Rabbi Chaim Ickovits (1749–1821, popularly known as Reb Chaim Volozhiner), the primary disciple of the Vilna Gaon and founder of the modern-day yeshiva movement, was once asked to adjudicate between two litigants that both claimed ownership of the same parcel of land.
The rabbi bent himself over, touched his ear to the ground and remained there deep in thought. When the surprised onlookers asked him what he was doing, he responded that he had wanted to listen so he could discern what the land itself thought about the dispute, and he heard it say: “You are both (eventually) mine, now what’s this fight about anyway?”
The Torah says that “The land should not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; for you are sojourners and residents with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). This refers to the fact that under normal circumstances, hereditary real estate in the Land of Israel cannot be permanently sold. It reverts to its original owner in the Jubilee year.
The Jubilee year also ushered in emancipation of slaves. These laws, along with the laws of the Sabbatical year which limit planting, harvesting and commerce with crops for an entire year, all have a similar message and lesson. The Almighty lets us, the “sojourners and (temporary) residents,” use His earth — but no part of that earth ever really becomes our property.
The primary lesson of these laws is evidently to impress upon us the gratitude that we owe Him for entertaining us as guests in his magnificent universe and for being our incredible host. Yet the law that limits the duration of sale of real estate in the Land of Israel imparts an additional, and somewhat somber, message as well.
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz points out that the law that disallows eternal sale of the Land of Israel is based on the fact that man himself is not eternal. An effect cannot be more powerful than its cause; in the Torah’s economic system, man cannot make an eternal transfer of real estate since he himself is not eternal.
The Torah reminds us, via this law, of our mortality. If by thinking about our mortality we are saddened, we are missing the point of this reminder. The benefit and objective of this type of thinking is to make us live more effectively and more maturely.
We, as human beings, can look at all our activities, habits, relationships, pastimes and behavior in front of a backdrop of how long our life in this world really is. We, as human beings, can take the message of our mortality to heart and raise ourselves above pettiness, live with purpose and focus on our legacy — we can live the message of the temporary sale of the Land of Israel.
How much more poignant this message becomes as we navigate our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, and we deeply feel, perhaps more than ever before, how fragile and precious life is. Earlier this week we celebrated the holiday of Lag B’Omer which commemorates the great Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (second century CE) and his mysticism.
One of the most memorable stories about him is appropriate for our isolation for the last couple of months.
To escape a Roman death sentence, he hid in a cave with his son for 13 years.
The Talmud relates that when they eventually emerged, they had acquired a different perspective on the world and life and a deeper understanding of Torah which they focused on during their isolation.
If we emerge from our own contemporary “caves” unchanged, we will have lost a golden opportunity. May we all merit that when we — when it is safe — eventually emerge, we emerge like Rabbi Shimon as deeper, bigger and more spiritually sensitive individuals — living the lesson of our inability to make an eternal sale. JN
Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs is director of the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth, rabbi at Beth Joseph Congregation and director of the Jewish Enrichment Center.