Parshat Behar (On the mount) –Bechukotai (In My Statutes)
Leviticus 25:1 -27:34
WHY A DOUBLE PORTION?
The lunisolar Hebrew calendar contains up to 55 weeks, the exact number varying between 50 in common years and 54 or 55 in leap years. In leap years (for example, 2014 and 2016), Parsha Behar is read separately. In common years (for example, 2013 and 2017), Parsha Behar is combined with the next Parsha, Bechukotai, to help achieve the needed number of weekly readings.
On the mountain of Sinai, God communicates the laws of the sabbatical year to Moses: every seventh year, all work on the land should cease, and its produce becomes free for the taking for all, for both man and beast.
Seven sabbatical cycles are followed by a fiftieth year – the Jubilee Year, on which work on the land ceases, all indentured servants are set free, and all ancestral estates in the Holy Land that have been sold revert to their original owners. Additional laws governing the sale of lands and the prohibitions against fraud and usury are also given.
God promises that if the people of Israel will keep His commandments, they will enjoy material prosperity and dwell secure in their homeland. But He also delivers a harsh “rebuke” – warning of the exile, persecution and other evils that will befall them if they abandon their covenants with Him. Nevertheless, “Even when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away; nor will I ever abhor them, to destroy them and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Lord, Their God.”
The Parsha concludes with the rules on how to calculate the value of different types of pledges made to God.
This parsha centers on a brief but eloquent promise of blessings for those who follow God’s ways and a lengthy and chilling series of curses for those who reject God’s ways. The curses are known as the Tokhehah (reproach). Several commentators, notably Ibn Ezra, insist that although more verses are dedicated to the Tokhehah, the blessings promised in the opening section outweigh in quality. The curses are spelled out at length in the hope that they will put fear into the hearts of those who cannot be persuaded to do what is right by another means. In many synagogues, it is customary to read the Tokhehaha in an undertone, perhaps because its vision of disaster is so frightening –or perhaps in keeping with Leviticus’s commitment to the reality of words, to say something aloud is halfway to making it happen.
At the end of the parsha – which is the conclusion for the book of Leviticus – there is a fairly specific outline of mandatory tithing. Maintaining the sanctuary was costly. It was necessary to provide the materials used in public sacrifice and to support the clergy. The goal of the system of funding prescribed in the following chapter was to secure silver for the sanctuary and its related needs.
Lev. 27:1 When anyone explicitly vows to the Lord the equivalent for a human being, the following scale shall apply:
Males 20-60 years of age = 50 shekels of silver
Males 5-25 years of age = 20 shekels of silver
Males 1 month-5 years of age= 5 shekels of silver
Females 20-60 years of age = 30 shekels of silver
Females 5-25 years of age = 10 shekels of silver
Females 1 month-5 years of age= 3shekels of silver
The custom of promising one’s value in silver to the sanctuary goes back to the actual dedication of oneself, or one’s child to Temple service. Pledging the equivalent of one’s life, according to a scale established by the priesthood, served two ends, the spirit of the ancient tradition was satisfied and, in practical terms, the sanctuary received necessary funds.
But why the difference between men and women – clearly women were considered less valuable than males. In practical terms it might not mean that at all. In biblical society men earned more than women – gender differentiation was linked to productivity.
But it begs the question –how do we measure the value of a person? The world at large seems to value rich people more than poor people, economically productive people more than less productive, fertile women more than childless women, clever and attractive people more than others. In God’s temple, however, people are evaluated by the ”sanctuary weight” (B’shekel ha-kodesh). God views our worth differently that the world does.
PARSHA THOUGHTS – THE SHEMITAH YEAR
This week we will focus on the concept of Shemittah and we look at two studies – one from an Orthodox Rabbi Dov Linzer and one from a secular Christian Dr. Don Stanley.
Parsha Behar talks about the Shmittah years. It teaches that Ha Eretz (the land), referring to the land of Yisrael (Israel), is to rest every seven years, no planting or reaping. Why?
