Imagine a world in which no sale of property is final; a world in which, every fifty years, a nation’s economy is turned completely upside down as land is returned to its original owners. Real estate empires would crumble, with massive land holdings divvied up into small farms overnight. Thousands of impoverished tenants would be transformed into landlords, with each family reclaiming its ancient heritage.
It sounds fantastical, but this is an accurate description of Yovel, the Jubilee year described in Parshat Behar. Every fifty years, on Yom Kippur day, the shofar was blown throughout the land of Israel. With the call of the shofar, each man returned to his family’s ancestral land, and all Hebrew servants were set free. And for the entire Yovel year, the land would lie fallow; “for it is a jubilee; it shall be holy unto you.” (Vayikra 25:12).
Although the Yovel year has not been practically operative for close to 2,500 years (since the destruction of the first Temple), it nevertheless demands explanation. Why does G-d call require a dramatic restructuring of the economy every fifty years? And what are we – 21st century Jews – meant to learn from the Mitzvah of Yovel?
When our ancestors first crossed the Jordan River and entered the land of Israel, each family received its own portion of the land. From that time forward, every Jew was bound up with his unique piece of earth, working and developing it and ultimately passing it on to his children.
In Jewish thought, the ownership of land represents something more fundamental than an economic asset, something deeper than rock and soil. Each portion of land symbolizes its owner’s unique “portion” in life; for just as every plot of land is unique, so too are our life circumstances. Some portions of land are easy to cultivate, while others are arid or mountainous. So too, some of us are born wealthy, others poor; some receive the gift of kind and loving parents, while others are fated to grow up in dysfunctional homes.
When our forefathers entered the land of Israel, they did not have the right to choose where they would live, as each tribe received its land by lottery. In the same way, we do not have the luxury of choosing our “portions” in life. We are born with a unique blend of strengths and weaknesses, challenges and opportunities, all of which are predetermined. As the Rabbis taught, “length of life, children and sustenance depend not on merit but rather on fortune (מזל).” (Moed Katan 28a)
Though the people did not have the right to select their portion of land, it was up to each individual Jew to decide how to use and develop his land. Would he appreciate his land’s unique topography, and use the land effectively? Would he invest the time and effort to make his land as productive as possible?
This, of course, is the same challenge that every human being faces in life. Though we cannot choose the life circumstances into which we are born, we can choose what to do with the unique portion we are granted. Will we identify and develop our particular strengths, while learning how to manage our weaknesses? Will we invest the necessary energy to actualize our own unique form of spiritual “work” (“עבודת השם”)?
Pitfalls and challenges abound. It can be difficult to focus on developing our own small plots of land, particularly when the land belonging to others is far more fertile and rich than ours! Our eyes focused elsewhere, we may neglect our own soil, allowing weeds to take root and crops to go untended. Ultimately, we may give up hope altogether, and take the tragic step of selling our ancestral lands to others.
The parallel to our own lives is clear. We constantly compare our religious accomplishments to those of others, judging our own strengths and accomplishments by how they match up to the accomplishments of others in the community. Self-knowledge is not easily or quickly acquired, and it can be difficult to find joy in our achievements when they seem to pale in comparison to those of our friends. All too often, we mimic the way others serve G-d, abandoning our own, unique potential. In short, we lose ourselves.
“Rabbi Elazar said: Any man who does not possess land is not a man, as the verse states, ‘And the land was given to the children of man.’” (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehillim 115) To be a “man,” to fulfill our purpose in this life, each of us must hold onto our unique “portion”, our particular way of serving G-d.
This is why G-d requires Jewish society to undergo an extraordinary upheaval during the Yovel year, why “you shall return every man unto his possession.” For Yovel is about far more than land and economics; it is about the return of every individual to his authentic self! The word “Yovel” (יובל) is comprised of the same letters as “my heart” (לבי), for through the Yovel experiences, our hearts are awakened! “I sleep, but my heart is awakened,” “אֲנִי יְשֵׁנָה, וְלִבִּי עֵר” (Shir haShirim 5:2). Yovel shakes us awake, and calls out to our hearts: return to who you are, to whom you are meant to be!
It is no coincidence that the national return of Yovel – when each man returned to his land and all servants returned to their families – took place on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and return. Yom Kippur is the day when every Jew returns – to G-d, and to his own essential self. Yovel is Yom Kippur writ large!
In certain ways, our current crisis shares characteristics of Yovel. The economy has ground to a halt, as it did during the Yovel year: “You shall not sow [your land], nor reap that which grows of itself in it, nor gather the grapes…” (Vayikra 25:11). Like Yovel, which freed slaves and reunited them with their families, our current quarantine has torn us away from work and school, forcing us to focus our attention on our spouses and children. “And you shall return every man unto his family…” (Vayikra 25:10) And like Yovel, COVID 19 has disrupted our lives, but it has also freed us – to stop imitating the ways of others, to embrace our unique portions in life, and to become the authentic Jews we are destined to be!
וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ, לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ; יוֹבֵל הִוא, תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם
Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all of its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee unto you…