May 4, 2013 – 24 Iyar 5773
Annual: Leviticus 25:1-27:34 (Etz Hayim p. 738; Hertz p. 531)
Triennial: Leviticus 27:1-27:34 (Etz Hayim p. 753; Hertz p. 547)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14 (Etz Hayim p. 763; Hertz p. 551)
Hazak, hazak, v'nithazek!
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)
Parashat Behar begins with an extended discussion of the sabbatical year, the last in an ongoing seven-year cycle. During the seventh year the land is given a rest; it is not sown or planted, reaped or pruned. What grows naturally is permissible for use. After seven such seven-year cycles, the fiftieth year is observed as a jubilee. In addition to observing the restrictions associated with the sabbatical year, the jubilee also is marked by the restoration of property to its original owners and by the manumission of Hebrew slaves who have not yet been redeemed from servitude. Sellers and buyers alike are told to be scrupulously fair in real estate transactions, accurately adjusting costs and values as they draw closer to the jubilee.
Parashat Behar's most famous verse – "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" (Leviticus. 25:1), the inscription on the Liberty Bell, refers to the jubilee year.
The mandate for economic justice and fair business practices associated with the sabbatical and jubilee years is extended to everyday treatment of people in financial straits. It is forbidden to charge advance or accrued interest on loans, and if an indigent Israelite should enter into servitude, he must not be subjected to harsh or demeaning labor. Such indentures are dissolved at the onset of the jubilee.
Parashat Bechukotai presents a series of blessings that God will bestow upon the people Israel if they obey His commandments and comply with the covenant. In contrast, a much lengthier catalogue of curses and harsh consequences is invoked as the punishments if the Israelites neglect God's law.
God's loyal devotion to the covenant, however, is unflagging. God assures the Israelites that even when they are exiled to the land of their enemies, even when Israel as a nation fails in its covenantal duties and "forgets" God, God never will forget Israel or abandon it to destruction. God will continue to support and to shield Israel out of fidelity to the divine "covenant with the ancients" – referring either to the patriarchs or to the tribes of Israel that gathered at Sinai – or to both.
Parashat Bechukotai continues with the valuation of possessions and livestock, to assure payment for vows can be made properly; it describes the procedure for redemption of property and tithes consecrated to the sanctuary and the limitations placed on the redemption process. With the conclusion of parashat Bechukotai, the Book of Leviticus also draws to a close. The divine authority for the sacrificial cult, the fundamentals of significant areas of Jewish ritual practice, and more specifically the laws prescribed in the closing chapters of Leviticus, are explicitly restated in the final verse: "These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai."
Theme #1: "Service Charge"
"For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God." (Leviticus 25:55 – Behar)
The concept that we belong to God, that we are God's servants… has farreaching implications. It means that our rights over others are limited. In fact, our right to treat ourselves poorly, whether physically, spiritually, or emotionally, is limited so as not to deny our true Owner the very best service we can give.… When we think of ourselves as stewards appointed by God to watch over our welfare and the welfare of others, the call to just and gentle treatment of human beings is loud and clear. After all, we are taking care of the most precious possessions of the God who made us. (Rabbi Michael Chernick)
Man's sin is in his failure to live what he is. Being the master of the earth, man forgets that he is the servant of God. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)
Service to God consists in what we do to our neighbor. (Rabbi Leo Baeck)
I have rightfully no other business each day but to do God's work as a servant, constantly regarding His pleasure. May I have grace to live above every human motive, simply with God and to God. (Henry Martyn)
A servant of God has but one Master. (George Muller)
Questions for Discussion
George Muller (a 19th Century English evangelist) points out that entering into the service of God actually increases personal freedom, as is suggested by the verse's reference to Israel's redemption from Egyptian slavery. Where else to we see this pattern (commitments, obligations, and restrictions understood as enhancing our freedom) in Biblical narrative (or law)… in Jewish thought and practice?