Environmental (letting the land rest)
Teaching us Humility – we don’t create, God does
Appreciation of God
It is also to take a Yovel (Jubilee) year every forty-ninth year, where there is not only no planting or reaping but also a release of slaves, of purchased land and of debts.
From the Etz Chaim Chumash:
At the heart of this parsha is the visionary concept of returning land to its original owner at the end of a 50-year cycle. This prevents the polarization of society into two classes: wealthy, powerful landowners on the one hand and permanently impoverished people on the other. In an agrarian society, a farmer who sold all the land to pay debts had no prospect of ever being anything other than a servant. Nor would a servant’s sons ever rise above that level. Anticipating the human misery and social instability this would lead to, the Torah provides a plan. In the 50th year, families would reclaim the land they had held originally and later sold. Behind this plan are two religious assumptions. Because all the earth and all of its inhabitants belong to God, human beings cannot possess either the land or the people in perpetuity. And no human being should be condemned to permanent servitude. Some critics have seen this as a utopian plan that never was put into practice, but archaeologists have found records of deeds from the late biblical period containing references to the number of years remaining until the jubilee year.
Rabbi Kook taught that the purpose of the jubilee was primarily spiritual, not economic. It came to restore the sense of unity that once prevailed in Israel and to restore self-respect to the person who had sunk into poverty and a sense of failure. Even as the weekly Shabbat enables people to define themselves in noneconomic terms, the sabbatical year and the jubilee enable an entire society to put aside economic competition and the practice of defining a person’s value in economic terms alone.
A Study from Rabbi Dov Linzer
As Rashi points out (VaYikrah 25:18), the mitzvah of Shmittah is one that is very much connected to our hold on Eretz Yisroel. He explains that the first exile into Babylon, which lasted seventy years atoned for the seventy Shmittah cycles (490 years) that went unobserved just prior to the destruction of the First Temple. (not sure I agree)
In any case, so serious is the mitzvah of Shmittah that transgressing it leads to horrible results. We learn this from the juxtaposition of the sections in this week's parsha of Shmittah with the mitzvah to help a fellow Jew who has become financially broke.
The Talmud says:
Come and see how difficult the "Dust of Sh'viit" is: A man who deals in produce of the Shmittah year will eventually have to sell his chattel ... and then his property ... then his house ... eventually his daughter as a handmaid ... then he will have to borrow with interest ... and then he will be forced to sell himself ... and to someone who worships idols, which will cause him to do the same. (Kiddushin 20a)
It is mind-boggling that transgressing one mitzvah could lead to such self-destruction! In essence, the Talmud is saying that, for not observing the Shmittah year and by dealing in the produce of the Seventh Year, a man will eventually turn to idol worship. Does this make sense? Yes, if you consider that the "root" of idol worship is what Shmittah tries to "unearth," and it has to do with the number seven.
The number seven represents the physical world. God made creation in seven days, and seven represents the world created in those seven days.
There is great significance to the number 7 in the Bible.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVENS!
Shabbat is the 7th day of the week.
There are 7 weeks in the counting of the Omer before Shavuot. (Leviticus 23:15)
In Israel, there are 7 days of Passover and Succoth. (Leviticus 23:6, 34)
Every 7th year, the land lays fallow during Shmita (Sabbatical year). (Leviticus 25:4)
After 7 cycles of Shmita, we have a Jubilee year (Yovel). (Leviticus 25:8)
When a close relative dies, we sit Shiva for 7 days.
On Succoth we shake 7 species - 1 Lulav, 1 Esrog, 2 willows, and 3 myrtles.
Our Succah huts are "visited" by 7 guests - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David.
The Menorah in the Temple had 7 branches.
There are 7 holidays in the Jewish year: Yom Teruah, Yom HaKippurim, Succoth, Chanukah, Purim, Passover, and Shavuot.
