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Shavuot: Why Isn't "Torah Day" Actually In the Torah?
Video 4 of 6
The truth is that it does two things. And both of these things might have had a great deal of relevance to the nation of Israel that, wandering through the desert, experienced the revelation at Sinai, and then experienced the Jericho conquest. These two things that Yovel does are expressed by the Torah in the following language:
וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ, לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ; יוֹבֵל הִוא, תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם, וְשַׁבְתֶּם אִישׁ אֶל-אֲחֻזָּתוֹ, וְאִישׁ אֶל-מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשֻׁבוּ.
You should proclaim freedom throughout the land, it’s a Yovel year for you, and each man will return to his ancestral plot, and people will return to their families, slaves will return to their families as well. First, the Torah says that people return to their ancestral holdings; which is to say, ancestral land that was sold, goes back, in the Yovel year, to its original ancestral holder. Okay, so just to review, the Torah says that land goes back to its primary owner. And slaves are released.
Hmm… do you see how these two things might have been more than idle curiosities for the Israelites on their journey through the desert?
Let’s first talk about land. The Israelites were about to conquer the Land of Canaan. But in a deep way, they weren’t really “conquering” it. They weren’t occupying someone else’s land. There was a Yovel event that was going on simultaneously with the conquest. The land was returning to a deeper owner, to an ancestral owner. The land had been promised as an ancestral holding to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our forefathers who had lived in this land long ago, and had been promised it. That land was now returning to its rightful place as the inheritance of the Children of Israel.
When the Shofar blast sounded at Jericho, it truly was the Shofar of the Yovel. The seven circuits of the people on the seven days, and the seven circuits on the seventh day – it was like the seven times seven circuits of time that comprise the forty nine years of the Yovel cycle. A Yovel event was happening. And, as a consequence, the walls of Jericho were going to come tumbling down.
It wasn’t a coincidence that the walls came tumbling down – that this, of all things, was the mode by which Israel would take possession of Jericho. It would happen through the walls coming down because walls signify ownership. The Canaanite walls would evaporate, because their hold on the land – not just their physical control of the land, but their legal control, their title – was evaporating. The Land of Canaan was going back to its deeper owner, the progeny of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They were the ancestral holders of the land.
Okay, so much for Jericho. But what about at Sinai? In what way was Sinai a Yovel-like event?
Well, remember that Yovel does a second thing, too; it doesn’t just release ancestral land back to its original owners. It also takes slaves and makes them free.
Interesting. That would have been the second great imperative for the Children of Israel. Freedom. Because think of these people on a journey through the desert – so yeah, at the endpoint of that journey, once they got to the Land, then, yes, it would be important to them that the Land would belong to them, that title would revert to them; that the land they were entering was really going to be theirs – but remember, at Sinai, they hadn’t yet gotten to the land. They had just left Egypt. That was what was on their mind. And in Egypt they were… slaves.
Yes, having escaped Egypt, they were no longer subjugated by cruel Egyptian masters. But is it possible that, on some level, they were not yet completely free? In other words, could it be that an escaped slave is not the same as a fully free person? Might Sinai, then, have been the event that finally freed them, in some ultimate sense? In other words, could Sinai have been their Yovel event – the moment at which slavery completely evaporated and became just a restless memory of times past?
Elaborating the Theory
Okay, so this is shaping up to be an interesting theory, that the Yovel events of Sinai and Jericho were actually meant to address freedom from slavery and title of the land of Canaan, but there are some theories I think we want to clarify if this theory’s really going to be convincing. Here are two potential problems with this theory that I think we really need to address:
First, exactly why would escape from Egypt not in itself be enough to set Israel free? That point, I think, would need to be refined a bit more. Because, you know, the minute the Children of Israel left Egypt, they were no longer subject to their Egyptian masters; so they’re free, right? I mean, like, what else needs to happen exactly? Why do I need Sinai to somehow complete the process? In what sense, really, is an escaped slave not fully free?
Secondly, an even more basic question should bother us about the theory that Sinai was a Yovel event. Because, you know, on a very basic level, why would that be so? We haven’t really answered that yet. Because… let’s grant that the language of Sinai is suffused with Yovel-like language. And let’s even grant that Sinai made the nation of Israel free, just like the laws of Yovel would ultimately free individual slaves every fifty years. But what does the experience of standing around a mountain and accepting the Torah have anything to do with Yovel?
Even if you could show me somehow, cleverly, that the effects of these two events are the same, that the numbers associated with them are the same, that the language a book uses to speak about them is the same – I’d still want to know, how, essentially, are they the same?
There must be a fundamental similarity in these events that we are missing. What is that?
What Makes Yovel Tick?
I think we might be able to find some clarity in all these issues if we try and explore Yovel itself, and understand, if possible, what makes it tick; how it works.
Now, to some extent, that may actually be an impossible task. The Torah just tells us that there is this phenomenon called Yovel, and then it tells us what Yovel does: It frees slaves, and causes ancestral land to revert back to its primary, ancestral holder. The Torah doesn’t spend much time talking to us about any “mechanism” through which these things happen. It just says they happen, and that’s that. But it may be that there is some kind of mechanism at the heart of Yovel, and if we look at the laws of Yovel and the text of the Torah that describes it, we might be able to infer what that mechanism is.
