This week’s reading comprises parashat Behar and parashat Bechukotai, the last weekly portions in Leviticus. They are read together in a majority of years, but like Tazria and Metzora are separated when a leap year requires additional weekly portions.
The jubilee year is one of the major themes of Behar. From the Hebrew yovel, jubilee refers to a fifty-year cycle at the end of which land would revert to its original owners. (Originally yovel denoted the horn that would be blown to mark the occasion.) The connotation of rejoicing that it has acquired in English comes from a Latin root that is probably unrelated.
The jubilee is actually a super-sabbatical year. According to the Torah, every seventh year is a sabbatical, during which land is not cultivated and debts are forgiven. After forty-nine years (seven cycles of seven years each), the jubilee year occurs. It has all the characteristics of a sabbatical year, plus the reversion of land.
It is known that the provisions of the sabbatical year were observed for many centuries; indeed, the agricultural restriction is nominally observed in Israel today, although generally through the token sale of agricultural land to a non-Jew. The forgiveness of debts eventually became the cause of hardship and was essentially abrogated by Rabbi Hillel’s prosbul, which turned personal debt into what we would call contract law.
There is serious doubt, however, about whether the requirements of the jubilee were ever carried out. First, there would have been hardship in observing two sabbatical years in a row.
Second, scholars question whether the restoration of every parcel of land to the family that had received it in the time of Joshua could ever have been possible. More specifically, they question whether Joshua’s division of the land could ever have taken place, at least in the way that the Bible describes.
There is even doubt about whether the Israelite conquest of Canaan took place, an issue that has been the subject of general controversy in the Conservative movement and, of course, in Israel. Although there is legitimate disagreement, many scholars believe that, if such a conquest took place, it did not happen as quickly and efficiently as the narrative in Joshua suggests.
Indeed, the Bible itself presents evidence that it did not. Battles against other tribes inhabiting the land are a major subject of Judges and Samuel.
Should we tell children all this? Generally, we will choose not to. The full weight of modern scholarship adds nothing to a child’s understanding of the Passover story, and suggesting that the exodus from Egypt might not have taken place at all removes a great deal.
Nevertheless, we do students little good by insisting that they accept as truth that which they find frankly incredible. Traditional commentators who argue that all the provisions of the jubilee year were carried out do so only by ignoring the plain sense of the text.
The “plain sense” is what Jewish pedagogy calls the p’shat, and learning to extract it is the first step for any student beginning to work with the actual text of the Torah. Merely understanding all the words, in English or in Hebrew, isn’t always enough. Full understanding of the p’shat may also require knowledge of the context and of the conventions of Biblical narrative, as well as of the basics of interpretation.
Jewish reading of the Bible doesn’t stop with the plain sense. In mainstream teaching, we also give equal attention to d’rash, which refers to commentary and interpretation: the kind of meaning around which a rabbi might build a sermon, for example. We usually give less attention in classes to remez, the philosophical meaning, and sod, esoteric meaning.
Much of our teaching actually begins with d’rash. We don’t expect young children to grapple with a text in order to find the p’shat; instead, we paraphrase it and usually emphasize the d’rash, the lesson that a student should learn from the passage.
Inconveniently, the age at which students are ready to work directly with the text is also the age at which skepticism develops. Thus, it’s also to d’rash that we return when a passage is difficult to accept on its own terms.