By Rabbi Richard Hirsh for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
LandParashat Behar is primarily concerned with rules and regulations pertaining to the land of Israel. We read the description of the laws governing the sabbatical ("Shmitta") years in which the land was to lie fallow one out of every seven years. We learn of the idea of the Jubilee year, which occurred every fifty years, when property that had passed out of a family by reason of economic necessity reverted to the original owners.
The Torah also teaches that each Jubilee year was an opportunity for anyone who had been forced to self himself into servitude to redeem himself, even if his master was a resident alien, i.e., not a member of the Israelite community.
Leviticus concludes with a graphic vision of the desolation of the land of Israel and the dispersal of the Israelite people if, after entering the land, they fail to fulfill the Covenant obligations of the Torah. Exile and oppression, couched as a warning, are described in terrifying terms.
"For the Land is Mine [says God]; you are but strangers resident with Me" (Leviticus 25:23). With this brief but powerful verse, the Torah strives to dispel the perhaps inevitable tendency for the ancient Israelites -- and modern Jews -- to assume that ultimate authority over the land of Israel belongs to people, rather than to God.
There is an important connection between the idea that the land is ultimately God's, and the idea that every fifty years, at least, servants are given the opportunity to be set free. Both rules testify to the unique vision of God and of humanity that the Torah seeks to establish.
Despite the emotional exuberance of the song "Exodus" -- "This land is mine, God gave this land to me" -- Jewish tradition was concerned to communicate that this inheritance was contingent, not necessary; that it was potentially eternal, but also potentially transient.