By Rabbi Daniel Lehmann
The two Torah readings of Behar and Behukotai (paired in a joint reading this week) conclude the book of Leviticus. The first portion, Behar, begins with the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee years (every seventh year and fiftieth year respectively). Both of these special years construct an alternative relationship between the Israelites and ownership of land, agriculture, and human servitude. One verse in the middle of chapter 25 puts forward a profound claim about the status of the Jews living on the land given to them by God. “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Leviticus 25:23).
The idea that even the land the Israelites are commanded to possess as an inheritance is fundamentally not theirs, that they are only guests even in their own homeland, and that God is the only one who truly possesses the holy land, presents a profound religious challenge to human self-understanding and experience.
Recently, the University of Chicago Press published a series of conversations between the renowned literary critic and Jewish intellectual George Steiner and a French journalist Laure Adler, entitled, A Long Saturday. In one conversation, Steiner reflects on his understanding of the Jew’s mission.
I can only explain what I perceive as the Jew’s mission: to be the guest of humanity. And even more paradoxical (which places the mark of Cain on my forehead), what convinced me was something Heidegger said: “We are the guests of life.” … We are geworfen, to use the German word, “thrown” into life. And in my opinion, whoever is thrown into life has a duty to that life, and obligation to behave as a guest… And a good guest, a worthy guest, leaves the place where he has been a bit cleaner, a bit more beautiful, a bit more interesting than he found it…If people don’t learn how to be guests of each other, we will destroy ourselves, we will have religious wars, terrible racial wars…In the diaspora, I believe the task of the Jew is to learn to be the guest of other men and women.
For Steiner, it seems that the sovereign State of Israel, in both its ancient and contemporary manifestations, is the one place where the Jew is a host and not primarily a guest, at least of others. However, the verse from Parshat Behar quoted above is quite explicit that in the land of Israel, Jews are guests, though God’s guests--strangers in their own land, resident aliens on holy ground owned by the Divine. The laws of the sabbatical and jubilee years that prohibit various types of agricultural work on the land are designed to force the Jewish inhabitants of Israel to relinquish ownership in order to be conscious of their status as guests of God.
Unlike the ethical obligation to the stranger living in Israel, which emerges from the experience of being strangers in Egypt and is articulated repeatedly in the Torah, this verse from Leviticus teaches the Jew (in particular, the Jew inhabiting the land of Israel) that the status of guest is inherent in the relationship with God and not merely a product of historical experience. To be a responsible guest in this context is not only an ethical imperative that guides our interactions with others; it is a way of being in the world, a reflection of our human dependence on Divine hospitality.
Through the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee years, which limit human control over the normal process of agricultural production, we are also taught that we must be guests of God’s land, and that we need to treat the ground on which we live with respect and humility in recognition of its holiness. The implications for protecting our environment and restraining the destructive forces that we have the capacity to unleash (in our desire to maximize productivity) clearly flow from the awareness of being guests on, and of, God’s earth.
In light of current debates in the US and throughout the Western world regarding the attitude we should have toward strangers, refugees, immigrants, and guests of any state—debates that position Jews among the potential hosts--Parshat Behar calls on us to reorient our self-understanding so that our status as guests of the Divine becomes the way we inhabit the earth. As Steiner would have it, we in the diaspora are actually guests of the rest of humanity, a status that requires us to treat our fellow human beings as our generous hosts (however secure our status in the countries in which we reside), with all of the responsibilities that come with being a gracious guest. Parshat Behar demands that Jews living in Israel see themselves as guests of God with limited ownership rights and the responsibility to care for and share the land with each other justly. Both perspectives, while different in their focus, remind us that to be a guest of others and the wholly/holy Other is to walk humbly and generously through the world.
Emmanuel Levinas, the Lithuanian-born French Jewish philosopher of the last century, echoes the biblical understanding of our paradoxical relationship to others as both guests and hosts when he writes: “The Other qua Other…has the face of the poor, of the stranger, of the widow, of the orphan, and, at the same time, the face of the master called to invest and justify my freedom.” To be both a host and a guest--of others, of God, and of the earth--is to recognize the various moral claims that others have on us, ultimate claims that go to the very root of what it means to be human.
Rabbi Daniel Lehmann is the president of Hebrew College.