The DNA of Judaism
The human body contains some 75 trillion cells. Within each cell is a nucleus. Within each nucleus is a double copy of the human genome. Each genome contains 3.1 billion letters of genetic code, enough to fill 5000 books. If I would read the chemical coding in your genome, reading one character every second, night and day, it would take 96 years just to read the description of your organism. (There is so much DNA in all the cells of our bodies, that if we stretched it out, it would reach to the moon and back, 178,000 times.)
Each cell contains a blueprint of the entire body of which it is a part. The microcosm is a map of the macrocosm. From a single cell, it may be possible to reconstruct an entire organism.
The Torah is compared to a living organism. One “cell” of Torah, an apparently tiny detail of Judaism, contains the totality of Judaism's spiritual world and outlook on life. The smallest nuance of Torah when examined well can teach you profound truths of cosmology, physics, philosophy, psychology, and history.
In this essay, we will explore such a “cell”—a single letter in the weekly Torah portion. From this single letter, you can glean a philosophical, psychological, sociological, and historical perspective of the world.
The Sale of Land in Ancient Israel
A little background is necessary:
Sometimes, albeit rarely, there is a difference between the way a word is written in the Torah (and printed in the Chumash), and the way that it is pronounced. (The difference is usually not that noticeable, and it’s a matter of adding an extra vowel, sound or something similar.) The textual spelling is called the “ksiv” and the traditional way we read the word is called the “kri.” As every letter in the Torah is meticulous, these are not merely careless editors’ typos; rather these are two ways to interpret the same word. G-d is essentially saying, “Write it like this, but read it like that.”
However, in this week’s Portion, Behar, we discover something shocking: The kri and the ksiv – the way the word is written vs. the way it is pronounced—not only have two separate meanings, but they diametrically contradict one another!
The Torah is discussing the laws concerning the sale of land in Israel. After the Jewish people entered the land of Israel in 1273 BCE (2488 in the Jewish calendar), Joshua assigned a plot of land to every tribe and family. If a Jew fell upon hard times and was compelled to sell his ancestral field or his home, the Torah gave him the right to “redeem it” from the buyer. The seller would refund the money to the buyer and take his property back. Even if he did not redeem the land, the field would return to the seller automatically with the arrival of the Jubilee (Yovel) year.
What was the Jubilee year? After the Jewish people completed the settling of the land of Israel 14 years after entering it, they began counting their years in cycles of fifty. Every 50th year was observed as a Jubilee year during which ancestral plots of land that had been sold during the previous 49 years, reverted to their original owner. Almost no sale or gift in Israel was legal for longer than 49 years. (Yovel also freed slaves and absolved loans.)
In ancient Israel you could not sell a property for more than 49 years, usually far less. At some point, the sale was null; the property would go back to its original owner (naturally, this affected the price of the real estate being sold).
But there is one exception. What happens if a poor Jew sold his home located within a walled city in the Holy Land? Here the law changes dramatically. This home, the Torah states, could be redeemed only until the first anniversary of the sale. After that, it remains the property of the buyer permanently and did not return to the seller, even with the arrival of the Jubilee year. Even Jubilee could not cancel the sale; it remains forever in the domain of the buyer.
As the Torah indicates, the laws of the Jubilee year apply only when most of the Jewish nation lives in Israel. Thus, after the mass exile of the Ten Tribes, all these laws did not apply any longer. Henceforth, you can sell real estate in Israel as you sell it in Chicago or Los Angeles.
So, in summation: All homes and fields sold in ancient Israel would automatically return to their original owner once in 50 years when the Jubilee year arrived. Only a house located in a walled city could be sold eternally.
To quote the original wording of this law, in Leviticus chapter 25 verse 30-31:
וְאִם לֹא יִגָּאֵל עַד מְלֹאת לוֹ שָׁנָה תְמִימָה וְקָם הַבַּיִת אֲשֶׁר בָּעִיר אֲשֶׁר לא [לוֹ] חֹמָה לַצְּמִיתֻת לַקֹּנֶה אֹתוֹ לְדֹרֹתָיו לֹא יֵצֵא בַּיֹּבֵל. וּבָתֵּי הַחֲצֵרִים אֲשֶׁר אֵין לָהֶם חֹמָה סָבִיב עַל שְׂדֵה הָאָרֶץ יֵחָשֵׁב גְּאֻלָּה תִּהְיֶה לּוֹ וּבַיֹּבֵל יֵצֵא.
