Strangers and Sojourners

The Torah portion this week, Parashat Behar, spends a great deal of time giving instructions surrounding the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Amongst the various laws and injunctions the Torah states: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23).

From this verse we learn that property within the land of Israel is not to be sold permanently and reverts back to the original owner in the Jubilee Year. Incidentally, this applies only to land outside of walled cities.

Why was it not to be sold perpetually? The Torah tells us that the Jewish people are “strangers and sojourners” on the land, not permanent residents. David reiterates the same language when he is announcing the building of the Temple:

For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding. O LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. (1 Chronicles 29:15-16)

The word for “stranger” in both texts is ger (גר) and “sojourner” is toshav (תושב). This is exactly the same description Abraham uses when he goes to buy a burial plot for Sarah from the Hittites. He says to them, “I am a sojourner and foreigner (ger v’toshav, גר־ותושב) among you” (Genesis 23:4). It makes sense that Abraham uses this language while he is still awaiting the promise from HaShem to be fulfilled for his descendants to inherit the land but why does David still use this terminology when the Jewish people are firmly within the land?

First, it is a lesson about the sovereignty of God. While the Jewish people have been promised the land of Israel as an inheritance, the land ultimately belongs to HaShem. They are to tend and take care of the land for God and he has the right to exile them from the land if they do not remain obedient to the Torah. Rabbi Johnathan Sacks calls Israel’s relationship to the land “permanently temporary.”[1]

Additionally, giving Israel this status helped them not to forget where they came from and how they are to treat strangers:

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

By remaining strangers and sojourners even in their own land, the Jewish people would not forget that they were strangers in Egypt and to treat those who sojourned among them with love. We even find this command in parashat Behar:

You shall support the stranger and resident (ger v’toshav) and he will live with you. (Leviticus 25:35)

The term ger toshav (גר תושב) would later be used to describe those non-Jews who lived among the Jewish people in the land of Israel and worshipped HaShem. The ger toshav while remaining a Gentile, would take on many of the Torah’s commandments and would come under the Torah’s legal protections which included receiving charity if necessary. It’s then fascinating to see this same language of ger and toshav used with the Jewish people within their land. By Israel’s status as strangers and sojourners remaining, they were able to connect with their past and in turn it would affect the way they operated in the present.

  1. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (New York, NY: Shocken, 2015), 186.

Source: First Fruits of Zion