Our weekly Torah portion covers Leviticus 25: 1 to 27:34. Before the Jews enter the Holy Land, they are instructed how to care for the covenanted land and build a productive, but just, society.
The text introduces the law of sevens in the annual cycle. When their period of wandering is over and they enter the land, they begin counting off years. Every seventh year, the land will observe a sabbatical. The Hebrew word for the land’s Sabbath is Shmitah which means “to release.” During the Sabbath year, the people are forbidden from cultivating their fields, pruning their vineyards, or reaping their crops. Instead, the produce of the land is to be shared by everyone equally, including foreign residents and servants and even livestock. Why did God create an outlet for the land to lay fallow? Partly, according to Leviticus, it was an issue of ownership. God reminded them “the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.”
It was also a matter of teaching them reliance. The people asked Moses, “If we don’t plant in the seventh year, what will we eat in the eighth year?” But God assured them that he would provide enough of a harvest in the sixth year to last two additional years, both the year of the Shmitah and the eighth year. Though the daily miracle of manna in the desert was set to expire, they would still witness God’s miraculous provision every sixth year.
Leviticus 25 goes further than the Shmitah. Moses instructs the people to count off seven cycles of sabbatical years, seven years seven times. In the 49th year, the people are to hallow the Year of Jubilee. In that year, on the Day of Atonement, a trumpet is blown all across the land. Leviticus states, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” When the trumpet was blown debt was canceled and slaves were set free.
According to the statutes of Jubilee, every slave is to be released, all debt is forgiven, and all family property is available for redemption. God understood that economic misfortune happened and, in many cases, people sold their home, land, or even themselves out of poverty. But God also wanted to create regulations so that the poor and vulnerable could not be exploited. Jubilee ensured that no state of deprivation was permanent or multigenerational. Every fiftieth year, social law provided for a new start at dignity.