“If the seller does not redeem his home after the completion of one year, the house in the walled city stands permanently in the possession of the buyer for generations; it does not leave him during Jubilee year. But the homes in open cities which do not have a wall… they return to their original owner during the Jubilee year.”
It is here we encounter a stunning discrepancy between the “kri” and the “ksiv,” the written and the pronounced. In Hebrew, the words “(a house in a) walled city” are “lo choma.” Now the word “lo” can be spelled in two ways, with an aleph or with a vav (לא/לו). Although there is no verbal or audible difference between them, they mean two opposite things: Lo with a vav means “has;” lo with an aleph means “does not have.”
In this verse the Torah writes “lo” with an aleph: “a house in a city without a wall” (לא חומה), but then directs us to read it as “lo” with a vuv, as if it says: “A house in a city with a wall! (לו חומה).
In other words, if we examine the verse in the way it is written, it is telling us that the sale of a house in a city without a wall is an eternal transaction, which does not get canceled by the Jubilee year. If we examine the verse the way it is pronounced, it is telling us the exact opposite message; that only a home bought in a walled city does not leave the buyer during the year of Jubilee.
The way the verse is written is, of course, not to be taken into account. The Torah clearly states that homes in open cities do get returned during Yovel. Yet for some reason, the Torah chooses to transcribe this word in a way that undermines the entire theme of these verses, as if to say that homes in un-walled cities are the ones which override the power of Jubilee!
Here we find a linguistic feat of Torah unparalleled, uncontested, and unmatched by any other book, religion, or author. With this one letter, Judaism is communicating to us one of the most vital lessons about confidence, money, security and status.
Exposing the Vulnerability
The idea of the jubilee year, in which almost all sales are canceled, and all estates return to their original owners, represents one of the great truths about life: We do not own anything forever.
“The land shall not be sold for eternity, because the earth belongs to me,” the Torah states in Behar to explain why all sales are canceled when Jubilee arrives. “You are guests and residents with me.” None of us really own anything; the world does not belong to us. Once in fifty-years in ancient Israel, the people of Israel were reminded that the acquisitions of the rich and the poverty of the poor was not a natural birth-right; G-d did not sign a contract of “entitlement” for certain individuals. Acquisition – like life itself – is a gift, a temporary gift, to be used properly, not allowing ourselves to grow pompous and arrogant in our temporary success.
One of the hardest things for man to accept is the fragility of his or her existence and the transience of the materialistic reality. It is why the coronavirus is so unsettling for billions of us, outside of course of the health dangers. Often, a person thinks to himself: For forty-nine years I worked hard; I built a powerful company, corporation, or organization. I bought and sold property, I invested, created portfolios, and own shares in 20 different stocks and mutual funds. I own homes in multiple places in the world, and I am guaranteed for life.
But every so often, something occurs in life that reminds us that we are not in control; that everything is transient. Or as King Solomon put it in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
It is usually about once in fifty years when Yovel – Jubilee – arrives and it hits many of us by surprise; something happens in the world which makes us discover the truth that “ki lee kal haaretz,” the whole world belongs to Me, to G-d, not to scientists, doctors, tycoons, and presidents.
This is a hard truth for many to accept. Some of us, graduates of Ivy League Universities, feel that we can “outsmart” Yovel. Sure, Jubilee overrides all sales, but I will take the road less traveled. I will acquire property in “walled cities,” which will remain mine forever, and even Jubilee will not be able to override. I can navigate the system cleverly; I am wise enough to ensure that the cycles of Yovel skip over me.
Has this not been one of the most powerful ambitions of individuals as well as civilizations during the last five millennia – to construct homes and “empires” in “walled” cities which would, they hoped, prove more powerful than Yovel? I will build a company which will never falter; I will build an empire which will never fade away; I will build a firm which will prove more powerful than any of G-d’s Jubilee laws. In short, I will acquire a structure in a “walled city.”
In ancient times, the greatness of a city could be measured by the thickness and height of its walls. The walls provided safety and protection from enemies, and they allowed their inhabitants to go to sleep in peace. The walls protected and insured my property, my home, and my family.
