Parashat Behar-Behukotai

Shabbat Shalom   May 12, 2023

The employer-employee relationship almost by definition is not much different than the Biblical slavery mentioned in today’s Torah portion.  However, a non-slave cannot leave the master until the sabbatical (shemitah) year.  Laws of the workplace seek to make the workplace into a holy place.  The employer is not allowed to exhibit superiority over the workers.  A good workplace exists when everyone is treated with respect.  Many years ago, a New York bank created an ad campaign saying, “You have a friend at Chase.”  Bank Leumi said they are like family. When taking care of family, both parties recognize the need to have common goals.  The Shabbat, with a need to rest and care for the non-physical needs is an example of making work holy. Work has both physical and psychological rewards and challenges.  In the Talmud (Brachot 8a) states that one who benefits from his own labor is greater than fear of heaven.  An honest and hard-working individual reaches greater heights than someone who does not earn a salary.

I am not saying that employment is better than not working.  I am saying that people who do work for a living have a different kind of partnership with God than those who don’t work.  A retired person who lives on retirement benefits, needs to create his/her own kinds of work.  The “work” need not be paying in order to be beneficial to the individual or the community.

This week is double parasha.  In the first section of Behukotai  (Vayikra 26:3-10) we are presented with  an admonition.  Follow the laws or the crops will fail, and the trees will not bear fruit.  This seems too far removed from the dessert experience. In the desert the Israelites did not have to till the land, gather fruit or cook their meals.  I don’t know how this threat could be effective on people who knew nothing about raising crops. Even though the threat of punishment covers many sentences, the concept of reward and direct punishment did not sink into the Israelite psyche.

וְאָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא: הַכֹּל בִּידֵי שָׁמַיִם, חוּץ מִיִּרְאַת שָׁמַיִם

And Rabbi Ḥanina said (Berakhot 33b): Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven.

Man has free will to serve God and walk in his ways. A person can choose his actions, but actions have consequences.  While the Torah and rabbinic sources are very clear on the need to obey the commandments or suffer the consequences, the human psyche does not see the connections.  We see bad things happening to good people.  We see bad people not punished. Because the world is so complex, we have a hard time making connections between actions and rewards.

We are all part of one family, linked by a web of intersecting history, moral obligations, halakha, and community.  We have arguments and disagreements, but this week’s torah portion reminds us of our bonds. The bonds of family.

Discussion questions:

  1. Give an example of an immediate consequence that is a reward or punishment.
  2. How are Jewish people today more connected as family when compared to the general community? Are there parallels in services offered by government and non-government agencies that parallel Jewish community agencies?
  3. If we have free will how do we keep people communally connected?
About the Author
Lives in Chicago, Illinois USA. Academic and synagogue librarian for more than 40 years. Graduate of Columbia University in the City of New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Jewish University of America. MHL and DHL in Tanah. Gabbai Sheni of Kehilath Jacob Beth Shmuel in Chicago for more than 40 years.
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