You might recall the oft-quoted Chief Seattle teaching: “The Earth Does Not Belong to Man, Man Belongs to the Earth.” This week we have the same teaching in the Torah – “The land is mine. You are but strangers and sojourners in it.” What does this mean? If we really took it to heart, what would be its import – how would it change our lives, our suffering, how we treat others?
We humans tend to feel a sense of proprietorship over what we are involved in. “I grew these tomatoes, my tomatoes,” we say. But we don’t own what we think we own. Elsewhere the Torah tells us, we were created to till and to tend, to be shomrim, guardians of the earth. And if we don’t really own any piece of the land, suddenly all land becomes sacred, and maybe we walk a little more gently on it. I think the blessing practice connects to this: it sources each thing we experience and enjoy in G-d. Over and over, we say, right, not my tomatoes, G-d’s tomatoes.
We were also created to be shomrim, guardians of one another. And there’s a social justice core to the realization that we don’t own what we think we own. Perhaps a great deal of our suffering comes about as a result of identifying with what we own and battling over ownership, feeling threatened when something is revealed to be not under our control in the way we thought it was.
Maybe this underlying realization, knowing that this is not mine, would inform all ethical behavior and how we relate to the other.
In the biblical context, liberty is not a vague value but a mitzvah to do repeatedly. Help others get free. Somehow this is easier to do if we know that we don’t own any of this. It helps us focus on what is really important. It doesn’t mean we care for it less – maybe we care for it with less attachment, with more awareness.
B’Har gives us a utopian vision: a description of a society that we don’t know ever existed or not. When we’re told that we are strangers and sojourners, we suddenly grok that the most oft-repeated verse in the Torah – some version of being kind to the stranger – is also directed at us, as well as to everyone we meet. We’re all strangers on this earth together.