In addition to the 613 Commandments, the Sages added 7 more.
There are 7 Noachide Laws pertaining to all humanity.
At every Jewish wedding, 7 blessings are recited (Sheva Brachot).
Each Shabbat, 7 people are called to the Torah reading (Aliyot).
Traditionally, the bride circles the groom 7 times under the Chuppah (wedding canopy).
We wind the Tefillin straps around the arm 7 times.
Each plague in Egypt lasted 7 days.
In Pharaoh's dreams there were 7 cows and 7 stalks of grain. (Genesis 41)
The Biblical contamination period typically lasts 7 days. (Leviticus 13:4)
On Shabbat and holidays, we recite 7 blessings in the silent Amidah.
There are 7 special species of produce by which the Land of Israel is praised: wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, figs, olives, and dates. (Deut. 8:8)
The world has 7 continents.
Noah sent the dove and the raven out of the Ark for 7 days to inspect the weather conditions. (Genesis 8:10)
The Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashana occurs, surprisingly, in the 7th month -- Tishrei. (Leviticus 23:24)
We dance 7 circles (hakafot) on the holiday of Simchat Torah.
Jacob worked for Laban for 7 years (twice) in order to marry his daughters. (Genesis 29:27)
The Holy Temple contained 7 gates of entry.
We recite 7 blessings every day before and after the "Shema" -- 3 in the morning and 4 at night.
The Talmud lists 7 female prophets: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Avigail, Chuldah, and Esther.
A Jewish servant regains freedom after working for 7 years. (Exodus 21:2)
We conclude our Yom HaKippurim prayers by proclaiming7 times, "The Lord is God!"
A Jewish wedding is followed by 7 days of celebration (Sheva Brachot).
Today, without the Temple, the mitzvah of Shmittah and Yovel cannot be observed the same way. Many Israeli farmers though do in fact observe the Shmittah year, and have reported miraculous bumper crops in the sixth year, as promised by the Torah. To supplement the incomes of such brave farmers, additional funds have been established to ease the financial stress of keeping Shmittah even in these times.
The sages tell us that to overlook Shabbat, and the Shmittah year, is to leave one's eyes pointing downward (spiritually speaking, of course). As time goes on, and as life continues quite naturally, one can get the impression that, whether or not they believe in God, they can make their living, and in fact, do quite well, without a direct relationship with God.
Such a viewpoint is sadly mistaken, for, the point of Shabbat and Shmittah is not to make life difficult for the Jew, or to even test our faith in God's promises, though this happens as a matter-of-fact. The point of any "Shabbat" is to keep us "in touch" with God. Shabbat and Shmittah is God's way of not only giving us life in This World, but life in The World-to-Come as well, a time that we are told will be "completely Shabbat."
By making us dependent upon the hand of God, we have no alternative but to pray to Him, to ask Him for our needs, and more importantly, to thank Him for the good we have received. Mitzvot become our way of remaining connected and satisfied. This I, according to the Orthodox viewpoint, the "ticket" into the World-to-Come.
Thus, to not observe the Shmittah is to lose touch with God. But it is the nature of man to believe in something, without which he cannot find reason to get out of bed in the morning. And if that belief will not be in the true, eternal God, then it's going to have to be in something more transient, and that is idol worship.
Thus, we can appreciate why disregarding the Shmittah year even indirectly can be the cause of so much self-destruction. Like many changes, it doesn't happen fast, or over night. But when all is said and done, history reveals just how easy it is to be lenient with the "less important" aspects, and how such leniencies can lead to the worse atrocities. However, if we follow the Torah's prescription for maintained spiritual awareness, even in our generation that lacks a Temple, then we can rise to the secure world that exists above the level of the natural.
