response to life.  Only occasionally are we truly free.

Is God the mysterious force that determines the physical and mental operating systems for all creatures, like a master commanding his slaves?  If so, we can praise God when things happen that we consider good, and wait with trembling for the next move in God’s plan when things happen that we consider bad.  And we can consciously develop a habit of noticing and praising the good that comes our way—the food our master gives us, the beauty of a view, the companions assigned to us, the times when our required behavior is pleasant.

Or is God what we encounter in our moments of freedom?  If so, we can cultivate a habit of watching for other moments when we might seize the chance to do something new, and of welcoming the sudden uncertainty when we pause, trembling, and open ourselves to inspiration.

  1. Leviticus 25:5.
  2. Leviticus 25:13-17, 25:23-24.
  3. Leviticus 25:35, 25:39, 25:44-46.
  4. Leviticus 25:40-41.
  5. Leviticus 25:47-54.
  6. “…just as they belong to Him in that He can confiscate and apportion their land, so, too, do they belong to Him in the sense that He is responsible for looking after their wellbeing and welfare for all time.” (Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 267)
  7. Ibid., p. 268.

Behar: Owning Land

Is owning land like owning a bowl or a blanket? Do human beings have the right to buy and sell land, inherit it, give it away, use it any way they like, destroy it?

This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“on a mountain”), lays out rules for land ownership in ancient Israel and Judah. The first rule is about farmland:

The seventh year will be a time of the most restful rest for the land, a time of rest for God. You shall not sow your field and you shall not prune your vineyard.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:4)

Every seventh year, the Torah explains, everyone can eat what grows wild on your land:

It shall be … for yourself and for your male servant and for your female servant and for your hired laborer and for your toshav, the geirim with you; and for your cattle and for the wild beasts that are in your land; all may come to it to eat.  (Leviticus 25:6-7)

toshav (תּוֹשָׁב) = resident alien, foreigner living in a citizen’s household. Plural = toshavim (תּוֹשָׁבִים).

geir (גֵּר) = resident alien, immigrant; non-citizen who moved from another land. Plural = geirim (גֵּירִים).

The implication is that although you own the land, you only own its produce six years out of seven. Every seventh year you must let it lie fallow,1 giving the land a year of rest (shabbat, שַׁבָּת), just as every seventh day you give everyone in your household a day of rest (shabbat, שַׁבָּת). During your land’s year of rest, whatever it produces is ownerless, and can be eaten by anyone, even wild animals. Additionally, landowners may neither sell nor hoard the produce during that year; like everyone else, they may pick up only what they can eat.

Tribal lands according to Joshua.  (Land was also designated for each clan within a tribe.)

The next rule in the Torah portion Behar lays out what happens to land every 50th year. After the 49th year (which is a year of rest for the land, as above), all the land gets an additional year of rest, and during that year ownership of each parcel of land reverts to the family that owned it 50 years before—the descendants of the family that owned that land 50 years before that, and so on, all the way back to the original assignment of land in the book of Joshua.2

In this year of the yoveil, each of you shall return to his holding. (Leviticus 25:13)

yoveil (יוֹבֵל) = ram, ram’s horn, shofar; year of blowing the ram’s horn.  (English “jubilee”.)

That means a plot of land may not be sold in the sense we sell land today. Instead, someone pays up-front to lease the land for however many years are left before the next yoveil. During those years, he3 may plant and harvest as he likes—but then he has to return the land.

According to the count of years since the yoveil, you shall purchase it from your fellow; … since he is selling you the number of harvests.  (Leviticus 25:15, 16.)

Does that mean that the only true owners are the “original” families that were given land when the Israelites conquered Canaan, and get the same lands back every 50 years?  No.  The Torah says that all land belongs to God.

You may not forfeit the right to reacquire the land, because the land is Mine; for you are geirim and toshavim with Me.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:23)

The Gleaners, Jean Francois Millet, 1857

God is the true landowner of the land; even the Israelites who inherit land, or get it back in a yoveil year, are resident aliens from God’s point of view.

If everyone who “owns” land is actually borrowing it from God, everyone must obey God’s rules about the use of the land. Besides letting the ground rest every seven years, they must leave some of the harvest in the field for poor people and geirim to glean.4


In modern nations today, our own governments can seize private land by eminent domain, often (depending on the nation) compensating the owners for their loss. In general, people can buy, sell, inherit, and give away land, but there are limits—set by government rather than God—on how they can use the land. We have zoning laws, laws protecting wetlands, laws requiring large developers to set aside some land for public parks or green spaces.