But alas! Jubilee has proven mightier yet. Those who thought they were invincible discovered their vulnerability. An invisible virus the size of 125 nanometers brought 7.7. billion people and the entire economy to its knees. We have seen that there are no eternal walls which can withstand the truth of Jubilee—that nobody owns their life, and nobody owns anything.
All of history testifies to this. There have been many empires that have appeared invincible and unbreakable. Their creators and inhabitants were certain that they had finally succeeded in building a place safe from Yovel and unaffected by the cycles of time and the vulnerable truth of mortality. Egypt, Greece, and Rome have all laid claim to immortality. Communism and the Third Reich promised the world that they are here to stay.
Yet they are all gone. You can read about some of them in Wikipedia. Many others did not even make it to the history books.
Because, in the words of the Torah, “ki lee kal Haaretz,” the world belongs to Me. Nothing and nobody can outsmart Yovel. It may take ten years, 50 years, or—as in the case of Rome—500 years. But we cannot own anything forever.
The Berlin Wall
Do you remember The Berlin Wall—that terrifying fortress constructed by the Communists in August 1961 to keep Germans from escaping Communist-dominated East Berlin into Democratic West Berlin? The twelve-foot concrete wall extended for a hundred miles, surrounding West Berlin, and included electrified fences and guard posts. The wall stood as a stark symbol of the decades-old Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in which the two politically opposed superpowers continually wrestled for dominance, stopping just short of actual warfare.
But then the day came, June 12th, 1987. President Reagan spoke those famous words: “As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner: ‘This wall will fall.’ Beliefs become reality. Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.”
“Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!”
And, sure enough, yet another wall came down. Stalin’s “Iron Curtain” crumbled. After seventy years of hellish suffering, the idea of Jubilee prevailed yet once again. Nobody owns eternity. “Ki lee kal haaretz,” the world belongs to Me, to the Creator of the world.
Jubilee has taken down many a home, many a market, many an empire, and many a civilization. The recent coronavirus pandemic has affected even the cleverest among us who have done everything “right.”
Ours is a Windows world, not a Mac world.
Is Anything Secure?
We are now left with a gnawing question: What then is the walled city that the Torah speaks of when it says that Jubilee does not cancel it out? Is anything guaranteed? Is anything secure? Is anything eternal?
And the answer lies in that one letter, that inexplicable aleph. The secret of the wall—the real wall which will prove stronger than Yovel—is that it is “lo choma” with an aleph, it is a wall that doesn’t look like a wall. When you see the words, black on white (ksiv), it shouts “there is no wall,” this is a defenseless home! But when you read into it (kri), you discover that it is read with a vav, that this is the only wall, this is the only perpetual constant, the only human hope at eternity.
What is this wall—which looks not like a wall but which is really the only eternal and timeless wall?
Our sages tell us that the walled cities had to have been built by the times of Yehoshua ben Nun, Moses’ successor, the man who received the Torah directly from the mouth of Moses, and transmitted it to the rest of the people. He brought the Jewish nation to Israel, and halachically endowed the land with holiness. His walls are the walls of Moses, the walls of Sinai, the walls of Faith, and the walls of Torah. And they are eternal. They defy the ebb and flow of history; they transcend and are unaffected by crisis and chaos. True, they seem to be at best fragile, at worst non-existent. They appear to be written with an aleph. But search and you will discover that they are engraved in an eternal vav.
The Invisible Wall of Jerusalem
The Talmud relates the following powerful story:
It was the year 68 of the Common Era. The great empire of Rome was at the peak of its might, and Jerusalem was besieged, starving, and desperate. Vespasian, the ruthless commander-in-chief of the Roman army, was himself directing the operation and decimation of the once-great city. Rome was at its peak; Jerusalem was at its nadir.
It was at this crucial moment that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the greatest Jewish scholar and leader of the generation smuggled himself out of the city. Tragically, the city was controlled by a group of zealous hotheads, who—against the directions of the Sages—refused to make peace with Rome, and insisted on fighting a lost battle, and forcing the city into collective suicide. Because they did not allow anyone out of the city for fear that they would negotiate with Rome, Rabbi Yochanan feigned his own death, and then had his students carry his coffin out for “burial.”