This week's parsha also addresses the issue of lending money to a fellow Jew with the expectation of receiving interest in return with the principle amount. And, although there are halachaic "loopholes" through which one can pass to make his money "work" for him, the basic mitzvah is to make it as easy for a fellow Jew to financially stand up on his own two feet and stay there. Interest hurts and it "bites," which is why it is also called "neshech," which means "bite."
Imagine walking into a bank today and asking for a loan interest free! What would be the reaction of the bank manager? "What are you, nuts or something?"
It is as natural today to make money on money as it is to receive a day's salary for a day's work. And why not? What's wrong with earning interest? You earned the money, so why shouldn't it benefit you. After all, while the borrower is using it to help himself, you can't do anything with it. So, at least let the two of you benefit from your dollars, the borrower from the money, and you from the interest.
However, by restricting our control over our money (even if you take advantage of the loopholes), the message of the Shmittah year is sustained on a daily basis. We're being told, "The money you have, even though you worked for it, still belongs to Me. You are more like a teller than the depositer. I have placed My money in your possession for you to manage it for Me. Use it sensitively. Use it responsibly. Use it for mitzvot. This way, once you prove yourself trustworthy, I know I can keep up the partnership-in This World, and The World-to-Come."
Most of us tend to think that the purpose of the Sabbatical year is to help the poor, to allow them to eat their fill of all the produce. The Talmud, however, indicates that the poor actually fared better in a non-Sabbatical year. When the land was tilled and planted the poor were given gifts from the crops, as is portrayed in the story of Ruth. During the Sabbatical year, however, nothing was planted and the only produce to eat was that which grew on its own. There was a lot less to go around and poor and rich competed for it alike. The purpose of this year cannot be to provide the poor with food!
We begin to understand the meaning of the Sabbatical year when we pay close attention to the Torah text. The Torah calls the year a “Sabbath unto God.” It actually uses the word “shabbat” as a noun and verb seven times in the first paragraph of the parsha. The phraseology of our parsha is similar to the commandment of Shabbat as well: “Six years you shall work and on the seventh year it shall be a year of rest [shabbat] for the land.” The Sabbatical year, then, is a Sabbath of years and its importance must be comparable to that of the Sabbath of days. What is the significance of Shabbat?
To remember God as Creator, to leave our involvement with and enslavement to the physical world, and to focus on God and the spiritual world.
When this is done on a weekly basis it has the benefit of being regular but the drawback of being short-lived. How much of the Shabbat experience stays with us during the week? One minute after Shabbat is over we are back on the phone and computer, immersed again in our daily activities. When do we have the opportunity to immerse ourselves in God’s world, to change our direction and to grow in meaningful ways? This is the purpose of the Sabbath of years. In an agricultural society, it was a year that people would take off from work and, hopefully, dedicate to God. It was a “Sabbath unto God.” We read in Deuteronomy that this year concluded with a public Torah reading for the entire Israelite nation. It is a year in which we demonstrate that it is not wealth or land that matters, but God. In this year crops were not planted or harvested, and although the poor did not have as much food, everyone shared in an important lesson: rich and poor are equal before God.
The Torah emphasizes that these mitzvot were given at Mount Sinai. We were freed from slavery to serve God, to stand at Mount Sinai. To reject the Sabbatical year is to reject Mount Sinai, it is to choose a material world over a spiritual one, to accept enslavement to materialism and reject the freedom that comes from serving God. This choice will ultimately lead to our being exiled from the land. If we cannot remember what is truly important, if we enslave ourselves to the land, God will free us from this enslavement until, lacking our material prosperity, we finally return to God.
