Parshat Behar: Freedom and Identity

By Rabbi Shlomo Wallfish, senior faculty at the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva

A person who sells his patrimony relinquishes his identity. No one would do so a priori.

On the jubilee year, we realize that everything belongs to Hashem.

Many stories and laws in the Torah are founded on the idea that a person’s land defines that person’s identity. Cain, a field worker who was condemned to living as a nomad, reacts by proclaiming “My sin is to great to bear!” He immediately builds a city – a place that, in my view, keeps us even more disconnected from the land.  Our weekly portion distinguishes between a person who sells a house in a walled city from one who sells a house in the village, which is treated like a field. The sale of a house in the city is permanent, while houses in the countryside revert to the original owners on the jubilee year.

People inherit fields from their ancestors. The land defines their pedigree, and establishes which family and tribe they are from. When the daughters of Zelophehad requested that their father’s inheritance remain within the family patrimony, and God approves their request, the tribesmen of Menashe retorted that this inheritance was to remain within the auspices of the tribal lands. Moshe approves this request, too, based on Hashem’s decision to the effect.

Unlike the neutral description of the sale of a city home, the sale of part of an inherited estate is described as a difficult event.  “When your brother is reduced to poverty, and is forced to sell part of his estate…”  A person must truly be in dire straits if he sells his ancestral estate. It would seem that only very harsh conditions would have compelled him to do so. 

Parshat Behar begins with the commandment of shmita – the sabbatical year – and yovel – the jubilee year. If a person had sold his estate, that estate reverts to him on the jubilee year, once every fifty years. This is understandable. After all, no one can permanently relinquish their identity. We belong to the land, more so than the land belongs to us.

One issue that is always tied to the restoration of land during the jubilee year is the purchase and sale of land. The value of a plot of land is based on several criteria, including the standard measures, such as the agricultural yield, location, and more, as well as the number of years a person can own the land until the jubilee year. In any case, the redemption of land before the jubilee year is assessed in terms of how many years remain until the land is returned.
The verses describing these laws (beginning with Leviticus 24:14) make two mentions of the prohibition of exploiting others (verses 14 and 17). Ibn Ezra explains that the first verse is addressed to the buyer, while the second is addressed to the seller. They are both subject to this prohibition. Verse 17 continues with “for I am Hashem, your G-d”, and Ibn Ezra interprets this addition as a threat against anyone who would exploit someone else – that person would face Hashem’s wrath.

In discussing the law forbidding exploitation when doing business, the Mishna (Tractate Bava Metzi’a 4:10) says something rather astounding:

“Just as there is a prohibition against exploitation (ona’a) in buying and selling, so is there a prohibition of exploitation in statements.” One may not ask a merchant: ‘For how much are you selling this item?’ if he does not wish to purchase it. He thereby upsets the seller when the deal falls through. If one is a penitent, another may not say to him: ‘Remember your earlier deeds.’ If one is the child of converts, another may not say to him: ‘Remember the deeds of your ancestors,’ as it is stated: ‘And a convert shall you neither mistreat, nor shall you oppress him’ (Exodus 22:20).”

Just as we are not to exploit others and make exorbitant profits from sales, or cause sellers to incur great losses, we are not allowed to exploit people in statements. What is meant, though, by “exploiting in statements”? The Mishna begins explaining with a law that is still clearly tied to buying and selling: when a person asks his fellow man how much an item costs, without having any intention of buying that item. The Mishna then proceeds to described an entirely different class of “exploitation through statements”, involving the prohibition of reminding penitents or proselytes of their dubious pasts.

Why lump these together ? We understand why we should remind others of their past misgivings, after they had expressed remorse and fully repented having done what they did; we can also understand why it’s wrong to remind a proselyte of his flawed pedigree. Yet how is this connected to the prohibition of exploitation when buying or selling, a prohibition based on the verses in this week’s portion? 

R. Moshe El-Sheikh explains the connection, and I believe that his explanation ties into my opening words. He states that just as we are forbidden from exploiting people in distress, who were compelled to sell their fields, or unjustly try to earn exorbitant sums at their expense, we are not allowed to exploit someone else’s weaknesses, and insist that their hardships are clearly a result of their own sins (as if to say: “If you’ve come to a situation in which you are compelled to sell your estate, this can only be because you are a sinner, and if I am the one buying your field, it’s a sign that I’m righteous.”). People could use this comparison to flaunt their superiority over their downtrodden brethren. This is the same prohibition as the one described in the biblical verses and in the Torah, verses that draw a parallel between condescendence toward others based on their economic hardships and condescendence based on their social or religious vulnerability.

A person who sells his patrimony relinquishes his identity. No one would do so intentionally. People who had fully repented, and especially the descendants of proselytes, have a particularly vulnerable sense of identity. When we remind them of their past, they come to be unjustly perceived as having a damaged identity. Converts lack an inheritance, because they have no pedigree tying them to the tribes of Israel. As such, their bargaining power is rather weak, economically and socially. All of the prohibitions of exploitation share something in common: they forbid us from exploiting another person’s weakness, and weakening that person even more. 

Servants are also people who tend to have vulnerable identities. They, too, are driven to sell something they had never intended on selling: themselves. Deep down, it’s the same kind of disconnect. Servants don’t have their own inheritances, and they work on their masters’ estates. On the jubilee year, while the land itself reverts to its original owner, servants are released, thereby restoring the ownership of the land their families had possessed since the days of Yehoshua Bin Nun.

On the jubilee year, both the sellers and the buyers realize that everything belongs to Hashem. In the words of Rashi – “‘For unto Me the children of Israel are servants’ — servants to Me, but not servants of servants (of human beings).”  Land can define our identity solely because it ultimately belongs to Hashem.

Let us pray that we will merit to sense our full and complete identity in the presence of Hashem, in our souls, in our bodies, and in our land.



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