“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD.” (Lev.25:2)
Up until this point in the Torah, the Sabbath is an institution that the people of Israel guard through their actions. They physically perform the act of observing the sanctified time that is Shabbat. It comes literally like clockwork every week. Here in the final chapters of Leviticus, a different form of the same concept is introduced.
This is speaking of the Shemittah year, or year of release, when the land itself enjoys a Sabbath from the tilling and harvesting of crops. According to the Talmud (Zevachim 11b), this law, given at Sinai, did not take actual effect until the land had been conquered and divided, or a full fourteen years after Israel occupied it, or 54 years after the first giving of the commandment at Sinai. The special circumstances that must be present for this law, as well as the law of Jubilee, have not often been present in Israel.
“It seems doubtful that these special conditions occurred for longer than just a few centuries, as the Torah states, “…proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Lev.25:10). The condition that the Jewish people live throughout the land came to an end once the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of Menassah were driven from their territories in the time of Senacharib (Talmud, Arachin 32b). Only when the majority of the Jewish people are reunited in their land will the mitzvot of Shemittah and Jubilee come into effect again…These laws are applicable only to a nation-state that is totally prepared to be shaped and molded by the will of God…The Shemittah…expresses the conviction that the country can become the complete property of the people only insofar as God grants it to them.” – Rabbi Elie Munk, “The Call of the Torah: Vayikra”, Artscroll, pg.297)
The idea of the responsibility of the inheritors of the land to be stewards, and not lords, is further supported in the text of our portion:
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.” (Lev.25:23)
This is an astounding statement. Instead of the notion that God displaces one group to give Israel the land (a Palestinian claim today that Israel has displaced them), God says that He hasn’t “given” them anything, but rather, He’s only allowing people of His choice to live there for as long as He allows. This, as I said, is something.
This is based upon the biblical idea that God is ultimately the owner of everything in the universe.
Which leads us to our look at the concept of redemption, in Hebrew, Guela, which means to “buy back”.
Redemption, as a concept, is often misunderstood, especially within Christianity. Often, the idea of redemption in the Church is having one’s sins forgiven. But, in the Bible itself, the picture of redemption is found most radically, and dramatically, in the Exodus. It has little to do with the forgiveness of sin and a whole lot to do with “buying back” property.
In Shacharit prayers, each morning, Miriam’s Song of the Sea is recited, and we find the statement;
“until Your people, O LORD, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased (kanita).” (Ex.15:16)
The word, kanita, or purchase, is the root of kinyan, or act of acquisition, a term found in Talmud frequently in the Oral Law of inheritance, gifts and acquisitions.
This idea, in relation to God’s people, and God’s land, presumes a right of ownership. Of course, this actually forms the point behind Genesis 1; it is not to describe the scientific process of how God made the world as much as to establish the fact that He owns the world, and reserves the right to tell people how to live in it.
“(Unlike in Greek thought) The Torah weaves law, ethics, and narrative together using an extraordinary array of literary techniques. (In Leviticus 25-27), it does so in the form of a single word, g-a-l, meaning “to redeem”…(Chapter 25 is about law, Chapter 26 about history, and Chapter 27 is about law again)…What unites (these chapters) is a shared keyword: g-a-l, “to redeem”…nineteen times in Ch.25, twelve times in Ch.27…(not in Ch.26) but another word almost identical, g-‘-l…appears five times…Interestingly, the two words are almost opposite in meaning. The first means to “redeem, buy back, restore to its proper place,” while the second means “to despise, cast away, reject.”…The basic idea of redemption is that the law provides for the possibility of reclaiming land, property, or even liberty…But redemption is more than a legal idea. It is the way the Torah describes God’s intervention in history…Only now, retrospectively, given the laws of Lev.25, do we understand the significance of the first words God commands Moses to say to Pharaoh: “This is what God says: Israel is My son, My firstborn” (Ex.4:22). God is doing more than rescuing people from oppression or liberating slaves. He is engaged in an act of redemption…The fusion here between law, ethics, and narrative, and between God’s interventions in history and our duties within society, is complete.” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Leviticus: The Book of Holiness”, pg.378-379
Shemittah represents liminal space, in that even while the land lies at rest, and certain halachas are changed or suspended, the times of observance of Shabbat and festivals continues unchanged. In a non-Shemittah year, encroaching a field is trespassing, whereas during the Shemittah, it’s a mitzvah to take the fences down and allow the poor and the stray animals to graze the fields. The difference is the conditional element of the presence of an overarching Torah priority that supersedes the pre-existing law; the Shemittah.
