The earth and all that is in it belong to God. (Psalm 24:1)
Yet we are also told:
The earth has [God] given to the children of Adam. (Psalm 115:16)
Which is it? Is the earth ours or does God retain title? Land title has long been important to people. You cannot buy property in the United States without doing a title search. To whom does the property belong? Is the seller truly the owner? When we come to speak about the Land of Israel, the question takes on another layer of complexity. God sends Abraham out of his native land to a certain land (Genesis 12:1-3) and promises “I will assign this land to your offspring” (Genesis 12:7), a promise reiterated with the Covenant of Circumcision (Genesis 17:8).
Here we are speaking not of the earth as a whole, which is what the verses from psalms address, but the Land of Israel in particular. If the Land belongs to Abraham and his descendants for all time, why does God restrict the people’s usage of the land through the law of the shemittah (Sabbatical Year)? The law of the Sabbatical Year has been hailed as an ecologically brilliant and environmentally insightful aspect of ancient Israelite agricultural society: when the land is allowed to lie fallow one year every seven years, it renews itself and produces more as a result. Torah views it as a Sabbath for the land itself:
The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of compete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. (Leviticus 25:1-5)
Rabbi Binyamin ben Aharon of Salocze (d. 1791) was a Hasidic rabbi and a student of Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch. He wrote in Torey Zahav (published posthumously in 1816) that the restrictions of the Sabbatical Year are to be understood in light of another verse. When God appeared to Jacob in Bethel and blessed him, God changed his name to Yisrael, promised him that his descendants would become a nation, and also this:
The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I give to you; and to your offspring after you I will give the land. (Genesis 35:12)
Binyamin ben Aharon wonders why the phrase “and to your offspring to come” is necessary. If God gives the land to Jacob does that not include his offspring, as well? Here he quotes a 16th century commentator, R. Moshe Alshekh on the verse, When you come into the land that I, Adonai, bequeath to you and inherit it (Exodus 12:25). Alshekh says that there is a distinction between a gift and an inheritance. A gift may be conditional. God gives Israel the land so long as they fulfill the Torah, and can stop the gift if they do not. If the land is an inheritance, however, there is no taking it back from them.
Binyamin ben Aharon then applies his distinction between a gift and an inheritance to our verse about the Sabbatical Year:
That is the meaning of our verse: When you come into the land I am giving you—as a gift. See that your deeds are worthy, so that it might [also] become an inheritance, remaining yours without interruption. Had God said, “I shall give the land [as an inheritance],” once Abraham observed the entire Torah, it would have become the inherited possession of his offspring even if they had not fulfilled the Torah. God would have been unable to take it back from them. Therefore He said: “I give to you; and to your offspring after you I will give [the land],” meaning that as I give it to you as a conditional gift, so do I give it to your offspring, depending on their fulfilling the Torah. The Talmud tells us that one who says, “My property goes to you, but afterwards to someone else,” must be listened to (BT Baba Batra 133a).
This, in turn, explains that seeming contraction between the two verses from psalms we cited earlier. Concerning the claim that God gave the earth to the children of Adam, Binyamin ben Aharon writes:
…[this] applies when people do God’s will, fulfilling the commandments that apply to the land. Then it passes to them as inheritance. But when they do not, the earth belongs to God.
We might well ask: Is he speaking about the Land of Israel, and the Jewish people’s hold on it? Or is he talking about the earth as a whole, and humanity’s ability to cultivate it? Perhaps both, though in very different ways.
The Dust Bowl of the Great Plains in the 1930s is arguably the most dramatic example of failure to let the land rest and renew itself periodically, rotate crops, and follow other dryland farming practices. Woodie Guthrie, who was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, and grew up in Pampa, Texas, experienced the dust storms and human migration that resulted, and wrote lyrics about them, including these from “Dusty Old Dust”:
A dust storm hit, an’ it hit like thunder; It dusted us over, an’ it covered us under; Blocked out the traffic and blocked out the sun, Straight for home all the people did run, singin’:
So long, it’s been good to know yuh; So long, it’s been good to know yuh; So long, it’s been good to know yuh. This dusty old dust is a-getting’ my home, And I got to be driftin’ along.
As dramatic and devastating as the Dust Bowl was, we continue to fail to heed the warning and make intelligent use of water and land resources. And as complicated as the situation of agricultural land use around the globe is, the issues and questions swirling around Israel as the gift or inheritance of the Jewish People is all the more complex. Is the miracle of 1948 the outcome of a “gift” or an “inheritance”? History has taught us that it is a gift and that we must work scrupulously to retain possession of the Holy Land, respecting both the needs of the land and those of the people to whom it is home. © Rabbi Amy Scheinerman