But we could do better, if our governments were truly dedicated to the public good.  For example, we could have laws banning the use, on farms and on homeowners’ lawns, of any pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers that poison the environment. We could have laws severely limiting carbon dioxide emissions, and all forms of air and water pollution.

After all, does anyone have the right to degrade our God-given earth?

All human beings are merely temporary residents, geirim and toshavim, on God’s land.  We live here on sufferance.  We depend on nature, which some people call God’s creation—because it certainly isn’t ours. If only we could remember that we are all gleaners, harvesting our food from land that does not really belong to us!

We need to wake up and hear the ram’s horn!

(An earlier version of this essay was published in May 2010.)

1  The seventh year is called the year of shmittah (שְׁמִטָּה), “release”, in Deuteronomy 15:1-14, where it is described as the year for remission of debts and the freeing of Hebrew slaves.

2  Joshua 13:8-33 confirms Moses’ assignment of land east of the Jordan River to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe, divided by their clans. Joshua 15:1-17:18 confirms the assignment of land the tribes of Judah, Efrayim, and the other half of Menashe have already taken by conquest west of the Jordan, divided by their clans. Joshua 18:1-19:48 describes the assignment of land by lottery (which was presumed to be the will of God) to the remaining seven tribes and their clans. (The Levites, who serve at the temple instead of farming, are given land only in towns, with small attached pastures.) In the next few books of the Bible, the tribes do not conquer all of these assigned lands, and the tribe of Dan moves to another area.

3  Society in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah was patriarchal, giving the male head of household authority over everyone else. According to current scholarship, the book of Leviticus was written sometime after the Assyrian Empire captured the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C.E., but the patriarchal system continued in Judah.  Women could inherit land only when their fathers died without a son, as in Numbers 27:1-11, and even then strings were attached (Numbers 36:2-12).

4  Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21.

Haftarat Behar—Jeremiah: The Redeemer

Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 32:6-27.

Prophets during the period of the kingdoms of Israel (931-722 B.C.E.) and Judah (931-586 B.C.E.) had more than one way to deliver God’s messages. They could preach to the king or to the people, in either poetry or prose. They could do performance art, acting out a message with props. Or they could do an apparently ordinary action that carried a symbolic meaning about God and country.

Jeremiah’s ordinary deed in this week’s haftarah, purchasing a field in his hometown from his cousin, carries a double meaning.

The grounds for the purchase are laid out in this week’s Torah portion, Behar:

Beggar, by Rembrandt van Rijn
Beggar, by Rembrandt van Rijn

If your kinsman becomes poor and must sell part of his property, then his nearest go-eil shall come and ga-al what his kinsman is selling. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:25)

go-eil (גֹּאֵל) = redeemer; deliverer.

ga-al (גָּאַל) = redeem; prevent purchase by an outsider, buy back from an outsider, deliver from the hands of an enemy.

In other words, land must be kept within the extended family if possible. (And if not, God’s law requires that every 50 years will be a yoveil or jubilee and all lands will return to the descendants of their original owners.)

If someone needs to sell land, the nearest kinsman has the first right to buy it. If no kinsmen step forward to buy the land, and it is sold outside the clan, then when a kinsman has the means he is expected to step forward and buy it back. He does not have to return the land to the original seller (at least not until the next yoveil year); the important point is to keep the land in the family.

These laws about land ownership would have seemed moot while Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonian army in 588-586 B.C.E. From all the accounts in the Bible, it became increasingly obvious that the Babylonians would win, and King Nebuchadnezzar would annex the whole kingdom of Judah to his own empire. Then his administration would decide who owned the land; the old property rights of the Israelites in Judah would be irrelevant.

Jeremiah speaks to King Zedekiah, 1897 illustration
Jeremiah speaks to King Zedekiah, 1897 illustration

Jeremiah spends most of the siege in prison in Jerusalem. The prophet keeps saying that rebelling against Babylon is futile, and the king of Judah should surrender before the city falls to Nebuchadnezzar’s troops. This is not a popular message with either King Zedekiah of Judah or his officials, especially since Jeremiah speaks in God’s name. Since Jeremiah is the son of Hilkiah, the late High Priest, people are likely to believe him. So the prophet is thrown in prison at least three times in the book of Jeremiah.

