Matot-Masei: The Land is Our Mother

By Rabbi Sam Feinsmith

This blog can be read and was originally published for Hazon’s Shmita Project blog series. Commonly translated as the ‘Sabbatical Year,’ shmita literally means ‘release.’ Of biblical origin, this is the final year of a shared calendar cycle, when land is left fallow, debts are forgiven, and a host of other agricultural and economic adjustments are made to ensure the maintenance of an equitable, just, and healthy society. The next shmita year starts Rosh Hashana 2021.

“They journeyed…and camped…and journeyed…” (Numbers 33:3-49). The nomadic lifestyle of the people, their constant journeying, encamping, and journeying once again as the spirit moved them served to remind them that they were but visitors upon this earth, here for a short while by the grace of God.

A number of years ago my partner and I met a Native American medicine man in Northern Michigan. In the course of the conversation, he shared his bewilderment around the practice of selling land: “The land is our mother. How could you sell your own mother?!” His worldview was characterized by a deep sense of loving connection, reverence, and appreciation for the earth not as a commodity to be bought and sold but as a giver of life.

A close study of Leviticus 25—which relays the laws of Yovel (Jubilee)—reveals a similar orientation to the sale of land. Coming on the heels of seven Shmita (Sabbatical) cycles, Jubilee is the great letting go that reminds us that the land isn’t ours to buy and sell. Land may not be sold in perpetuity (v. 23); all ancestral lands purchased since the last Jubilee are to be returned to their original tribal landholders (v. 1013). Even when land is sold, the Torah reminds us that what’s being purchased are the number of harvests until the next Jubilee, not the land itself (v. 14-17). The rationale for all this? “For the land is Mine; you are but strangers and temporary residents with Me” (v. 23). The sale of land is thus only provisional in our tradition, as is our very existence on this earth.

The claim that the land ultimately belongs to God and not to us, its temporary inhabitants, is meant to engender in us a consciousness of our own evanescence, a recognition that we are but visitors on this earth. Out of this consciousness, we might grow into right relationship with the land and our fellow human beings, rightsizing our place in the natural order and relinquishing our desire to take hold of someone else’s God-given ancestral land in order to extract more resources, riches, and profit therefrom. Through the spiritual-ethical practice of Yovel, those dispossessed of their land and livelihood might return home and begin anew.

Indeed, we find another reminder of the provisional nature of our existence in this week’s Torah portion, which describes the journeys and encampments of the Israelites in the desert with the refrain, “They journeyed…and camped…and journeyed…” (Numbers 33:3-49). The nomadic lifestyle of the people, their constant journeying, encamping, and journeying once again as the spirit moved them served to remind them that they were but visitors upon this earth, here for a short while by the grace of God.

Even as we acknowledge that the current capitalist systems and structures from which we benefit limit our ability to live out the Torah’s values as expressed in the laws of Yovel and our Torah portion, we might yet—indeed we must—employ these ancient values to raise some difficult questions. How can we become better educated about the Indigenous tribes that inhabited the lands upon which we currently live? How might our awareness of Judaism as an indigenous tradition be enriched through a deeper understanding of Native American earth-based spirituality? What contribution can we make to restoring tribal lands to the First Peoples who were dispossessed of the land they so cherished, revered, and loved by white European greed? How can we call our government to account in respecting its land treaties with the Native American community? Absent our capacity to do so, what’s our responsibility to ensure that Indigenous communities have ample access to natural resources, nourishing food, and clean water, and remain safe from the ravages of climate change, which impacts them disproportionately?

I invite you to discuss these questions at your Shabbat table this week. May they contribute to the wellbeing of our planet and all people who take nourishment thereof.

Sam Feinsmith directs the Educating for a Jewish Spiritual Life and Clergy Leadership Programs at IJS, and writes the weekly Hasidic Text Study track. He has been immersed in the world of Jewish contemplative living, learning, and teaching for twenty years, conducting Jewish meditation, prayer, and spirituality workshops and retreats for young children, teens, and Jewish educators and community leaders. Sam lives outside of Chicago with his partner and daughter, where he delights in the daily miracles of early childhood and getting out to glorious Lake Michigan.

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