The Torah portion, Behar (for May 14, 2011), just one chapter long, appears in Lev. 25:1-26:2, and deals with two related subjects: The Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee Year.
The law regarding the Sabbatical Year is mentioned three times in the Bible: Ex. 23: 10-11; Lev. 25: 3-6, and Deut. 15: 1-10. There are significant differences between them, and talmudic law tries to reconcile these passages (e.g., BT Git. 36a).
According to biblical law, during the Sabbatical Year, all agricultural work stops and the “after growth of the harvest” is to be given to or shared with the poor (Ex. and Lev.); Deuteronomy adds that all debts are to be canceled. At the end of 49 years, during the Jubilee Year, the land is to lie fallow, all landed property reverts to the original owners, and all Hebrew slaves receive their freedom.
It is not known if the Sabbatical Year was observed during the First Temple, but there are references (for example, Neh. 10:32; I Mac. 6: 49) that it was kept during the Second Temple. Presently, some Orthodox Jews in Israel are very punctilious about it. Others, using a legal fiction, “sell” the land to a non-Jew, and continue to work on their lot as before. The last time a Sabbatical Year was observed was, according to one calculation, on the Jewish year of 2007-08. The next one will be on 2014-15.
There is no reference anywhere that the Jubilee Year was ever observed. The prophets do not mention it and the historical texts do not record it. Most likely, it represents an ideal setting: though it does not make economic sense, its ethical as well as ecological message is sound. The text tells us that the reason why slaves must be freed during the Jubilee Year is because all human beings are God’s creatures: “It is to Me that the Israelites are servants” (Lev. 25: 55), and, therefore, no one should lord over the other; also, the rationale for returning the land to its original owner is that the earth ultimately belongs to God, not to us: “the land is Mine, you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25: 23).
We are all passengers in this world. Whatever we accumulate here is left on earth, either for our children or for our community to enjoy. In the meantime, we are told to live our life fully and creatively, to pursue meaning and high purpose in our endeavors, to leave a legacy of good will and to preserve the earth for those who will follow us.
This is quite a challenge and a wonderful opportunity for each one of us.