Once again, we have a double Torah portion this week. We read the last two portions of the book of Leviticus, Behar (Lev. 25: 1 – 26:2) and Bechukotai (Lev. 26:3 – 27:34).
Parshah Behar describes the Sabbatical (shemittah) and Jubilee (yovel) years as they will be observed once the Israelites come into the land. God directs Moses to tell the people that they may plant and reap for six years, but in the seventh year, the land must be allowed to lie fallow. Since the Israelites are to be an agricultural people, they too will rest in the Sabbatical year. Following the seventh of seven cycles of years, the fiftieth would be the Jubilee year, in which land that had been bought, sold, traded and exchanged would be returned to the original owners and certain categories of bondsmen and women would be freed.
Although the Sabbatical and the Jubilee are obviously related and intertwined, there was a significant difference in their practical application. Whether or not God’s bounty was sufficient to see the Israelites through the seventh year, we know that the law of the Sabbatical year was obeyed for almost the entire time that the people lived in Israel. We have no such proof for the observance of the Jubilee. Some modern scholars think that it was a lofty and dramatic but ultimately unenforceable way of reminding the Israelites that property belonged not to them but to God. In The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rabbi Gunther Plaut states that: “The ideal past, which the jubilee legislation sought to restore, probably never existed”.
The ideal past probably never existed. The Sabbatical year must have been difficult, but it was manageable. The Jubilee is an impossible dream. It expresses a noble goal, but a goal that can never be achieved, because it presupposes that things can be put back as they were and that the past can be restored. Israel, in its first flush of conquest, took possession of the land that God had promised to its ancestors, and every fifty years, we are bidden to return to that time. Except that it can’t be done. People change; they die and are born, they form new families, they move around. The land changes: there are droughts and floods, trees fall down, rocks slide, landmarks become indistinguishable. Time takes its toll on the land and the people. We cannot go back in time. We can re-enact, we can remember. But we cannot re-create.
The Jubilee was intended as a means of release, and the lesson of that release for us is spelled out by the impossibility of its observance. Perhaps what God was trying to teach us by giving us the unmanageable task of re-creating the past is that it even though it can’t be accomplished; humans must try it in order to learn that it will fail. The Jubilee teaches us that we can’t change the past, or fix it, or bring it back, but we can honor it, and we must remember it. Because once we have remembered and reconciled with our past, we can be released to go forward and build our future.