The Torah portion, or parasha, this week is Behar, and is found in Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2. Once they had settled in their land, the Israelites were to plant, harvest, and store the produce of their fields for six years. During the seventh year of the cycle, the shemittah, they were not to plant or harvest or to store produce that grew on its own. However, everyone was free to take and eat whatever did grow on its own. After seven of these seven-year cycles, the 50th year was designated the yoveil. Not only was farming prohibited, but all Israelite slaves were to be freed and any land sold during the previous 49 years was to revert to its original owners – that is, land was never actually sold, but only leased until the next yoveil. When a person had to sell all or part of his land due to financial need, his relatives were to redeem what he had sold. Houses in walled cities could be redeemed for a year from the date of sale and then passed permanently to the buyer. Houses outside these walled cities and houses in the cities of the Levites could not be sold permanently – they remained subject to redemption and reverted to the original owners at the yoveil. If a person became poor, he was to be loaned money at no interest. If this was not sufficient to allow him to recover financially, he could become an indentured servant who would be set free at the yoveil.
This parasha captures the essence of helping others who fall into hard times and enabling them to gain back what was lost. By giving a plot of land a year of rest, the soil would be restored of nutrients and any crops that seeded themselves and grew on their own would feed people who did not have food. Every 50 years, slaves were freed and any property that had been sold under unfortunate circumstances could be returned or redeemed as appropriate, by relatives so that property stayed within the clan. People who became poor could be given a loan free of interest, and if that was insufficient, they could become an indentured servant who would one day be free. These strategies may not necessarily work in today’s society, but addressing the needs of those who are poor, choosing not to wrong others in monetary exchanges, and helping others out of unfortunate circumstances are still important principles today.