Shaya Cohen -


Walled Cities

It is an awkward fact that we tend to build relationships when we are lonely. But as people become increasingly independent (both emotionally and financially), we often decide that others are inconvenient or simply unnecessary – and we cast them away. When people are more able to afford divorce, divorce rates go up. When people no longer feel a void in their lives, they tend to sever ties much more easily. People who are highly secure do not tend to pour the same emotional and financial capital into their relationships.

The Torah warns us against taking things for granted. When we stop realizing how much we owe other people, then we care less about them. And when we think that we are entitled to all the good things that come our way, then we lose our sense of appreciation for the sources of those good things. In a nutshell: we get comfortable, and then we stop realizing how much we owe to other people and to our Creator.

This is the underlying reason behind the Jubilee: the reversion of land ownership every fifty years that is commanded in the Torah (Lev. 25). Reversion of land did not make the poor rich or the rich poor, but it did remind everyone both that the land was ultimately a gift from G-d, and that nobody can take their assets for granted. A rich man, for example, would have transferred his land rights to animals or storehouses for the Jubilee year – but unlike land, animals get sick, and storehouses can catch fire or the contents could rot or be stolen. A rich man who holds all his assets in non-land form for a year learns how to pray.

So the Jubilee was a way to make sure that everyone would periodically become “re-grounded” in an understanding that G-d is on our world, and that we need that relationship. There is no real security in this world – and insecurity is what drives people into marriage, and brings people to connect with G-d. The Torah law is there to remind all of us that we need that connection.

But there is an exception.

.. A house that is in the walled city passes permanently to its purchaser throughout his generations; it does not revert in the jubilee. (Lev. 25:30)

Why is there an exception for a walled city?

I suggest that there are two parts to the answer. The first part is that G-d very much wants mankind to build and create. Our creations are always respected by G-d – because our creations are, in a sense, extensions of G-d’s own power, funneled through our bodies and souls. We are here to improve upon the natural world, and providing an exception to the Jubilee would guarantee that people, seeking their self-interest, would build walled cities.

But the exception is not given for a walled home, no matter how impressive or expansive! No: the only property that does not revert is property inside a walled city. And a city requires quite a lot more than a single person can provide. A city must have a means of making decisions and settling disputes. Above all, a walled city must have some degree of unity, a community. People have to agree that they want to live in such a place, walled in with other people. And walls are not built or maintained by themselves: they are expensive and time-consuming. People in walled cities shares streets and alleyways. They share water supplies, and sewage arrangements.

Because of the costs and potential for conflict, they also have to have a city governance where taxes are collected to pay for communal costs like the wall itself. In other words, people who live in a city are invested in other people.

In other words, a walled city is a place where people coexist with others.

When connected to the Jubilee, this is huge. It means that G-d is saying that if a person would like to go without all the insecurity of relying on a relationship with G-d during the Jubilee, then he can, instead, rely on other people – that people are, themselves, a suitable alternative to prayer. The archetypal walled city in ancient Israel was, of course, Jerusalem – a name that refers to “shalem”, meaning completeness. The Torah considers life in a unified community to be fulfilled and whole. After all, every person has a soul on loan from G-d, so relating to others is relating to their divine souls. And when we find sufficient common ground within an entire city so that we are able to build together, we have achieved a direct relationship with G-d.

The Torah seems to tell us, that Hashem craves us to never step away from that investment! That once we are engaged, Hashem always wants us to engage further. The relationships we build are so important and beautiful that Hashem does not want to force people away from each other, even if it means at the cost of less connection to G-d Himself. So the reversion of land in the Jubilee is trumped by the relationships we build with each other in close quarters.

The Jubilee is an antidote to wealth-enabled independence from other people: if we want to be secure in our wealth, then we must work to be secure in our relationships.

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