The Lesson of Temporary Residence

Financial life should be very simple according to the Torah.  That’s because people that don’t own anything have simple financial lives.  And according to the Torah, no one actually owns anything!  This is not a communist approach but rather a biblical approach.  The Torah says that “The land should not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; for you are sojourners and residents with Me” (Leviticus 25:23).  This refers to the fact that under normal circumstances, hereditary real estate in the Land of Israel can not be permanently sold.  It reverts back to its original owner in the Jubilee year.  The Jubilee year also ushered in emancipation of slaves.  These laws, along with the laws of the Sabbatical year which limit planting, harvesting and commerce with crops for an entire year, have a similar message and lesson. The Almighty lets us, the “sojourners and [temporary] residents,” use His world – but no part of that world ever really becomes our property.  The primary lesson of these laws is evidently to impress upon us the gratitude that we owe Him for entertaining us as guests and for being an incredible host.  Yet the law that limits the duration of sale of real estate in the Land of Israel imparts an additional, and somewhat somber, message as well.

A law that says we cannot sell land forever, but rather for a relatively short period of time, forces us to grapple with a reality that we prefer not to face.  In life, there are often multiple activities that compete for the same slot in our schedule, and we have to choose between them.  A conflict between attending a very happy event and a particularly sad one at the same time, like a party versus a funeral, however, is an unusual variety of this type of conflict.  The book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastics) directly addresses this very situation; it says “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for that is the end of all man, and the living should take it to heart” (7:2).  Go to the funeral, so “the living” will learn a lesson.  Is this lesson necessary?  Does anyone doubt human mortality?  Does any sane person entertain the possibility that their life may continue indefinitely?  A premise that underlies this verse is that we do need to be reminded about this inescapable aspect of reality; it is an elementary idea that nonetheless needs reinforcement.  Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz points out that the law that disallows eternal sale of land is based on the fact that man himself is not eternal.  An effect cannot be more powerful than its cause; in the Torah’s economical system, man cannot make an eternal transfer of real estate if he himself is not eternal.

An anecdote is told about Rabbi Chaim Ickovits (1749 – 1821, popularly known as Reb Chaim Volozhiner), the chief disciple of the Vilna Gaon and founder of the modern-day yeshiva movement.  He was asked to adjudicate between two litigants that both claimed ownership of the same parcel of land.  The Rabbi bent himself over, touched his ear to the ground and remained there deep in thought.  When the surprised onlookers asked him what he was doing, he responded that he had wanted to listen so he could discern what the land itself thought about the dispute, and he heard it say: “You are both [eventually] mine, now what’s this fight about anyway?!”

If by thinking more about our mortality we are saddened, we are missing the point of the Torah’s reminder.  The benefit and objective of this type of thinking is to make us live more effectively and more maturely.  We, as human beings, are able to look at all of our activities, relationships, pastimes, and behavior in front of a backdrop of how long our life in this world really is.  We, as human beings, can take the message of our mortality to heart and raise ourselves above pettiness, live with purpose, and focus on our legacy –  we can live the message of the temporary sale of the Land of Israel.

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