This Land is God’s Land

Land management and economic justice are subjects of this week’s Torah portion Behar.

We are first told that after six years of being cultivated, land is to rest and lie fallow during the seventh year in order to be renewed; this is the practice known as shmita. And then we are to count seven seven-year cycles, and on the 50th year land ownership is to be released and debts forgiven. This is the law of the yovel, or Jubilee year. During both of these years, one is to subsist off of whatever the untended land produces, and one must share this yield with those in need. In addition, the Torah teaches that we are to be fair in our business dealings around the buying and selling of land in general.

The value underlying these practices is expressed in this simple verse:

But the land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.

Leviticus 25:23

While we may manage, steward, farm, and build upon the land, ultimately we do not possess it. The land is God’s, and we are but temporary residents. Human “ownership” of the land is only temporary.

Even if most are not farmers today practicing shmita and yovel, we still have the principle of land ownership. And beyond that, we as humans have found other ways to express dominion and power over the land. We divvy it up not only among individual owners, but we divide the land into towns, states, and countries. We create boundaries and borders, and then use force or walls to enforce those boundaries and borders.

But again, as the Torah teaches, the land ultimately is not ours to divide.

The issue of boundaries and borders are at the center of immigration policy. Nations wish to control who is a part of their country, so they control who can enter. The United States is no different, and over the past few years we have seen an increase in anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric and policy, from Muslim bans to border walls. It is a disturbing trend for a nation much of whose residents can trace their roots to immigration.

Some of that policy has been rolled back, others not. One policy that is hanging in the middle is Title 42, under which the Trump Administration used the cover of Covid to block immigration from the southern border. Title 42 uses public health as an excuse to impose harsh immigration policies by summarily deporting people or refusing entry to those seeking asylum, returning them to the oppression from which they were fleeing. The Biden Administration has announced an intention to roll back Title 42, something that is meant to happen this coming week. This policy change is in jeopardy however–there is currently bipartisan legislation making its way through Congress that seeks to continue the policy.

As Jews, we know that immigration is an important part of our story, from the sacred narrative of the Exodus in the Torah to the many stories of immigration in our personal histories. My congregation has hosted and supported an asylum seeker in sanctuary to prevent deportation. And national Jewish organizations like HIAS and T’ruah are heeding the call to fight for a just immigration system. (I’m honored to be a member of the T’ruah Immigration Working Group.)

The most recent message coming out of those organizations is that although we have had a change of leadership in our country, there is still the need to fight for those who seek asylum. Educating on the issues, being in touch with lawmakers, welcoming asylum seekers, telling the stories of immigrants–these are all important steps in the continued fight for policy change. Ensuring that Title 42 is overturned is the most immediate focus. [You can act now by joining me and signing a letter to your congressional representatives here]

I recognize that boundaries and borders are necessary at times to maintain group identity and meaningful community. At the same time, when we recall the teaching that the land is ultimately God’s, we need to approach these boundaries and borders with a spirit of humility, and know that they must be fluid, not rigid. We need to build bridges, not walls. We can be responsible and welcoming at the same time.

Title 42 must go not only because it summarily punishes a group of people fleeing oppression on dubious grounds, but because it further stigmatizes migrants by collectively associating them with the spread of a deadly virus. We can take the teaching from Leviticus further: if all of it is God’s land, then none of us is a true “owner” of the land. And if none of us is an owner, then all of us are equal. When we remember this, we are compelled to act differently, toward the land, and toward each other.

Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images


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