Beit Midrash

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The Rights of Ownership of Land and One’s Self


Rabbi Yossef Carmel

This week’s short parasha (in Israel) deals with a string of laws and regulations that dictate many elements of commercial life, the most unique among them being the laws of Yovel. [They contain far-reaching limitations on commerce, appear basically only in this section of the Torah, and people of a normal life span experience it (even at the time of the Beit Hamikdash) no more than twice.] We will list the main topics, highlight certain elements, and, finally, analyze the connection between them.
A. The laws of Shemitta – let us stress the law that the produce is open to consumption of all the Land’s inhabitants, from non-land-owners, to slaves, to animals (Vayikra 25:6-7).
B. The Yovel year – the central elements are that servants are set free and land returns to their original owners who sold them (ibid. 10).
C. Not overpricing when selling land, considering that land returns in Yovel (ibid. 23-24).
D. Limitations on the sale of land, including the ability to redeem sold fields (ibid. 25-34).
E. The prohibition of lending money with interest – note the mention that Hashem took us out of Egypt (ibid. 35-38), which seems unconnected in this context,
F. The prohibition of taking advantage of a servant and the requirement to set him free, after six years or during Yovel – we take note of the mention of "for they are My servants, whom I took out of Egypt; they shall not be sold the sale of a servant" and the repeated use of the phrase "you shall not work them with perech (overly harsh conditions)" (ibid. 39-46).
G. The laws of redeeming a relative who was sold into slavery – here, too, the Torah stresses: "for to Me are Bnei Yisrael servants; they are My servants whom I took out of the Land of Egypt" (ibid. 47-55).
What is the common denominator between all of these halachot? It is possible that all of these matters are connected at their root to the concepts behind Yovel. Yovel represents freedom. A free person has the right to have personal acquisitions and, first and foremost, to be in charge of himself and his time [in concert with Divine mandates]. The Torah grants and protects these freedoms for all individuals, including the weakest in society. However, the Torah stresses repeatedly that this freedom was obtained through Hashem’s miraculous liberation of us from Egypt. The rights of our personal ownership are connected to our indebtedness to Hashem.
The laws that emerge from these concepts: every seven years, our land becomes as if ownerless and its produce belongs to all because, in essence, all belongs to Hashem. There is no permanent sale of people or land because one person cannot take control of that which belongs to another. Acquiring wealth must be done in a fair manner, especially with the rich being careful not to take advantage by charging interest on loans or jacking up prices. Even if one needs to sell himself into servitude, his owner must respect his dignity, which emanates from the divine image within him.
Hopefully we will remember these rules while we remember that only a servant of Hashem is truly free.
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