5757 - #17


Land, Identity and Responsibility

In Mordechai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravetz, the protagonist is told that he is nothing without land. Identity and land have always been interrelated and intertwined. On the national level, it is clearly the boundaries of countries that inherently define most nations: the English are from England, the Japanese are from Japan. While the Jewish people, in Torah, uniquely have a national identity beyond land,[1] we also cannot deny the importance of Eretz Yisrael to our national identity. We must also not ignore the role land plays in our own personal identity for, as Duddy Kravetz heard, our relationship to real property does affect and reflect ourselves.

With this recognition, the laws of yovel, the fiftieth year, must be understood as having a significant impact on our identity. The inability of an individual to purchase land in perpetuity must be deemed as affecting the consciousness, the approach to wealth, property and even the approach to life of those subject to this law. Nechama Leibowitz[2] quotes the American thinker, Henry George, who perceived in these laws a justice and equity that would impart a respect for individual human worth beyond that attainable in a world of "absolute private ownership". In declaring that, upon the fiftieth year, land must revert back to its original distribution, equally among all the people, all share the same value of self; property and power cannot be allowed to rest on only a few. Chinuch, mitzvah 330 adds the important dimension that with these laws we also respect that ultimately all things belong to G-d and that it is in our connection with G-d that we find our true meaning and value. With the return of property and the liberation of the slaves, Rav Kook[3] writes, "comes the restoration of individual self respect... the balance is restored in accordance with the original distribution of the nation." Unlike what Duddy Kravetz heard, one is something without land - yet it is also land which teaches us this lesson. It is only because land does have such an affect on identity that the yovel can teach us its important lessons. It is through the equal re-distribution of land that we learn of our own equality and self-worth -- and only then, because of this learned self-respect, can we learn that wealth and land- acquisition should ultimately not affect our perceptions of ourselves.

Yet, as we may focus on the inability to buy land in perpetuity as a value that breaks our attachment to land and pushes us to find self-worth in other arenas, the law of yovel, through the return to the ancestral property, also does declare land important to our identity -- for we re-join with our familial property. Yovel does not simply represent equality and freedom. The original balance to which Rav Kook refers is not simply a balance of individuals but a balance of tribes and of families. The land is not simply re-distributed through some code of equity. Individuals are to return to their roots; they are to experience their own individual identity among the fellow members of their tribe and within their ancestral land. As much as the yovel taught that one should not seek identity in the acquisition of property, it also, through land, reminded individuals of their identity as part of a certain tribe and family. As much as yovel challenges one type of reliance upon land for identity, it declares another through land.

Obviously the process of defining an individual's identity is ultimately complex as it encompasses numerous factors. We are individuals but we are also part of groups: citizens of a country, brothers or sisters, members of a profession. Applying these different aspects of identity, we could state that yovel uses land to designate our group identity as part of a family or tribe but challenges us not to use land for our separate identity as individuals. But why? Why is land the mark of our group identity and why should we be wary of its acquisition as the mark of our individual identity?

For want of a better term to denote these classifications, identity can also be marked by factors of what we possess and factors of what we have become. Simply we can discuss attributes that we have, that we were born with: colour of hair, intelligence, family. We can also discuss attributes that reflect accomplishment and achievement: academic degrees, personal growth. As a mark of the past, of static realities of our identity, land is a strong symbol - for it does not change but represents what was and is. In yovel, the nation was to return to its ancestral homes, to its roots, to the attributes of identity that we are born with; once a Danite, always a Danite. But in rejecting the acquisition of land as the ultimate mark of identity, we reject land as the mark of dynamic identity. Our accomplishments are not to be defined in ownership and the acquisition of property.

Static factors of identity, though, also include a dynamic aspect. As the laws of yovel discuss the importance of ancestral land, they also present a responsibility arising from who we are. Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Vayikra, Behar 3 points out that the laws of yovel also demand from us a sensitivity to our "brother". The static group identity marked by land demands a duty to the group. Who we are, the attributes we have at birth are part of our identity - and they must never be forgotten or ignored as part of who we are. They do, though, demand of us that which is necessary to protect them: if we are family we are to assist family. But ultimately, our identity is not marked from where we came but to where we are going. It is from land that we depart, from the freedom that a yovel grants that we are to start -- but it is to where we go, our accomplishments in Torah as individuals, that we are to find our ultimate expression of identity

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


[1] that has enabled them to survive thousands of years of exile.

[2] Studies in Vayikra, Behar 1. In quoting this great teacher of Torah, we, in the most respectful way through sharing her Torah wisdom, join with the many others who mourn her recent passing. Tehei nafshah tzerurah bitzror hachayim, may her soul be bound in the band of eternal life.

[3] From Introduction, Shevat HaAretz as quoted by Nechama Leibowitz.

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