Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 18 May 2019 / 13 Iyyar 5779

Parshat Behar

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Yovel: Diversity and Equality

In this parsha we are introduced to the 7-year shemita cycle and the 50-year Yovel cycle, which would recur every seven shemita cycles. Both cycles were of profound importance in the spiritual, social and political life on the nation. Here we focus on the Yovel, which is characterized by three unique mitzvot: sounding the shofar, freeing of all Jewish servants, and the reversion of all land to its original landowner.

Yovel is a conjugate of the word yaval,which in the active form means “to bring.” Another conjugate is yevul, which is the yield that the land “brings home” to its owner. Yovel literally means “that which brings,” or more precisely, “that which brings home.” The Yovel restores people and property to their proper place and order.

Similar to Yom Kippur’s effect of moral rebirth of the individual each year, Yovel effects the moral rebirth of the nation once in fifty years. This rebirth has a healing and restorative effect on the nation’s internal and external affairs.

Many societal ills are the product of social class differences and unequal distribution of property. The sharp contrasts between wealth and poverty, independence and dependence are muted during the Yovel year by the restitution of property and release of servants.

Interestingly, a prerequisite for Yovel to be in force is that the whole nation must dwell in the Land of Israel. The Land was originally divided into twelve provinces, and each tribe took residence in its allotted portion. There is a deep relationship between Israel’s mission in the world and the diversity of the twelve tribes. The diverse characteristics are first given expression in the separate farewell blessings of Yaakov to each of his sons. Throughout their sojourn in Egypt, they retained their tribal identities and camped separately in the desert. In the individual farewell blessings of Moshe, the tribal characteristics are given further definition, in many instances relating specifically to the tribe’s destined portion in the Land of Israel.

The settling of Israel in the Land intended for it is referred to in many places as “planting.” The original “planting” of each tribe in its on portion was deliberate, and the attainment of the national aim — which the mitzvah of Yovel promotes — depends on the settlement of the whole nation on its land and of each tribe in that part of the land best suited for the development of the tribe’s unique characteristics. Thus, during Yovel, property that had been sold reverted back to its original owner, preserving the tribal population placement.

Another striking purpose was served by the restoration of property. The automatic reversion of landed property to their original owners or their heirs prevented class disparity. It precluded the rise of an economic system whereby some families must live in perpetual poverty, while huge tracts of land remain in the hands of a privileged few. A class of wealthy landowners living in the midst of landless and dependent poor — the caste system that dominated Europe for centuries — could never come to be in the Land of Israel. Every one returned home in the Yovel year.

The Yovel year also functioned as an additional Sabbatical year, during which all work on the field was prohibited. Everyone was to consider himself as though he had received his field anew from G-d’s Hand. By laying down his hoe and sickle, every landowner proclaimed that the land belongs to G-d; and that prosperity and independence will flow from Him alone.

In this way, the national ‘Yom Kippur’ brought about a spiritual and political renewal of the people. May we experience it again speedily in our days.

  • Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 25:10-12; 34

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