PARSHAT BEHAR

ADVERSE POSSESSION

“But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord, you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.”  (Leviticus 25:4)

            There is a principle in our legal system known as adverse possession.  If someone is using another’s property for a period of time without the property owner asserting their rights, the person using it can legally claim possession of the property.  If I park my car on my neighbor’s property for a long period of time (it varies by state) and my neighbor takes no action, I can claim the parking spot as my own.

            In New York City, many buildings provide parks or other public places in their courtyards or elsewhere on their property.  But once a year, they will block off these public places, in order to assert their ownership and prevent adverse possession of their property.  Some squatters who have settled in someone’s property for a long period have claimed ownership if the property owner takes no action.  I am not an attorney, and this is a complex issue in property law, but one can lose property through adverse possession.

            Nonetheless, as I read this week’s portion, I think about the problem of adverse possession.  Six years we work the land.  But in the seventh year we must leave it alone, eating what grows on its own but without planting or reaping.  The idea is that the land does not belong to us.  The land belongs to God.  As the Psalmist taught us, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalms 24:1).  Perhaps the purpose of the law is to prevent us from taking adverse possession of the earth.  We work the earth.  But just as a building in New York blocks off its public park once a year, God blocks off the earth once every seven years.

            A powerful idea in our tradition is that ultimately nothing belongs to us, everything belongs to God.  I was recently asked (once again) why Jewish tradition forbids tattoos.  I am aware of how popular tattoos are with younger people.  I gave my answer.  Our bodies do not belong to us.  They are on loan to us to use in a proper way.  But ultimately, even our bodies belong to God.  It is as if we rent someone’s home, even for an extended period.  We are not allowed to make permanent alterations to the home.  It does not belong to us.

            A similar idea is behind the tradition that we say a blessing before eating any kind of food.  We begin with the idea that none of the food we eat belongs to us.  It belongs to God, and the blessing is asking permission to eat it.  The Rabbis say that to eat without a blessing is a form of stealing.  Again, it is like visiting someone’s home.  We cannot simply go into their refrigerator, help ourselves to food, without permission.  The food belongs to God.

            Much Jewish observance can be understood as a statement that everything belongs to God – our bodies, our land, even the food we eat.  We are welcome to make use of it, but as the laws of adverse possession teach us, we cannot claim these are our own.  In powerful symbolic ways, we show that the world does not belong to us.  This teaches a deep sense of appreciation for the gifts we have been given in life.

            Perhaps this idea is shown most clearly in this week’s portion, that after seven times seven or forty-nine years, the Jubilee is celebrated.  All land goes back to its original owner.  It is a redistribution of wealth, a recognition that everything we have acquired is temporary and ultimately does not belong to us.  Often in my career someone has come by with a generous donation to my synagogue.  They tell me that God has been good to them, and they want to give something back.  They recognize that what they acquired does not belong to them but to God.

            There is nothing wrong with acquiring property and seeking wealth.  But the lesson of this week’s Torah reading is that nothing belongs to us.  Everything we have belongs to God.  We need to avoid taking adverse possession of God’s property.  Recognizing this makes us into better human beings.