While Jeremiah is in prison at the beginning of this week’s haftarah, God tells him:

Hey! Chanameil, son of your uncle Shulam, will come to you saying: Buy yourself my field that is in Anatot, because yours is the duty of the ge-ulah to buy it. (Jeremiah 32:7)

ge-ulah (גְּאֻלָּה) = right of redemption; responsibility to redeem. (From the same root as ga-al.)

And Chanameil, the son of my uncle, came to me, as God had spoken, to the court of the guards. And he said to me: Buy, please, my field that is in Anatot, which is in the land of Benjamin, because the right of possession is yours and the ge-ulah is yours. Then I knew it was indeed the word of God. And I bought the field away from Chanameil, the son of my uncle, that was in Anatot. And I weighed out for him the silver, seven shekels and ten in silver. And I wrote a document, and I sealed it and I designated witnesses… (Jeremiah 32:8-10)

Jeremiah describes all the details of the transaction, showing that it was done according to the letter of the law. Then he tells his scribe:

“Thus said God of Armies, the god of Israel: Take these documents with this document of purchase, the sealed one and this uncovered one, and put them in a jar of pottery so that they will last a long time. For thus said God of Armies, the god of Israel: They will buy houses and fields and vineyards in this land again.” (Jeremiah 32:14-15)

Preserving the documents of sale in a pottery jar indicates that after a long time, the Israelites will return and own their land again.

Next Jeremiah asks why God told him to redeem land in Judah when the kingdom was about to fall to the Babylonians anyway.

And the word of God happened to Jeremiah, saying: “Hey! I am God, the god of all flesh. Is anything too wondrous for me?” (Jeremiah 32:26-27)

Jerusalem, 587 B.C.E.
Jerusalem Falls, 587 B.C.E.

God then declares that Jerusalem will be burned to the ground as part of God’s plan to use the Babylonians to punish the Israelites for their idolatry. But eventually God will bring the Israelites back to their land. In other words, God will be the go-eil for the Israelites.

Thus Jeremiah’s purchase of his cousin’s land prefigures God’s redemption of the Israelites.

At first I wondered if Jeremiah’s cousin Chanameil was merely acting out of divine inspiration to set up the symbolic story by asking Jeremiah to be his go-eil. But then I read another episode in the book of Jeremiah, a few chapters later, when the Babylonian (Kasdim) army temporarily lifts the siege.

And it happened that the Kasdim removed the front-line troops around Jerusalem on account of the [advancing] front-line troops of Pharaoh. And Jeremiah was going out of Jerusalem to go to the territory of Benjamin to apportion land there among the people. And he was at the gate of Benjamin, and there the commander of the guard …arrested Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “You are defecting to the Kasdim!” (Jeremiah 37:11-13)

Jeremiah winds up in prison again. But it is striking that his first idea, when the siege is temporarily lifted, is to walk back to his hometown, Anatot in the territory of Benjamin, and make sure the sale of his cousin’s land was carried out according to the documents he prepared.

I suspect Chanameil really was poor, and needed the price of his land in silver to survive. By selling the land to his first cousin Jeremiah, he could use the silver and still continue to farm the land—as best he could during the siege of Jerusalem a few miles to the north.

When there is a break in the siege, Jeremiah tries to go south to check up on his cousin and make sure no outsider has kicked his cousin off the land that he is now, technically, farming for Jeremiah. Even though he knows that the Babylonians will soon return, Jeremiah acts in the spirit, not just the letter, of the law in the Torah portion Behar. He is his cousin’s go-eil, and as long as possible he will strive to redeem him.

Jeremiah knows his world is falling apart. He knows the siege will resume in a few months, Jerusalem will burn to the ground, and the whole kingdom of Judah will fall to its enemies. Yet he risks his own limited freedom in an attempt to make sure his cousin is all right—knowing that both he and his cousin are likely to be killed or deported later that year.

The sale of the land in Anatot is a symbolic act God uses to tell people that although they are doomed, there is hope for the next generation. And the sale is a practical step Jeremiah takes to help someone in the present.

Whether the doom we see advancing on the world is war or global warming, may we all be like Jeremiah and remember that each individual and each day counts. Stage your symbolic protests for the sake of the big picture.  But be responsible and kind to another human, right here, right now.

Behar: Choosing a God

Feeling a sense of the numinous from time to time is human nature. So is the impulse to acknowledge and reach out to the ineffable. For thousands of years, many human beings have channeled this impulse into worship of one or more gods.