Is Leo Baeck's definition of service to God too narrow? How might Heschel respond to him (based on all we know of Heschel, who – inter alia – marched with Martin Luther King AND wrote a poetic paean to the intricacies of Sabbath observance)?
Is the view of service to God proffered by Henry Martyn – an 18th/19th Century Anglican priest and missionary – a valid Jewish perspective? How might Jewish tradition differ on the value of "human motives" and on what it is that gives God pleasure?
Is it accurate or useful – or troubling – to think of being "owned" by God (see Rabbi Chernick, ordained an Orthodox rabbi who teaches at the Reform Hebrew Union College)? Is this a necessary ingredient of being the "servants" of God? How has the concept of being God's "property" figured in Jewish Bio-Ethics? Does asserting that we are God's servants substantively different from saying we are God's "workers" or "agents"? Do you prefer such terms? Why (or why not)?
Theme #2: "A Little Peace of Heaven"
"I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land." (Leviticus 26:6 – Bechukotai)
There will be peace among you and you will not fight one man with his brother. (Nachmanides)
After God promised blessing, He made a promise concerning the vessel that contains blessing, which is peace, which strengthens all blessings. For peace includes all good things in existence. (Malbim)
Peace: Shalom is an anagram of 'Lishmo' – ‘for His Name' – for God's Name is peace. (Baal Ha-Turim)
The verse records peace as a gift from God. Were it not for such a gift, the verse implies, violence would reign. The sword and the wild animal would make inhabiting the land impossible. This teaching reveals how harsh human life can be without intervention from God. Peace is so elusive that only God can change the course chosen by humanity. (Rabbi Sheldon Lewis)
In order for our lives to be secure we clearly need to find the road to peace with our neighbors, but also, and chiefly, we must find peace and brotherhood among our own people. The Torah offers us the blessing that, ‘you will dwell in safety in your land.' How and when is this blessing attainable? When we create peace among our brothers we will be able to dwell in safety in our land. The Torah'stwo-part blessing, for peace from within and for safety from without, forms a complete whole. (Rabbi Simon Dolgin)
Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. (Baruch Spinoza)
Even peace may be purchased at too high a price. (Benjamin Franklin)
Questions for Discussion
What is Baal Ha-Turim saying? That true peace comes from an intimate knowledge of God? That peace is an Ultimate value? How would Ben Franklin view such a statement? Does equating God's name with peace border on idolatrous pacifism?
Consider Nachmanides and Rabbi Dolgin. What is the nature of the peace under discussion in our verse? National security and safe borders? Amity within Israelite/Jewish society? What can we and our congregations and religious institutions do to enhance "peace from within"?
What steps might we each take to experience peace as defined by Spinoza? Is such a peace possible even under conditions of war?
If only God can bring peace to a humanity naturally disposed to war and conflict, as Rabbi Lewis writes, does that mean that war and violence are the result of a divine plan as well… or, at least, the consequence of divine inaction?
Parashat Behar's most famous verse – "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" (Leviticus. 25:1), the inscription on the Liberty Bell, is read on May 4, 2013. On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island declared its independence from Great Britain… anticipating by precisely two months the American Declaration of Independence.
Yom Yerushalayim – commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War – is celebrated later this week, on Wednesday, May 8, 2013 (28 Iyar). Siddur Lev Shalem notes that "some congregations" recite Hallel during morning services on this youngest of Jewish holidays. This is common in modern Orthodox congregations, as well. Siddur Lev Shalem seems to view the practice with favor, stating that by reciting Hallel on Yom Yerushalayim "we express gratitude for the miracles of modern Jewish history and our hopes for Israel's future." In a study of Yom Ha-Zikaron, Yom Ha-Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, Rabbi Gilah Dror comments: "Whether we return to Israel by living in Israel, or we return by associating ourselves with Israel, from near or far, that hightened awareness, coupled with the real opportunity to contribute to the realization of the vision of our prophets is ample reason for all of us to celebrate our National Holidays."