Therefore, this is why it is liminal space. There are certain phenomenon that God’s word speaks of that only exist when certain key conditions are met. Yet, in the midst of these special conditions, normal life continues seemingly unchanged. This is a subtle but important point to consider regarding redemption.
Just like the verse in our portion, which is commanded from Sinai, yet only in effect during times when certain conditions are present, the act of redemption (or the moment of redemption, such as the crossing of the Red Sea, or the Resurrection of the Mashiach), does not end the story, because, unlike in Greek philosophy in which certain truths are unalienable and unrelated to circumstance, in Judaism, two seemingly contradictory truths can be present and valid at the same time and yet not cancel each other out, because they each depend on both perspective and the circumstance of time. This means that, for our purposes here, that redemption can happen, and yet not be consummated in its entire scope for a long time afterwards.
When Israel crossed the Red Sea successfully, there was a song of triumph, thankfulness and praise in which Miriam led the people. There was cheering, dancing and (probably) some good ole’ fashioned barn stompin’. But a very short time later, many of them were doing a different kind of dancing; a naked orgy in front of a Golden Calf, which prompted the shattering of the tablets of the Covenant, and predicating the intercession of Moses for the people. Moshe Rabbenu, the First Redeemer.
When Christ surrendered his life on Golgotha, and was buried, God raised him from the dead, and this was a triumphant moment. He had achieved atonement for the nation corporately and for all individuals who had faith in him.
However, like the people in the wilderness, after this amazing event, what follows is an exacerbated length of time in which the people of God do not experience the joy of redemption, but rather, the pain of suffering, of discipline, of being the “offscouring of the earth” (1 Cor.4:13).
How can this be? Is God unfaithful? Did He change His mind about Israel after redeeming them from slavery? Did he change his mind about Yeshua after declaring him to be His Messiah at the baptism of John?
Rabbi Sacks discusses elements of this dichotomy of circumstances with two concepts: One is dialogical imagination, and the other is chronological imagination. He contends both are needed to understand the Bible’s (and Judaism’s) understanding of redemption.
“Though the Torah has a single author (God), it does not speak in a single voice…there are at least three discernible voices, a wisdom voice, a priestly voice, and a prophetic voice, corresponding to the three modes in which God discloses Himself: through creation, revelation, and redemption. Each captures something of reality but none, on its own, portrays it all…How then do you represent the three-dimensional nature of reality?…Torah does it through…dialogical imagination.…(For example) we see (in Gen.21) Sarah (holding) her long-awaited son, then we see the pathos of Hagar and Ishmael, dismissed…and on the brink of death under the heartless desert sky…(Such examples) subvert any simplistic tendency to moralize; to divide reality into black and white. They force us to see the world from more than one point of view….The other way is through chronological imagination. Conflicting propositions may both be valid (the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth) but not at the same time.” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Leviticus: The Book of Holiness”, Maggid, pg.384-385
He gives an eloquent example of a man who muses about two truths that create an inherent contradiction in circumstance: A man’s son is jailed for stealing. On the one hand, as a citizen he must stand for justice and not provide preferential treatment. On the other, he is his father, and is driven to extend mercy and love. The question is; “What is the correct response?” The answer: “Both”.
“The chronological imagination was one of the great gifts of Torat Kohanim (the Law of the Priesthood). The priest guards the border between sacred and secular, eternity and mortality, the physical and spiritual, the infinite and finite…At one level of reality, all that exists is God. At another, all that exists is human beings and their devices and desires. The separation between heaven and hell is what makes the universe and human life possible. but their connection is what makes human life meaningful. The priest resolves the contradiction between sacred and secular by seeing both as true and valid, but we can only experience them at different times.” – IBID
These are powerful ideas. And they validate important truths about the work that God has done in our lives, both individually and collectively, even when the reality of this work is not always present in our circumstances, or is incomplete in its manifestation.