The Hebrew Bible does not have a separate word corresponding to the English word “worship”. But it does have words for prayer (tefillah); bowing down or prostrating oneself (hishtachavot); service (avodah—often meaning the tasks of priests); and bringing offerings to a god (hakriv korban). Prayer and prostration usually happen on the impulse of the moment in the Torah.  Priestly service and bringing offerings, on the other hand, are rituals for which the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed rules.

What matters most is which god one is addressing. The Torah repeatedly warms its readers to restrict themselves to only one god out of the many available in the ancient Middle East. This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“on the mountain”) ends with these instructions:

You must not make for yourselves eliylim, or a pesel; and a matzeivah you must not erect for yourselves; and a maskit stone you must not place in your land for prostrations upon it; because I, God, am your elohim. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:1)

eliylim (אֱלִילִם) = pseudo-gods (often used to refer to gods in other religions)

pesel (פֶּסֶל) = carved image; idol of cut stone or wood (from the verb pasal = carve)

matzeivah (מַצֵּבָה) = standing-stone

maskit (מַשׂכּית) = paving-stone with a design on it, set into the floor of a shrine

elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = gods (plural of eloha = god); God

What strikes me about this warning is that after the general reference to pseudo-gods, we get three examples of idols associated with stone. In contrast, the God of the four-letter name (approximated in English by Y-H-V-H) is associated with a day of rest and a holy place in the next verse:

Shabbetotai you must guard, and mikdashi you must hold in awe; I am God. (Leviticus 26:2)

shabbetotai (שַׁבְּתֹתַי) = my sabbaths

mikdashi (מִקְדָּשִׁי) = my holy place

Shabbat, the sabbath, is a holy time: one day a week when the people must refrain from labor and honor God. A mikdash is a holy place. A shrine with a pesel, matzeivah, or maskit stone might be a mikdash for another god. But this week’s Torah portion quotes the god of Israel as saying mikdashi, MY mikdash. Throughout the book of Leviticus, God’s mikdash is the portable sanctuary Moses assembles in the book of Exodus; God becomes present above the ark in the sanctuary’s innermost chamber. Later in the Bible, the holy place where God becomes present is the temple in Jerusalem. Since the fall of the second temple, some Jews have viewed Jerusalem as God’s holy place, while others have said the holy place is any spot where God becomes present to a human being—as long as it is the correct god.

Both the pseudo-gods and the God of Israel require human actions before they can be worshipped. Humans carve the pseudo-gods out of stones. Humans set aside times and places as holy to the God of the four-letter name.

Like many religious seekers today, I like the more abstract idea of how to approach God. Thinking about time and space dazzles me; looking at a stone sculpture only stimulates my aesthetic sense. But in Biblical times, the sanctuary or the temple was full of tangible objects and decorations made of metals, wood, and thread. Gold flashed, rich colors glowed. And the second temple was built of stone.

A visit to the temple meant not only a feast for the eyes, but an overwhelming experience for the other senses. The Levites chanted psalms and played musical instruments. Priests burned aromatic incense. When you brought any animal offering, you laid your hands on the beast’s hairy head. When you brought a wholeness-offering, a priest burned selected portions into smoke for God, and ate his own portion, but the donor and his guests ate the rest of the meat and bread.

When we make God too abstract, we approach the divine with only one part of ourselves, the rational function of our minds. But our minds are much bigger than that. Reading a prayer silently makes me think about the meaning of words; singing a prayer lifts my spirit. Thinking about time and space dazzles my intellect; looking at a blossoming tree or a smiling face moves my heart with a feeling of the divine.

So I have to reinterpret the phrase:  I, God (the four-letter Y-H-V-H name), am your elohim. Most translations use “the LORD”, a variation of “Y-H-V-H”, or Hashem (“the Name”) for the first god-word, and “God” (always capitalized) for elohim. Yet elohim is a plural, and the Torah occasionally uses the word to refer to multiple gods worshipped by other peoples.

When I come to that phrase, in prayers or in this passage from the portion Behar, I think: I, God, am all gods to you.

In other words, do not get stranded in abstract theories, however dazzling to the intellect. And do not get stuck at the level of a stone carving. Let the stone, or the singing of psalms, or the taste of bread move your heart. Use your head to recognize that the divine is also more than an exalted feeling. And then acknowledge that these things are all part of the holy One.


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.