2017-05-10 / Religion Column

We deserve the land of Israel only if we are worthy

Community Chaplain

Parashat Behar-Behukotai
Lev. 25:1-27:34

Many of us remember fondly the powerful opening words of the theme song to the movie “Exodus”—“This land is mine; God gave this land to me, this brave and ancient land to me.” These words evoke powerful memories of the promises to the Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs and the place the land of Israel has played in the life and memory of the people of Israel. They suggest that in some special way, grounded in the spiritual traditions of the Abrahamic religions, the Jewish people’s deed to the Land of Israel comes from God. The Land of Israel is God’s gift to us.

While the claim that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people as our possession can be analyzed from many perspectives, Scripture, itself, presents serious spiritual challenges to this conception. The idea that the Jewish people own the land would have sounded strange to the Cohanim, the priests, of the Beit HaMiqdash, the Holy Temple, who bequeathed us the Book of Vayikra, Leviticus. To them, the Land of Israel belonged to God. We, the Jewish people, were no more than resident strangers residing there (Parashat Behar, Lev. 25:23).

There is no doubt that Jerusalem Cohanim cherished the intimate connection between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel. But for them, the bonds that tied God’s people (Lev. 25:48) to God’s land are grounded in the central spiritual question of what is necessary to live in proximity to God. Ideally, Israel dwells in God’s holy land with God’s holy Temple in its midst. For them, the Jewish people do not own the Land of Israel. Rather, the Jewish people, both the priests and Levites who serve in the Temple and the Israelites who live in the land, have the right to remain in God’s holy land only if we can maintain the required level of ritual and ethical purity.

The immediate setting of Lev. 25:23—“For the land is Mine, you are but strangers resident (geirim v’toshavim) with Me”—is the discussion of land ownership in respect to the laws of the Jubilee (Yovel), the year of release, when all property in Israel will return to its original owners according to the distribution at the time of settlement. God, as Israel’s landlord, has ultimate authority in determining how the real estate should be shared among the Jewish people.

In the broader context of the Book of Leviticus, this verse reflects Leviticus’ concern with “purity” and “impurity.” While contemporary readers often confuse these concepts with the modern categories of “clean” and “dirty,” “purity” and “impurity” have little to do with physical cleanliness. They are spiritual categories that refer to our ability to enter and remain in the presence of God. Purity regulations in the Book of Leviticus have both ritual and ethical aspects. Ritual purity laws regulate activity in the Temple and concern primarily the Priests and Levites who serve in the Temple and the Israelites when they come to the Temple for the festivals and sacrifices. All Israelites, wherever they lived, however, were subject to the rules of ethical purity.

These rules guided our domestic lives and our interactions with other members of our community. They appear most clearly in Leviticus 19, which begins with God’s proclamation, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (19:1) and contains the fundamental affirmation of communal responsibility—“Love your fellow as yourself.” (19:18). Failure to maintain a high standard of ritual and ethical purity will result in punishment and exile from God’s land as so brutally expressed in the curses at end of the book (Lev. 26: 14- 45).

For the Book of Leviticus, the Land of Israel belongs to God. The right to dwell in God’s Holy Land is conditional. Those who dwell there, can only dwell there if they maintain a high degree of purity—ritual purity if they were to participate in the religious activity that took place in the Beit HaMiqdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and ethical purity wherever they lived.

Living in the Land of Israel was more than an expression of national identity or a fulfillment of God’s promises to our ancestors. For the ancient priests, living in the Land of Israel was a privilege offered to the Jewish people to be enjoyed as long as we proved worthy of it. 

Return to top