Dara Frimmer is associate rabbi at Temple Isaiah, a Reform congregation in Los Angeles.
Imagine having acquired a piece of property. Truly investing in it. Maybe building a new house, planting trees, landscaping. And then, one day, you and all your neighbors who bought and developed property in the last 50 years give back the land to the original owners.
This is Yovel — the Jubilee year. Every 50 years, on the Day of Atonement, a shofar will be sounded, “and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a Yovel for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family” (Leviticus 25:10). According to the Torah, every 50 years land returns to its original owner, and bound laborers return home to their families.
What is the reason? “For the land is Mine,” God says. “You are but strangers resident with Me” (Leviticus 25:23).
We may think we purchase and possess our property, but in fact we are just temporary residents on God’s land. In a similar tone, the parasha says that we do not own our servants — an ancient (and perhaps modern) symbol of wealth and power. “No,” God says, “they are My servants — asher hotzaiti otam me’eretz Mitzrayim — whom I freed from the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 25:42).
Perhaps the Torah wants us to recognize that nothing we think of as ours is truly ours. We don’t own our land. We don’t own our wealth. And Yovel, the practice of redistributing land and freeing bound laborers, reminds us of this truth in case we had forgotten.
Yet here is the beauty of our tradition: Our lack of ownership does not diminish us. Rather, it elevates us. Through the celebration of Yovel we become the conduits through which God performs acts of radical justice.
In Parashat Behar, when people begin to sell their land or themselves, all the examples begin with the following phrase: v’chi yamooch achicha (Leviticus 25:25, 25:35, 25:39). The phrase is commonly translated, “If your kinsman is in straits,” but the verb “yamooch” is better translated as, “to be low, depressed or to grow poor.” Accordingly, we may translate the text, “If your kinsman is impoverished,” or better still, “If your kinsman is entering a state of extreme poverty, and as a result must now sell part of his holding ... or give himself over to you” then the following laws apply.
We like to think that our society is one in which anyone can succeed. It just takes hard work, discipline and dedication. But the cycle of poverty can enslave even those with the most committed efforts to break free. Perhaps this is why the rabbis see poverty as the most severe form of suffering: “There is no quality more difficult than poverty … [for] anyone who suffers from poverty it is as if all of the sufferings of the world are attached to this person, and as if all of the curses mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy have happened upon this person. Our rabbis taught: If one were to put poverty on one side of a scale and all of the other sufferings of the world on the other side, poverty would outweigh all of the others” (Midrash Rabbah on Exodus 31).
Yovel radically addresses poverty by redistributing wealth and power. Those who were forced to sell themselves into servitude are released. Their land is returned. The cycle of poverty is broken. And we are the ones responsible for enacting this system of radical justice. We are the ones to return the land. We are the ones to transform people from bound laborers into free men and women.
Today, we do not celebrate Yovel according to these exact words of the Torah. Yet the parasha remains a part of our written and oral tradition — a remnant of who we were and a reminder of who God would like us to be. We remain God’s partners in bringing about the redemption of our land and of our world. We are expected to think creatively and courageously about justice, equality and the dignity of every human being, especially those who are impoverished.
On this Shabbat, as we read aloud this ancient blueprint for radical justice, let us encourage our own bold, imaginative, original thinking about poverty, ownership and the redistribution of wealth. On this Shabbat, let us recognize anew the redeeming role we play in partnership with God and one another.