Behar (Diaspora): Holy nostalgia

What is the true meaning of reversion of the land to its original owners?

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

One of the most unusual aspects of the Yovel (Jubilee) year is the return of land to its original owners. This reversion of (most) real estate back to its ancestral owners at Yovel was explained in an earlier dvar Torah as reflective of Yovel’s theme of Teshuva. The shofar is blown on Yom Kippur during Yovel, every Eved Ivri (Hebrew servant) is liberated, and land is restored to its original proprietors, representing the return (“teshuva“) of life to the way that God had originally ordained and established it.

It is thus quite striking that when presenting the prohibition to circumvent Yovel by selling land permanently, the Torah states, “And the land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine…” (Vayikra 25:23) If God’s intent here is to imbue in people a recognition of His mastery over the land and the entire universe, how does reversion of the land to its original owners accomplish this? The Shemitah and Yovel prohibitions to work the land certainly express an acknowledgment of God’s ownership and authority over it, but how does reversion to its original owners convey this message? It would seem that reversion of the land to its original owners could indicate the opposite – that the original owners are indeed the master proprietors, who deserve their land back – and thereby not send the foundational message that the land is God’s. What is the true meaning of reversion of the land to its original owners? And how does this all fit into Yovel’s theme of Teshuva?

The notion of ancestral lands in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) is not merely an issue of history or land rights. It has a very deep spiritual message, for the specific territories of each Shevet (Tribe) were apportioned by Moshe and Elazar, based on a Divine communication, and these territories were later distributed by Yehoshua to each Shevet. The size of each tract of land for every family was likewise determined by Divine decree, with all ancestral land apportionment literally going back to the days of Yehoshua.

Thus, anyone with ancestral land in Eretz Yisrael knew that his land was allocated to his forebears as part of the original conquest and division of land under Yehoshua’s leadership, as part of a Divine command and land apportionment formula. If we had such land, knowing our connection to its spectacular and striking history, we would say “WOW!!!” and probably be overcome with the same type of holy sensation that one feels when visiting Me’arat Ha-Machpelah (the Tomb of the Patriarchs) or Kever Rachel (Rachel’s Tomb), for these properties were acquired by our ancestors as part of the Divine plan, and their designation and function take us back directly to our great forebears and leaders.

One’s relationship with land that was apportioned to his family at the time of Yehoshua’s conquest of Eretz Yisrael, by use of a formula dictated by God Himself, is a source of incredible inspiration. It reconnects the proprietor with holy personalities of old and ultimately with God. It signals Teshuva – a return to one’s Torah roots.

We often become nostalgic, fondly recalling the people, places and events of our youth. While this can be a very good, fine and special thing, there is another type of nostalgia – a very sacred version of it – in which we connect to God and His Torah, and are truly inspired, by unique and living connections to the past. It is this holy, living nostalgia, that the reversion of lands to their ancestral proprietors represents. This prompts one to Teshuva, and is what Yovel is all about.