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Sabbatical

05/04/2010

This week, another double-hitter. Two portions: Behar and Bechukotai, “On the mountain” and “My laws,” both concerned in one way or the other with the land and how we inhabit it.

First, Behar, with its prescribed sabbaticals for the fields and all who work them. Six years the land can be sown and the vineyard pruned, but in the 7th year: none of the above. No reaping or gathering by you, your slaves, your bound laborers, your cattle or beasts. Plan ahead and eat from your storehouses or pick the growth direct from the field, but nothing more. Then after seven times seven years, sound the horn and hallow the 50th year. Everyone comes back to their original holding. No holding on past your time — the earth is not ours, but belongs to God. No cheating of your neighbor or brethren will be tolerated. All clocks must be set back to noon, the (you’ll pardon the pun) playing field leveled.

Then, Bechukotai, with a graphic sneak preview of what happens if the Israelites fail to live up to this instruction or ignore God’s commandments in general. If we (not you, not me) — if we do what is expected of us, then it’s rain in the right season, bread and security, peace in the land. Favor and fertility. But whooey, fail to live up to our end and sevenfold will we be punished with misery, consumption, copper skies, trees that refuse to yield their fruit. There will be pestilence and starvation, cities in ruin and destroyed sanctuaries. We will be sold to our enemies, eat our young.

And then, in the midst of our humiliation and pain, will the land finally celebrate its year off, its sabbath.

This week’s offering, Postcard from the Avenue of Forgetting, was written after a trip to Beit She’an, an archaeological site in central Israel. We visited there in 2004 on a hot day when foreign tourists were still staying away. Bruce & I walked through the mostly empty acres where Israelites & Canaanites & Egyptians & Greeks & Arabs once lived — a total of 18 different groups piled up layer upon layer, each civilization convinced that they would live there forever. Each willing to spill the previous inhabitants’ blood on the soil to make this dream stick. Each thrown over in its turn. It was a humbling reminder of how temporary we are in the face of the land’s long witness.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan Price permalink
    05/06/2010 3:41 pm

    I’ve always been uncomfortable with the “50 years and the land goes back to its original owner” thing. This along with the oldest son inherits most everything, establishes a landed aristocracy. The “haves” are those who are an oldest son of an oldest son of… of some guy who lived centuries ago. If your father’s father’s father owned no land, then you’re a nobody. What’s more,the sabbatical reversion essentially requires something like the practice of everything going to the oldest son; otherwise the land would be continually divided into ever smaller tracts. If I sold out my share to a sibling, 50 years later it would come back either to me or my heirs; to then be further subdivided. Frankly, I’m even more bothered by the arithmetic unworkability than I am by the unfairness of it. (It’s somewhat like hyphenating last names at marriage; it works for one generation, but imagine keeping it up for ten!)
    I’m an oldest son by the way, but my father and his father both had older brothers.

    • sue swartz permalink*
      05/06/2010 6:37 pm

      I take your point and was intrigued by it, so I did a little research. Near as I can tell, some of the point of the Jubilee year (much of it, perhaps) was about debt relief — that if you got yourself in debt and your creditor took your land as payment, at year 50, all bets were off. This was a pretty good deal if the transaction happened in year 48, a little more theoretical if it happened 6 months after the last sabbatical year ended. Also slaves and other indentured servants were to be set free. The practical result might be that land ends up in fewer hands, or primarily tribally delineated hands, but I’m not sure that this particular intent is all bad.

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