How Many Harvests

Behar By :  Joel Alter Rabbi, Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid (Milwaukee, WI); Former Director of Admissions, The JTS Rabbinical School and H. L. Miller Cantorial School Posted On May 27, 2016 / 5776 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective | Natural World

Northern red oak tree: 200–400 years
Eastern box turtle: 138 years
African elephant: 65 years
Horse: 57 years
Great white shark: 50 years
Trumpeter swam: 32.5 years
Domestic dog: 24 years
House sparrow: 23 years
Eastern diamondback rattlesnake: 22.8 years

Northern slimy salamander: 20.1 years
North American cicada: 17 years
Cockroach: 1 year
Span from planting to harvesting, winter wheat: 7–8 months
Roundworm: 2 months

—Data drawn largely from AnAge: The Animal Ageing and Longevity Database

In its radical reframing of our right to claim ownership of anything and anyone, Parashat Behar sets our mortality against God’s eternality, and our contingent lease to the Land against God’s permanent deed: “The Land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the Land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25:23).

I write these comments in New York, a city driven by the value of real estate, and so I read with special interest the Torah’s establishment of crop years as the determiner of price when selling land: “The more [crop] years [before the jubilee], the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests” (Lev. 25:15–16). The Torah teaches that there is no inherent value to land. Its value is a function of its productive potential. Our opportunity to cultivate land and enjoy its fruit is limited by our situation in life and, ultimately, by our own mortality.

Because it is tied to the jubilee year, the biblical buyer’s question How many harvests to a plot of land? is not only an economic query, but also an ethical and theological one. It is framed by our temporary claims relative to God’s eternal one. Each of us is called to consider the years of harvest available to us. We must define the harvests of our lives broadly, to include our professional and economic productivity but also our ethical, familial, social, intellectual, and spiritual “produce.” These are a function of our mortality, yes, but also of our attention to the scope of what we claim for ourselves and what we refrain from claiming.

To provide some perspective on how many harvest years each of us has available, I offer, above, the maximum known longevity of various species. May each of us plant, till, and reap well in the time we have available.