Parashat Behar & Bechukotai
May 8, 2021
26 Iyar 5781
39th day of the Omer
Let’s start from the end of this double parasha. Bechukotai is extremely difficult to read. Hashem’s rage excoriates the Jewish people beyond tolerable limits. Even more horribly, the descriptions of divine wrath resonate through the most painful moments in Jewish history. We have suffered famine, fear, alienation, displacement, and exile. Moments of desperation during the worst persecutions and moments of catastrophe have seen the devouring of our own children, recorded even Eicha and recalled on the 9th Ab. When the Torah describes these most horrific sufferings of the Jewish people, we receive a paradigm and lens for understanding the human condition. I suggest that Bechukotai teaches us about the condition of humanity, and Behar actually provides a salve for the curses. God provides the cure before describing the affliction.
The Torah says:
However, if you do not fulfill My commandments and you disdain My laws, if you denigrate My rulings such that you have absolutely no intention of fulfilling any of My commandments, thereby annulling My covenant, then I will respond to you in kind. I will command terror and disease to descend upon you. I will command anxiety and depression and futility….And, if these [do not compel you to readjust your priorities], then I will add to these….(Vayikra 26:14-16ff.)
A close reading reveals that God does not use the language of punishment. The Torah does not use any of the phrases for punishment, such as yisah ‘avon (the nation will bear its sin), or ‘ashem (guilty), or vayichrot hanefesh me’amav (they will be cut off), or even, mot umat (he shall surely be executed). As a result of contemptuous behaviors that deride and denigrate the covenant between God and the Jewish people, God “responds in kind.” The language of the Torah expresses explicitly what the rabbis call, middah k’neged middah with the phrase, af ani ‘aese lachem, “so too I shall do to you.” What does it mean to turn our backs on the covenant with God? What does it mean to become disloyal to God, such that the Jewish people lose their inspiration to remain loyal to Hashem’s vision for us? What does it mean for us to abandon God’s vision for us as a nation, and then, by extension, God’s vision for all humanity?
There are two answers to this question in parashat Behar. The first is the mitzvah of Yovel: “In the Yovel, 50th, year, every family returns to their original home.”
The Torah presents an ideal of inalienable property holdings. Despite the fact that once society urbanized and was no longer organized by tribal territory this mitzvah of Yovel could no longer be easily fulfilled, the Torah teaches us a deep existential truth. Every person needs a home. Each one of us has a deep longing for attachment to place. In parashat Emor the Torah emphasized the holiness of time by teaching us the calendar of holidays. Here, the Torah emphasizes the holiness of place. Human beings are rooted beings. Even as nomads, we have the deep need to feel rooted in a place, and that place, home, needs to be filled with blessings, goodness, well-being, health, food, fun, hugs and love. An awareness of our need for place humbles us; we dare not take that for granted. So many occasions can upset that stability: illness, natural disasters, political upheaval, war, work. Moving itself is a profoundly dislocating experience. Rabbi Moshe David Valle, z”l, whom I quote often, explicates this powerful need for a home that is stable and filled with blessings. Writing from the tradition of kabbalistic interpretation, R. Valle teaches:
On the 50th year, the Yovel, we are commanded to declare “dror,” “freedom,” throughout the land. The word, “dror,” is a compound word containing two smaller words: “dar,” “to live,” and “‘or,” “light.” This teaches that the holy light of the Creator from above can be joined with the light that fills the earth…Furthermore, the word, “dror” has the same numerical equivalent as the word, “kadosh,” holiness.
The first answer, therefore, is that God expects us to honor the deep human need of all people to feel that they have a home. In today’s world, this means honoring the aspirations of immigrants to find a place for themselves in society. It also means acknowledging the yearning of all people, including Palestinians, that their yearning for a home is authentic. Once authenticity is acknowledged, people can work together in good faith to nourish and support shared aspirations. The mitzvah of Yovel is an existential re-set button. If this mitzvah applies to our ancient ancestors, it applies to all of humanity. The essential core of mitzvot have to speak to God’s vision for the entire world, and not just to our people alone.