Redemption may have indeed occurred. But this does not mean that life ceases to be a struggle. Grace may have come down, but this does not remove Law. The cure for what ails us has arrived, but the disease lingers on.
When Israel crossed the sea, technically, they were “saved”. Yet the vast majority of them perished having never tasted of the Promised Land. We must understand that the same will be true of those who profess Messiah.
“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'” (Matt.7:22-23)
The parallel is real and sobering. Does this mean, as some would say, that a person was never “saved”? Well, was Israel delivered from the clutches of Pharaoh? Yes. But the people need to persevere through the chronological imagination of Torah to attain the reality of the promise, even as our circumstance is a form of contradiction; of dialogical imagination. It takes time, this redemption of God. It involves not only faith, but Law, relationship, perseverance, knowledge and understanding. We must study, we must apply, we must learn, we must do, and we will attain, if our faith does not waver.
In the literal text of our parsha, God declares through Moses, “…the land is mine.”
If this is so, then why does Israel, today, have to share the land God gave her with others who are not friendly to her and reject Her claims?
Because, unlike in Greek philosophy, truth is not always perfectly present regardless of circumstance. In God’s economy, some truths co-exist with other truths that contradict each other, unless one considers a third factor: time. You could be the right person, with the right idea, but if you are at the wrong time, you will not fulfill the vision. We must wait for it.
“For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end – it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” (Hab.2:3)
The promise is not guaranteed to us, personally. It is guaranteed to a category of people who work for, and wait for, the vision to become manifest. In our Torah portion, we see the same reality:
“(If you do not obey My Laws) I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate it shall have rest.” (Lev.26:33-34)
One last thing regarding redemption, “guela“, is that it does not come free. The Mashiach provides atonement for the soul, but we must understand that the LORD has not absolved you from making atonement for your land, for your inheritance. If you wish to be delivered to the promised inheritance, you and I must understand that it’s not an individual journey, it’s a task of a community. I say this in a metaphorical sense, and I speak of the land in this way as a metaphor for the ground which God has promised you. However, it also applies to the land of Israel itself. To divorce Israel from the land is to divorce the gospel from Israel.
This is one of the fascinating aspects of Torah. The Laws and Ordinances of God enable not just for us to know God, but to love God by loving others. The hope of deliverance is mechanized through the routine of obedience.
This is not a monastic journey; the journey of redemption. It’s a journey that gets messy quickly, because we are dealing with others, and other people rarely share our priorities or our perspectives on everything. So, life must be negotiated. The negotiation is sometimes humorous, and often it can be tragic.
The greatest suffering ever inflicted upon a people group in human history was the Shoah; the Holocaust of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany, under the leadership of Hitler. We blink even today, but it really happened. The next thing that happened in Israel’s history, which was inconceivable, really, was the rebirth of the state of Israel. The cost of the re-emergence of the Biblical nation of Israel, then, was 6 million souls. Is this too steep a price? Of course it is. But now that it has been paid, is it not worth fighting to keep?
The Shemitah and the Jubilee are wonderful promises of blessing and equality, but if we don’t work towards the conditions that will facilitate their relevance, we will never see them.
A fundamentalist will read our text in Leviticus and say that Israel should never negotiate with the Palestinians, since God gave Israel all of the land of promise, not just some of it. He says so, right in the word.
However, a proper understanding of redemption, of guela, and a proper understanding of what Rabbi Sacks calls chronological imagination, helps to understand the process of redemption that we see playing out in Israel. The great Lubavitcher Rebbe, the most revered figure in modern Judaism, denounced negotiations with the Palestinians to concede land. The Rebbe was correct, of course, but only eventually (as time will show). In the meantime, there is negotiation.
Abraham could have reacted in similar fashion as the Rebbe when it came time to bury Sarah. After, all, the land had been “given” to him by God. Yet, in spite of this, Abraham paid the full price for the cave of Machpelah, because there were other inhabitants whose interests overlapped Abraham’s. He trusted God to work it out. I wrote about this incident here: Triumphalism and the Promises of God
Both Jews and Christians can easily make the mistake of thinking that the only spiritual journey that matters is internal. It is not. It is also physical. It involves the land, it involves our neighbor, and it involves our enemies.
As we see in the Torah, even the land has a process of redemption and release.
Redemption is not accomplished in a moment, but over the arc of time.