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Torah Sparks

Parashat Behar
May 10, 2014 – 10 Iyar 5774

Annual (Leviticus 25:1-26:2): Etz Hayim p. 738; Hertz p. 531
Triennial (Leviticus 25:1-38): Etz Hayim p. 738; Hertz p. 531
Haftarah (Jeremiah 32:6-27): Etz Hayim p. 759; Hertz p. 539

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Greenbaum
Charleston, SC

Upon entering the Promised Land, the Israelites must allow the land to go untouched once every seven years, during which they eat what the earth naturally produces (God will provide enough crops to guarantee that the Israelites will eat well). Once every fifty years is the Jubilee year, in which all people are allowed to return to their land they originally held but later sold. The rationale is the land belongs to God, and its temporary “owners” must allow the land to be redeemed, even at a loss.

A fellow Israelite with financial difficulties can be an indentured servant but not a slave. An Israelite who becomes indentured to a non-Israelite retains the right to redemption, and can certainly be emancipated during the Jubilee Year.

The portion ends with an exhortation to avoid idolatry and observe God’s Sabbaths.

Theme #1: A Sabbath for All

Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord. (Leviticus 25:2)

The Torah tells us that the way we treat the land reflects that we treat ourselves, especially in the matter of physical rest.

Wilderness and Promised Land merge in Leviticus. The laws are inserted into the story of Sinai not only to give them authority but still more because the Wilderness exemplifies the fullest potential of a life of exile: that the place where everything has been lost can rove to be the place where everything is gained. The stark landscape of the Wilderness seems to the people to lack any source of hope, we might say any narrative possibility, to be a dead end. … Leviticus sees the Wilderness as the necessary lacuna, between cultures and between past and future history, in which the people can receive the redemptive symbolic order of the Law. — David Damrosch, from The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode

The Sabbath day, Sabbatical year, and Jubilee all offer enormous hope and promise: the vision of a world in which we live in harmony with each other and our environment. At times, that world seems impossibly distant from our own. Our sages recognized this discrepancy. They knew that these sabbaths were more a messianic dream than current reality. Indeed, they declared Shabbat to be a foretaste of the world to come, a harbinger of a day that would be “all Shabbat.” But they also believed that together with God, we could hasten the arrival of that time. They observed that “if all Israel were to keep one Shabbat, the Messiah would come.” Environmentally speaking, their words still ring true. It is in our power to renew the earth. If we work — and rest — together, we can bring about the day when the air will be clean, the rivers run clear, and the land break forth and blossom. Then we will experience the deepest and truest Shabbat imaginable. — Dan Fink in Ecology and the Jewish Spirit, Ellen Bernstein, editor

Scholars aren’t sure how strictly the Jubilee law was practiced in ancient Israel. It’s possible it was practiced only by a devout sprinkling of farmers. And naturally, as my banker friend Ivan points out, if we followed these today, it would throw the financial markets into utter chaos. Even on a personal level, I’ve found it a challenge to practice. Consider the not-working part. I’ve worked for sixteen years straight, so I’m long overdue for a yearlong hiatus. The problem is, I’ve got a deadline for this book and a kid who is obsessed with offensively pricey Thomas the Tank Engine toys. — A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically

Questions for Discussion:

Damrosch discusses the significance of the fact that the laws of the Torah are given in the wilderness even though many rules are to be observed only upon entering the Promised Land. Perhaps this is a strong hint to the Israelites that as good as it is to be freed from slavery from Egypt, the taste of freedom in the Promised Land will be even sweeter. How would an ecological Sabbath, in which the land rests but still provides for all of us, be an example of the forthcoming bliss?

Fink sees the Sabbatical year as a metaphor for environmentalism, in which we constantly struggle to alleviate the burdens on the land that has been overworked through generations of industrialization. How is an improved environment an ultimate example of the spirit of Shabbat?

Jacobs acknowledges that, for many people, ceasing from professional work is simply not an option in today’s world, whereas it is encouraged in the agrarian ancient Israelite culture. Does our society value rest less than the ancient world did? Less than other industrialized countries do?

Theme #2: The Gift of Giving

But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land. (Leviticus 25:23-24)

Since none of us truly “owns” the land, we are not to see ourselves as superior to those in more difficult straits, for we are all in this together.

Once, a rich man lost all that he had. To support his family, he became a day laborer, working hard from dawn until dusk. One day, Elijah appeared to him disguised as an Arab and told him that he was destined to be blessed with a gift of seven prosperous years. “Do you want them now or at the end of your life?” Elijah asked him. “I will ask my wife for advice,” the man replied. … “Ask for them now,” his wife said, “for if we ask for them at the end of our lives, we will know that we have but seven years to live.” … That day, his children uncovered a chest of gold coins while they were digging in their yard. “Let us use this gift wisely,” advised his wife. And so they shared their good fortune generously with those less fortunate. At the end of seven years, Elijah returned to take back his gift. … [The man’s wife advised], “Tell him that if he can find another couple who have used such a gift more wisely than we have, he can have his treasure back.” And though Elijah traveled from one end of the earth to the other, he failed to find two more generous people. And so he never reclaimed his gift, and the couple lived to a ripe old age, opening their hands to all in need until the day they died. – Midrash Zuta Ruth 4:11

The Torah conspicuously does not mandate a full redistribution of land every fifty years. If, as some have argued, the Torah were a fully socialist document, we might expect a biblical demand to divide the land equally among all residents. On the other hand, if, as others have suggested, the Torah advocated an unrestricted free-market economy, the periodic redistribution of land would be nonsensical. Rather, the Torah — as well as later Jewish law — favors a checked market system that permits the ethical acquisition of wealth, with measures aimed at ensuring that the market does not allow the poorest members of society to end up with close to nothing. — Rabbi Jill Jacobs, There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition

Since “you are but strangers,” the children of Israel should always regard themselves as only strangers in this world. And for this reason therefore they are “residents with Me.” They are considered in the eyes of God as residents (of heaven). In other words, the measure by which one feels oneself distant, alien, and strange in this world of lies, by that very measure does one feel close to heaven. And the opposite is also true. — Rabbi Baruch ben Jehiel of Medzibezh

Questions for Discussion:

Midrash Zuta Ruth tells a story about a pious and wonderful family, but it is also a story that claims that most people would not be nearly as giving as this family was. Do you suspect that today’s society is more or less giving than in generations before? How can we make generosity more of a communal priority?

Rabbi Jacobs believes that the Jubilee Year does not indicate that the Torah is either purely socialist or capitalist; regardless of the political labels we choose to affix, the Torah cares about the survival of all people, most notably the poor. Do modern political discussions benefit from comparisons with laws of the Torah? Or has society and economy changed too much to make such comparisons useful?

Rabbi Baruch ben Jehiel of Medzibezh emphasizes that regardless how unequal society may seem, all human beings stand on a level playing field when it comes to a relationship with God. To him, everyone is equally close and equally far from God. Does such an idea make it easier for us to get closer to those around us? How does this idea contribute to the importance of community?

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