Adapted from Parasha U’Likcha by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
After Joshua’s conquest of Israel, the land was divided into portions. Each of the twelve tribes received part of the country. The portions were further subdivided by families. Every member of the Jewish People received a plot of real estate to call their own.
For private citizens and for society at large, the situation was ideal. But it didn’t stay that way for long. Trade and enterprise demanded the give-and-take of goods, including land. Real estate was bought and sold. Estates changed hands. And little by little over the years, a new map of Israel emerged. A map marked by large-scale private land ownership. Gone were the plots divided by family. Initiative and tenacity had turned some men into the financial elite, and turned other men empty-handed. By this time, many of the Jewish People were no longer property owners at all. Financial dependence had changed their life situation completely. The chasm between the rich and the poor opened wide.
That is, until the fiftieth year. The Yovel year.
When fifty years had passed since the land had been conquered and divided, Yom Kippur heralded in a new year with the cry of the shofar. The sound marked a new beginning: freedom! Justice! Liberty! The Torah had commanded that every fiftieth year, called the jubilee or yovel year, all land would be returned to its original owners and their descendents. With the dawn of the yovel year, the chains of capital gain were shed. The gap between rich and poor disappeared. Equality and freedom became the rule once again:
“You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants; it shall be the Jubilee Year for you, you shall return each man to his ancestral heritage and you shall return each man to his family” (Leviticus 25:10).
Every man returned to the soil his family had originally owned. The most basic of possessions – land – reverted back to its original owners. All debts were declared null and void by Torah law. Those whose dire circumstances had left no choice but to sell themselves into slavery were now free to raise their heads, take a deep breath, and reclaim their independence. The warm blessings of their masters rung in their ears on their way back home: “You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants... and you shall return each man to his family” (ibid).
Freedom rang through the air, true freedom. Equality was restored for all. The social hierarchy that had developed over the years melted away. Economic balance and opportunity were set back into place for every citizen. During the yovel year, working the land for profit was prohibited, and all were free to gather in any field and orchard. It was a wonderful moment.
And afterwards, when the joyful yovel had been completed? When the old year came to a close and the sun rose on a new day? What then?
The process began all over again. The free market was opened for trade. The give-and-take of business went underway. The obstacle course of achievement, acquisition, power, and success – or failure – beckoned once again, and all were free to run the course, try their prowess, and end up where they may...until the next fifty-year-mark was up.
It’s easy to see how the mitzvah of yovel offers a solution for many modern social ills. The ancient tenets behind the yovel cycle, if practiced worldwide, would bring about a new, more equitable division of resources for all.
But putting these tenets into practice depends on one particular “detail” that nobody seems to mention. For some reason, whenever yovel-based values like “social justice” and “the equitable division of resources” get thrown around, it seems that this “small detail” simply gets “forgotten” along the way. Nonetheless, yovel-based practices and values will never come to fruition without it.
This “small detail” is made plain in one of the verses related to the mitzvah: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; for you are sojourners and residents with Me” (ibid, 23).
Notice the addition? This “minor” philosophical “detail” describes the ideology that puts a motor behind the entire mitzvah. The verse tempers the freedom granted every man, freedom to exert his mastery over his possessions and land without restriction, with a respect for the true, absolute master and owner of all things: “...For the land is Mine” (ibid).
Actualizing the utopian vision of yovel reveals a surprising need for religious vocabulary. Land ownership can only be relinquished in the face of a greater land Owner. Freedom for all men can result only from a recognition of their fundamental equality as products of the same Creator.