MODERN OBSERVANCE OF SHEMITTAH –
Can the application of the ancient principles of Shemitah bring rest to today's stressed-out world? One man who hopes so is Dr. Don Stanley, a Christian who holds a Ph. D. in Jewish Studies from the University of Melbourne. Dr. Stanley spent five months in Israel (July-November 2004) investigating the experiences of Israeli farmers who have observed the shemitah year
By way of introduction, Dr. Stanley summarized the history of the land sabbath. The shemittah year was kept during both the First and Second Temple periods, though not always consistently. In fact, even before the Israelites reached the Promised Land, Moses prophesied that neglect of the land sabbath would be a factor in Israel's eventual exile (Lev. 26:34-35). 2 Chron. 36:21 indicates that Moses' prophecy was fulfilled in the Babylonian captivity of the sixth century B.C. One example of land sabbath observance in the Second Temple period is recorded in the book of 1 Maccabees. 1 Macc. 6:48-54 reports that in about 162 B.C., the Jews faced a disadvantage in their war with the Seleucid empire because of a famine resulting from the sabbatical year. They were soon blessed for their obedience, however. Power struggles among the Seleucid leaders caused the enemy general to depart, giving the Jews a welcome reprieve (1 Macc. 6:55-63). After the destruction of the Second Temple and the failure of the two Jewish revolts, observance of the land sabbath became a moot point; there were very few Jewish farmers left in the land of Israel. During the Talmudic period, the shemittah year had only a theoretical existence as a topic for rabbinic discussion. Things changed in the late nineteenth century when there began to be enough Jewish farmers in Israel to make the land sabbath a real issue again. But because these Jewish farmers were very poor, rabbinic authorities feared that they could not survive a sabbatical year. Therefore it was decided that in each shemittah year, the agricultural land in Israel would be temporarily deeded to a trustworthy Gentile, allowing the poor farmers to continue working their land without technically being in violation of the commandment. This practice continues today in the modern state of Israel. In the last sabbatical year, which began on Rosh Hashanah in A.D. 2007, the temporary owner of Israel's land was Hussein Ismael Jabar. Jabar, who also owns all the leavening in Israel each year during the Passover celebration, is a resident of Abu Ghosh, a town about eight miles west of Jerusalem. In trusting Jabar with this responsibility, Israel remembers the fact that Abu Ghosh did not oppose the Jewish cause during Israel's struggle for independence in 1948.
When Dr. Stanley arrived in Israel in July 2004, he found that Israelis have some creative ways of circumventing the spirit of the land sabbath commandment. For example, since trees housed indoors are exempt from the sabbatical prohibition on pruning, one nursery has a portable canopy that it places over a tree as it is being tended during a shemittah year. The tree technically counts as being indoors while it is under the canopy. On the other hand, since 1972 there has been a growing trend in actual sabbatical observance among Israeli farmers. Some farmers simply let their land go untended. Others harvest a crop but donate it to a central storehouse that sells the food to the poor at reduced prices. Participating farmers are reimbursed for their labor but not for their produce. During his visit to Israel, Dr. Stanley interviewed a number of shemittah-observing farmers to learn something about their experiences. A number of farmers spoke of the sacrifices they willingly made in keeping the land sabbath. A wheat farmer mentioned that wheat is planted in the late autumn during an ordinary year, shortly before anticipated winter rains. But since the shemittah year begins at Rosh Hoshanah, farmers plant the wheat a couple of months early in those years and hope for the best. This farmer, who participates in the food storehouse program, estimated that his farm loses about 2-2.5 million shekels ($450,000 to $570,000[US]) by observing the sabbatical year. Some of the interviewed farmers spoke of miracles and blessings that occurred during a shemittah year. A fruit grower recalled that in one sabbatical year, an unusually warm March had been followed by a late freeze in April, causing damage to that year's fruit crop. Farmers who had pruned their trees had very little fruit that year, while those who had left their trees unpruned had a nearly normal crop. In another shemittah year, heavy winds had caused damage to the fruit crop, but again those who had left their trees unpruned sustained far less damage. Other farmers mentioned the value of the extra time available for family activities and Torah study during a shemittah year. For these farmers, the sabbatical year had been a life-changing experience, strengthening relationships with God and family. The next shemittah year will begin 5782 after Creation, which runs from September 7, 2021 - September 25, 2022.