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Leviticus Proclaiming Release: Why We Need a Jubilee Now

By Rabbi Ilana Zietman
R Ilana Zietman, 70 Faces of Torah

Parashat Behar Leviticus 25:1-26:2

My two-year-old is starting to use new words at an overwhelmingly rapid pace. As a parent, it is incredible to witness his growing ability to express himself and to communicate with others. Half the time his scattered sentences are fairly helpful in understanding what he wants, and the other half of the time, his speech is an entertaining mix of singing, gibberish and playful chatter. The other day, though, he declared something that made me pause: “Mine!” I don’t remember what he was referring to, but it was something unremarkable in my hand. I wondered how he had already internalized the concept of personal property, and to my surprise, immediately started to worry that he was going to develop a problematic relationship with things (and the people who have things he wants) if I didn’t intervene fast. On the one hand, the idea of ownership allows my son to claim autonomy and experiment with independence in a world that is largely controlled by the adults in his life. But on the other hand, my kiddo already needs to understand that ownership comes with limits and responsibilities.

This week’s parashah, Behar, speaks to just that. Leviticus 25 outlines the instructions for the Israelites to observe two significant calendar cycles, Shmita and Yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Shmita prescribes a complete rest to farmland every seven years and Yovel requires a total reset of ownership and debt relationships every fifty years. Regarding the Yovel, which takes up the vast majority of the parashah, God says:

You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month—the Day of Atonement—you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. (Leviticus 25:8-10)

After seven Shmita cycles, “all tenured land reverts to its original owners and all indentured Israelites return to their homes,”1 meaning that ownership is routinely undermined by what the Torah calls deror, or release. Unlike this verse’s use on the Liberty Bell—Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land—Jewish commentators understand the Yovel as pertaining to the specific context of relinquishing private property (which at the time wrongly included people).

Leviticus emphasizes that no sale of land can really be considered final. The reason is twofold: because any person or family who is forced to sell or mortgage their land due to financial constraints will one day retrieve their property, and because the land is ultimately not anyone’s to give or take away.

God says directly to the people, “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim (l’tzmitut), for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident (geirim v’toshavim) with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). The Israelites were to understand that land cannot be sold l’tzmitut, in perpetuity, because God is the ultimate owner. The laws of Yovel thus reminded the Israelites of a greater truth, that they are strangers who have the privilege of dwelling on God’s land, just like the geirim v’toshavim, the resident aliens they are commanded again and again to host in their midst. While this makes for a humbling economic and social policy, it also makes for a radically humbling spiritual one.

To live as if one is uprooted—or can be uprooted at any point—is the exact opposite of how most of us tend to function. As humans, we generally crave permanence and stability, and as my son shows me daily, a feeling of ownership and agency over everything we have and do.

Eleventh-century Spanish philosopher Bachya ibn Pekuda acknowledged these natural tendencies and took the idea of living like geirim v’toshavim in a fascinating direction. In his treatise, Duties of the Heart, Ibn Pekuda challenges readers to embrace the inner experience of the stranger:

A person should make an accounting with themselves of the conditions incumbent upon a stranger in this world and should regard their position in it as similar to that of a stranger arriving in a foreign land… As it says, “The land cannot be sold permanently…” (Duties of the Heart: Eighth Treatise on Cheshbon Hanefesh, 3:238).

Unlike the many times God tells the Israelites to remember they were once strangers in a strange land, Yovel asks the Israelites to act like strangers in their own land. There’s a dissonance to and vulnerability in letting go of what we see as home. Ibn Pekuda urges us to adopt the mental and emotional stance of a foreigner so that we can cultivate the humility that comes with feeling out of place. This teaching asks us to consciously cultivate moments of uncertainty, unfamiliarity and dependence.

I can’t imagine Ibn Pekuda was naive about the real and physical dangers of being a foreigner, but I do think he understood that personal growth requires the periodic relinquishing of whatever ideas, viewpoints or ways of being one tends to hold onto most tightly. Just as the Yovel‘s release of property brings about social and economic equilibrium, so too Ibn Pekuda’s release of certainty sparks a kind of spiritual equilibrium.

This reading of the Yovel speaks to me in this moment of polarization and fierce exhibitions of certainty. I now understand why the Torah says that the Yovel is to be announced on Yom Kippur, a day filled with spiritual release, be it of vows or any sense of ultimate control over our lives. It must also be why the Yovel is described as an Omer of years, a counting of “seven weeks of years,” just like the counting of seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot during which we engage in serious soul-searching as we ready ourselves to receive Torah.

For many practical reasons, the Jewish people no longer observe the Yovel, but it’s nonetheless vital to consider its spiritual power. It is a natural and beautiful thing to know exactly what we believe and to hold tightly to what we want, to feel at home in our minds.. But imagine what more complex and comprehensive truths the release of our own ideas could ultimately allow us to embrace if we were to follow the challenge of the Yovel every so often. Maybe this is the year to take the Yovel seriously even if we can’t take it literally.

1Baruch Levine, JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, p.169

Rabbi Ilana Zietman (she/her) loves to create Jewish experiences and foster communities that are relevant, thought-provoking, and — most importantly — welcoming. In her role as Senior Rabbi at GatherDC, you can find Rabbi Ilana teaching Jewish learning cohorts, leading retreats, offering creative approaches to Jewish holidays, and providing pastoral care and guidance to Jewish 20s and 30s. Rabbi Ilana received her rabbinic ordination and a Master’s degree in Jewish Education from Hebrew College in 2019. She currently lives in Washington, DC with her family.

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