Rabbi Yochanan approached Vespasian, and announced: “Peace unto you, mighty Caesar!” Vespasian, only a military general, was considering punishing the Rabbi for the affront to the throne, when a message arrived from Rome that Nero had died, and the Senate had elected Vespasian to replace him as Caesar. In respect for Rabbi Yochanan’s foresight and brilliance, Vespasian decided to grant him any request. Rabbi Yochanan then said famously: “Give me the Torah Academy of Yavneh and its scholars!” Vespasian agreed. He went on to destroy Jerusalem, to burn the Temple and to decimate the Jewish commonwealth and political sovereignty. But he spared Yavneh, the center of Jewish learning, where the Yeshivos continued to be populated by students studying the Torah, teaching the Torah and applying the Torah.
The Talmud relates that Rabbi Yochanan was criticized by some of his own rabbinic colleagues. Why didn’t he ask for the Temple? For Jerusalem? Why did he ask for Yavneh? He could have perhaps saved the Capital city. He could have had Rome spare Jerusalem and its walls; instead, he opted for a Yeshiva?!
Now let us, for a moment, contrast the two men: Rabbi Yochanan was an elderly Rabbi, persecuted by his own brethren. His beautiful, majestic walled city was about to be destroyed, his colleagues were about to be murdered. He was a victim and a refugee. Vespasian on the other hand was the Emperor of Rome, the all-powerful super-power of the time.
Yet the old sage knew one thing Vespasian did not: He knew the secret of that single letter, the “lo chomah,” the wall which did not appear at all like a wall. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai knew that there is one real and timeless wall—”Chomah zoo Torah,” the fortress of Torah, the tower of Mitzvos, the wall of Jewish values and tradition. He knew that the authentic wall was one constructed not of mortar and stone, not of dollars and stocks, but the one built of words and deeds – the words of Torah, the acts of Mitzvos. These walls would never falter, because they were Divine.
He knew that Vespasian may be the most powerful man on the planet, with the mightiest army of the greatest Empire that the world had ever seen, with walls towering to heaven; but these walls were only superficially strong, and one day Rome would be only a subject studied in school. So while Rome had its eyes on the physical walls of Jerusalem, attempting to tear them down, a single Rabbi had his eyes fixed on very different types of walls – walls built of the stuff of eternity; Rabbi Yochanan decided to invest his energy in Yavneh. The walls of Yavneh seemed frail; how can a “blat gemarah” stand up to Rome? But what appeared to have “lo chomah,” with an alef, no wall, was really the only “lo chomah,” with a vav, the only reality which had a wall which would outlive all the Yovels of history.
Yavneh was responsible for ensuring the survival of Judaism. And today, 1900 years later, it is as strong as ever.
Today history has repeated itself.
An enemy invisible to the naked eye, the coronavirus, has shut down almost every industry and affected every sector of humanity. In times like these, we must remember that real security and endurance do not come from man-made financial institutions, but rather it comes from the walls of Joshua and the towers of faith. It comes from inner stability and confidence within our own souls, confidence in our mission, and confidence in our destiny. It comes from the eternal values of Torah and from our unshakeable inner Divine and transcendent core.
Parents and educators ought to reflect on what it is that we are giving to our children and our loved ones which can stay with them for life. Are we giving them merely “walls”—modes of protection—which might one day prove to be skin-deep and temporary, or are we giving them fortresses which will never be destroyed? Are you giving your children something which no circumstances will ever be able to obliterate?
Are we investing only in a “Berlin-Wall,” or do we have our eyes and our hearts fixed on walls that after 3333 years have still not been breached?
 In the case of a field, he had to wait for two years till redeeming it; in the case of a home he can redeem it immediately. See the essay “Foreclosure on Your Soul” (and its footnotes) for the literal reasons behind this law. In this essay, we will explore one of the symbolic ideas behind this law.
 Leviticus 25:23.
 Rashi here. This is the literal explanation in the “lo chomah,” see Rashi. Thus, the literal and the symbolic explanations are profoundly connected.
 There is an argument in Talmud (Erkin 32b), if Joshua imbued Eretz Israel with holiness for the time, till the conquest or it was permanent (קידשה לשעתה וקידשה לע"ל). Regardless, he was the one who sanctified the earth and soil of Eretz Yisroel.
 Gitin 56a-b.
 Bava Basra 8a.
 This essay is based on: Sichas Lag Baomer 5711; Sichas Purim 5712. The idea of the dual “Lo choma” is from Kesovim Un Derashos, Yiddish sermons by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.