This week’s Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, teaches that every seventh year we must give the land a rest. Every seventh day we get Shabbat, a time to rest and be renewed; every seventh year the earth deserves the same thing.
This is called the shmita year — in English, “Sabbatical.” And this year right now — 5775 — is a shmita year, which means that all over the world people have been talking and thinking and praying about how we can best care for our earth.
This week’s portion also teaches us about the yovel, or Jubilee. After seven sevens of years, we reach the 50th year, a Jubilee year, during which all debts are canceled and all property is returned to its original owner. Or, I should say, its original Owner-with-a-capital-O, because one of the themes of this Torah portion is that the earth belongs to God and we are merely resident on it. As God says in this week’s portion, גרים ותושבים אתם עמדי –– “Y’all are resident-strangers with Me.”
This is a familiar category. Torah frequently speaks in terms of Israelites, outsiders, and the גר תושב (ger toshav), or resident alien — someone who is not originally of our community but is resident with us and among us. It’s a lovely inversion of the norm to say that even we “insiders” in the community are ultimately resident strangers, because when it comes to the planet, the planet belongs to God and we’re merely borrowing space on it for the short spans of our lives.
Earlier this week I studied a beautiful Hasidic teaching about the verse “Y’all are resident-strangers with Me.” Usually we understand it to mean what I just said — that we are גרים ותושבים, resident strangers, on the earth which belongs to God. But the Hasidic master known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim offers a poignant alternative reading.
He cites a verse from psalms: “I am a stranger in the land; do not hide Your mitzvot from me.” (Psalm 119:19) Someone who is a stranger, he points out, has no one close to them with whom they can connect and tell the happenings of their day. A גר תושב / ger toshav is inevitably lonely. When such a person does find a friend, he writes, then they can joyously pour out everything which has been in their heart.
Here’s where he makes a radical move. He says that the Holy One of Blessing is a lonely stranger in this world, because there is no one with whom God can connect wholly.
Let me say that again. God is a גר תושב / ger toshav.
God is a resident alien, a lonely stranger, existentially alone. This insight really moved me. I know that we all have times of feeling alone, and the insight that God too feels this way — that our loneliness is a reflection of the Divine loneliness — changes how I relate to those feelings of loneliness.
The Degel finds a hint of this in the psalm he cited. “I am a stranger in the land,” said the psalmist — as if to say, ‘God, like You I am a stranger in this world, so don’t hide Your connective-commandments from me!’ The psalmist is saying: God, like You I am essentially alone. I yearn for Your mitzvot, Your connective-commandments, to alleviate my loneliness. And God yearns for us in return.
God is the lonely stranger, all alone in the world. We are the friend God finds, and when God finds us, God can pour out all of what is on God’s heart — in the form of Torah and mitzvot, our stories and our opportunities for connection with God.
“Y’all are resident-strangers with Me” can mean: y’all are strangers just as I, God, am a stranger. Y’all feel loneliness just as I, God, feel loneliness. And because we are together with God in this condition of loneliness and yearning for connection, we are never truly alone.
My thanks are due to my hevruta partners Rabbi David Markus and Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman who studied this text from the Degel with me.