Let me start by asking you a pretty straightforward, intuitive question. We’ve seen that Yovel does two things, right: It frees slaves, and it causes ancestral land to go back to its original owner. But...why should one event, Yovel, do two entirely separate things? It would be more satisfying if those two things were linked – so that, in a way, they are both aspects of one overarching phenomenon. So my question to you is: are these two things, linked in some fundamental way??
Veshavtem Ish El Achuzato, V’ish El Mishpachto Tashuvu
The Torah itself seems to indicate that such a link does, in fact, exist. The evidence comes from the language in which the Torah couches these two laws of Yovel. There is a symmetry in the language used to describe these two Yovel laws, and that suggests, at least to my ear, a kind of symmetry in the essence of the laws as well.
Now, listen to how the Torah phrases these laws:
Ukeratem dror ba’aretz lechol yoshveiha… Veshavtem Ish el achuzato, v’ish el misphachto tashuvu… (Leviticus 25:10).
You should proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants. That seems to be a general idea, and it is immediately followed by what seems to be two permutations of that idea. The first is: Veshavtem ish el achuzato, that land shall go back to its ancestral owners, and the second is that v’ish el misphachto tashuvu – slaves should be freed, go back to their families. But it’s that kinda interesting, because each of the two permutations contains the same key verb: “to return”. People are being “returned” to their ancestral land, and slaves are being “returned” back to their families.
So it seems like the Torah thinks that the two main ideas of Yovel are related: Yovel is about returning people to where they belong. Where do people belong? Well, They belong with their ancestral land. Or, they belong with their families.
Land as a Kind of Family; Land as a Defense Against Slavery
But we can perhaps sharpen the connection between these laws still further.
Consider a slave – the person who, according to the verse, is separated from his family. And consider someone who is separated from his ancestral land. These are the two kinds of people that Yovel laws are meant to address. How are these two people, related to each other?
It turns out there is a very meaningful connection between them. The easiest way to express that connection is to speak in economic terms, but in reality, the connection is deeper than just economics. For insight into the economic connection, at least, let’s look at how God speaks with Abraham concerning the Israelites’ descent into hundreds of years of slavery. The first thing he tells Abraham is ger yihiyeh zaracha b’eretz lo lahem… your children will be strangers in a land not their own. And the next thing he tells him is: va’avadum, ve’inu otam … and the inhabitants of that land, they’ll enslave them, and they will abuse them, for four hundred years.
These are not disconnected events. There’s a kind of progression being detailed here. The process starts with being dispossessed of land, finding yourselves “strangers” on someone else’s land. That’s the most benign step in the process, but it is a starting point – and it makes you vulnerable to the next step, which is slavery. The most extreme step is the last one, ve’inu otam – they’ll be abused, crushed with hard labor.
If you think about it, this progression is not something that exists only in an ancient, sacred text such as the Torah. It is alive and well in today’s age too. I think, think about citizenship. You know, you and me, we take citizenship for granted – but what is it like not to be a citizen? So, I was speaking to a woman I met recently. She came from Honduras, a nation torn apart by violence. She crossed the border illegally, and was stopped by border control. They gave her papers for a court date, but she couldn’t speak English, so she couldn’t read the instructions and figure out when and where to go. She would have been eligible for asylum but she missed her court date – and once she did that, there was no hope for her. She was an illegal immigrant. A ger. A stranger in someone else’s land.
What were her options? For the last seven years, she’s been working as a housekeeper for wages that you and I would never accept. She’s grateful to have the job. But she has no chance for advancement. She’s bright as a whip. If not for the accident of her birth, she could be in medical school here. But she won’t ever go to medical school. She’s a ger, and she’s doing difficult housework – work that few American citizens are willing to do. She doesn’t have a way out. The family she works for doesn’t abuse her – but abuse is actually quite common, according to an immigration lawyer I spoke to. So if the family did it, they could get away with it. What is her recourse? Calling the police? The police will deport her. She has no protection. Because she is not a citizen, because she is not a stakeholder in the land, she is vulnerable. Vulnerable to the modern equivalent of enslavement. Vulnerable to abuse.
My point is that there is a natural connection between land and slavery. The former is a bulwark against the latter. Owning land is my guarantee that I will not become a slave.
This is true for citizens, those who hold a stake in the collective land ownership of an entire nation – and it is also true for individuals who own their own little piece of private property, too. Think about it: Historically, how did people become slaves? You would become a slave when you couldn’t pay your debts. You would become a slave when you couldn’t feed yourself or you were homeless. As a last resort, you’d sell yourself and become someone else’s slave. But if you had land, you wouldn’t need to do this. You would always have a solution for food; you could grow food on your plot of land. You would always had a solution for shelter; you could sleep on your land. And, if push came to shove, and debts threatened your independence, you could sell your land, and avoid slavery that way.
So we might say that the Yovel laws are engineered, so to speak, such that they combat slavery –they combat slavery in two ways. The first is a direct way, by freeing slaves and returning them to their families. But the second way is preventative. Yovel acts to forestall slavery, by returning people to their ancestral land that they once sold. In other words: If you sold your land because you came on hard times, and you find yourself a stranger in someone else’s land – you are a step closer to slavery. You are vulnerable to enslavement. But then Yovel comes along and returns you to your ancestral land. So now you’re safer.
Deeper than Economics
So all this, I think, is correct – but it's not the whole truth. In actuality, the linkages between land ownership and avoidance of slavery are actually much deeper than mere economics. And it’s here, I think, that Yovel works its real magic.
Come with me into our next video, and let’s explore how that’s so.
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