May 17, 2008
12 Iyar 5768
The Torah states as an imperative that it is an obligation for someone whose relative has fallen on hard times to redeem family land so that said land will remain a possession of the family: \”If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding, his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold.\” (Lev. 25:25) Among the Tannaitic sages (the sages of Mishnaic times), the nature of this obligation was a matter of debate, one sage determining the redemption of the land to be obligatory while another maintained it to be merely a suggestion. (See Kiddushin 21a) Maimonides, siding with the later opinion, held that the redemption was not obligatory. (see Mishnah Torah Hilchot Shmita 11:18)
The following midrash seems to indicate that Jeremiah accepted the former interpretation, namely, that this command was an imperative: \”And if your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding, his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold.\” (Lev. 25, 25)\” Who does this refer to? This must be Jeremiah. When the Holy One Blessed Be He said to him: \’Behold Hanamel ben Shalum your cousin has come to you\’ (Jer. 32:7) \’And just as the Lord had said, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the prison compound and said to me\’ (32:9) Immediately, Jeremiah performed his duty as commanded in this parashah, as it is written: \’And I bought the field\’ And where did he learn of his obligation? From the verse in the Torah: \’And if your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding.\’\” (Tanhuma Behar 3 end) The story from Jeremiah is brought here as an illustration of the performance of this commandment.
The story line of the haftarah, however, seems to indicate that for Jeremiah, this commandment was not seen as obligatory. Jeremiah seems genuinely surprised by the obligation imposed by God\’s prophecy. The land that his kinsman wanted him to redeem was already in the hands of the Babylonian conqueror. Hence, there seemed no logical reason to redeem it. The whole intent of his action was to make his fellow Jews realize that their situation was not hopeless. If Jeremiah, the prophet of the destruction, was willing to take his good money and redeem land that had already been conquered by the enemy for his kinsman from a Jewish third party who had no access to the land that he had purchased, then he must be on to something. This symbolic action had the power to inspire the people who, along with him, were caught in a Jerusalem under Babylonian siege to appreciate that there would be a tomorrow. (See M. Bula, Jeremiah, Daat Mikra, p. 408, note 22*)
The Jewish people are not short on doomsayers who would proudly lead the Jewish people, their land and their tradition into oblivion. However, what are really needed are those who have the hope and faith to go on and build a better tomorrow even when today seems imperfect.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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