The second response to turning our backs on God’s expectations of us is the mitzvah of shemitah. Shemittah is the seventh year of sabbatical cycles. The Torah requires allowing the land to lie fallow. People had to rely on produce from the sixth year to last for three years, the sixth, seventh and then the first year of the next cycle until the new harvest. The text describes this mitzvah as a shabbat for the land. Theologically, this mitzvah deepens the way in which the topography and climate of the land of Israel condition human faith in and reliance on God.
Elsewhere the Torah emphasizes that the land of Israel is not like the land of Egypt which relies systematically on irrigation from the overflowing banks of the Nile river. Instead, produce in the land of Israel relies upon rain from Heaven.
Later in Devarim, chapter 11, Moshe will describe the ecological balances of the land of Israel as an ethical barometer connecting Heaven and earth. So powerful is this teaching that the rabbis appropriated that section of devarim as the second section of the Shema. If the Jewish people maintain an ethical society based upon loyalty to God’s instruction, filled with compassion and righteousness, then Heaven will produce rain in its season. Otherwise, the land will be plagued by drought.
Behar anticipates and emphasizes this ecological balance. The land must not be abused; it, too, requires renewal. Furthermore, every 49 years, seven times seven cycles, the people declared a Jubilee Year, a Yovel. The word, yovel, refers to a ram’s horn. On Yom Kippur of the fiftieth year of a Jubilee cycle, the ram’s horn was sounded, marking the manumission of all indentured servants. This mitzvah embedded an economic re-set into society, preventing society from ossifying into a fixed caste system of entitled and secondary residents. Every 49 years, all servants return to their homes. In addition, all real-estate properties in open fields (not inside of walled cities) return to their original owners so that families and communities regain access to their ancestral homesteads. The world needs renewal and re-setting, lest social and economic patterns fix roles and status in ways that ultimately alienate and oppress large segments of the population. Famously, the Torah states:
“Proclaim liberty throughout the land, dror ba’aretz, announcing the Yovel year. That verse found its way onto the Liberty Bell, in Philadelphia, inspiring a vision of society based on human dignity and liberty. Without returning to that vision regularly, a society could fall prey to forces of avarice and abusive power.
Interestingly, the Torah does not distinguish between human freedom and the natural world. The planet was created to thrive through interdependency. Oppression, slavery, and the exploitation of the natural world, depleting the soil of all of its nutrients and gifts, mirror and follow each other.
Now we can return to the curses of Parashat Bechukotai, opening with the blessings that will accrue if the Jewish people settle and create a society in the land of Israel that reflects the spirit and behaviors required by mitzvot. However, most of the portion specifies in horrific detail, the curses and consequences of ignoring God’s teachings. This includes graphic descriptions of physical, emotional and existential pain. The land will be decimated. Disease, warfare, oppression, pestilence, and exile will overwhelm the people, until such time as they look inwards, recognize their role in causing such catastrophe, and seek ways back to restore the balances humanity and the world require. God remains hopeful, optimistic and loyal. The moment the Jewish people look inwards at ourselves, and are humbled to recognize our own errors (Vayikra 26:41ff), God promises to restore us lovingly to the land to start all over again. The mitzvot of the Jewish people settling the land of Israel form a microcosmic lens for how God hopes humanity will inhabit the entire planet, behaving towards each other and towards the natural environment. Every culture needs a home. All people need to feel included. Humanity needs a societal re-set. Enslavement is not God’s idea for human life on earth.
Repairing the world lies within the consciousness and hearts of the people. Rabbi Isaac ben Yosef Bechor Shor of the 12th century France wrote the following words on the opening lines of Parashat Bechukotai: The Jewish people are being admonished to behave as they should. When they do, then the clouds will do their share as they should, as well as the soil and the trees that have been created to support humanity. I, God, will command the clouds to give you rain in their season, according to need, neither too much nor too little. This is a powerful statement that can speak to the state of the world today. Rabbi Bechor Shor understood that the Torah was speaking about the interdependence of human and natural worlds, and that all the worlds we inhabit have gifts if we care for and protect them and each other. He understood the Torah to be warning us of thinking too narrowly, behaving too avariciously, and stripping people of their dignity. Once the world becomes an oppressive place, everyone and everything ultimately suffers. May we take this teaching to heart.