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Parashat Be-Har / Be-Hukkotai
The first requisite of civilization is that of justice.
– Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents
This week’s brief portion opens, “And God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying….” This raises the obvious question: The entire Torah was given on Mount Sinai, back in the book of Exodus; why does this verse, with Sinai in the rear-view mirror, suddenly invoke the revelation? Or: What is so special about this particular reading that the Torah feels the need to remind us of its source?
We have viewed Leviticus as a sort of Torah-within-the-Torah, a focused version of the Torah as a book of laws, with barely any narrative. This portion suggests a correspondence to the Sinai encounter in Exodus, a recasting of the Sinai revelation in a fundamental sense, its message distilled down to its core.
Within the portion is the commandment of the Sabbatical year, the obligation to let the land of Israel rest every seventh year; and of the Jubilee, the fiftieth year in which slaves are freed and debts are canceled. The rabbis bring textual structural explanations for the Sinai reference here toward the end of Leviticus, but it is the moral ones that prevail. The commandment of the Sabbatical year is voiced in continuous present tense: “When you come into the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of rest…. Sow your field and tend your vineyard for six years…and the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of rest for the land” (Lev. 25:2–7).
The first thing God commands the children of Israel upon their entering Canaan is that, in transforming it from Canaan into the Land of Israel, the land must have a regular year of rest. This is immediately followed by a command to work the land before allowing it to rest, mirroring the commandment of the Sabbath itself. The Sabbath is not mere non-action. It is rest after labor, a cessation of creative activity. It is impossible to keep the Sabbath without having first worked for six days. Likewise, it is impossible for us to cause the land to rest without first working it for six years.
So yes; the Sabbatical year is the first thing we do when we enter the land. We do this by first working the land, then causing it to rest, just as the Sabbath is a day of active resting which is earned through six days of productive work, and not a day of mere inactivity.
The Torah then gives the commandment of the Jubilee year, the fiftieth year in which not only does the land lie fallow, but all debts are canceled, all properties revert to the Israelite families that originally owned them, and all Israelite slaves go out free – whether they want to or not.
This is why the Torah here invokes Sinai, the moment we entered into an unbreakable covenant with God through accepting the Torah. At that point, we might have thought that the Land of Israel was given to us absolutely. God gave the land to Abraham and for all time to his descendants through Isaac and Jacob. But God’s gift requires active and ongoing acceptance on our part. God gives us the Torah, but it is our responsibility at all times to observe it, to keep it, to uphold it. We take full ownership of the Torah when we live every moment at our utmost peak of ethical and spiritual behavior, both individually and nationally.
We dare not become passive owners of the Torah. Otherwise we might erroneously believe God’s promise to give us the land is meant to prevail under all circumstances, no matter how we behave. By invoking Sinai, the Torah places God’s graciousness in the context of the commandments and moral requirements that govern our ownership of the Land of Israel. God’s gifts – Torah, the Land of Israel, indeed, our very lives – are constantly being given. Do we strive to equally constantly receive them? There are rules, and God has expectations of us. If we fail to live up to God’s expectations, we will lose the land. It has happened before.
The Sabbath is a weekly “factory reset,” restoring the balance in our personal and communal relationship with God. The Sabbatical year restores the balance of the land, while the Jubilee restores society, resetting imbalances and releveling the playing field.
The Torah’s fundamental principle of social justice is equitable treatment. It is not “guaranteed equality of outcome,” i.e., everyone receiving the same. The Torah recognizes that different people have different capacities, and are born to different circumstances. It does not blame the poor for their poverty, but neither does it praise the wealthy for their assets. The Torah is a document of natural communism – but not anti-wealth. It is a pro-business document – but not a capitalist one. Business must serve the common good; those who create businesses are entitled to become rich, and they in turn are obligated to use their wealth to care for others. This is much more essential than the contemporary notion of “giving back.” It is a continual and seamless involvement of the individual with society, and society with each individual. The Torah demands both the sanctity of private property and the absolute obligation of those who have, to share with those who do not.
In order to see the depth of the Torah’s view of social justice, we turn to the Mishna, the collection of laws governing all aspects of Jewish life, from the ritual to the civil and the criminal. The Mishna is a collection of texts, divided by subject into tractates, comprising the Oral Law. It was received at Sinai together with the Written Torah, and passed down through the generations. Drawing together oral traditions from as far back as 450 BCE , and perhaps earlier, the Mishna was codified in the early third century CE. Its legal rulings and concepts continue to govern the life of observant Jews today.
The tractate dealing with the laws of the Sabbath opens with an elaborate set of transactions depicting the distinction between what the Torah calls public space and private space. On the Sabbath, it is prohibited to transport objects from public to private space, or vice versa. Thus, while one may leave one’s home fully clothed, it is prohibited to carry a briefcase or an umbrella, or even a house key in one’s pocket. The first teaching (also called a Mishna) illustrates this with two men, identified as the Householder and the Poor Man. The Poor Man stands on the threshold, the Householder stands within, and through different sequences, the Householder gives something to the Poor Man. Either the Poor Man reaches his hand inside the doorway, or the Householder reaches his hand out. The Poor Man takes an object from the Householder’s hand, or the Householder deposits it in the Poor Man’s hand. Each of these sequences constitutes a different form of a violation of the laws of the Sabbath, because the object is transferred from inside the house to the outside, or vice versa. While the examples clarify the complexities of the laws governing public and private space, the question remains, Why did the rabbis choose these particular characters to act out the message?
This is, in fact, a clear statement of the sanctity of private wealth, and of the obligation of the wealthy to give to the poor – all in the transcendent context of the Sabbath, the day when God’s sovereignty is restored to our everyday lives.
The Mishna presupposes that the wealthy Householder will freely give to the Poor Man; there is no need to explain why he is handing something to the Poor Man. What remains unspoken, but strikingly obvious, is that the Sabbath transcends human ownership. During the week, the householder can satisfy the obligation to share wealth through many forms of charitable giving, including through writing a check that then goes into an institution that will feed, clothe, and house the Poor Man. Thus, the Householder can benefit the Poor Man without even knowing he exists. But come the Sabbath, none of this works. There is no way to remain at arm’s length and not violate the Sabbath laws; the only way for the rich man to fulfill his obligation to care for the poor is to invite the poor man inside. To share everything in his house.
On the Sabbath, we must invite the stranger in. Our world and God’s world merge and become one. In the Sabbatical year, the whole land is given over for anyone to benefit. Comes the Jubilee, all traces of our societal meddling, our individual strivings – the illusion of ownership, and the wretched power of money we hold over one another’s heads – all this vanishes like mist in the morning sun.
“You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land,” says the verse (25:10). This verse contains the only appearance in the Torah of the Hebrew word dror, meaning “freedom.” The Talmud uses this word in an expression equivalent to the modern English, “free as a bird”: “A free bird, living in the house or in the field.” Moreover, the dror is the modern Hebrew name for the sparrow. The sparrow is a highly sociable bird that readily feeds and flocks with other breeds, and lives comfortably among humans too. Proclaiming “dror” throughout the land is our acknowledgment that we share the earth with all other beings, with everything and everyone else that dwells on it.
The Torah forces our awareness that, at the end of the day – and concretely, at the end of the week, on the Sabbath; at the end of the cycle in the Sabbatical year; at the end of the Jubilee cycle, in the fiftieth year – the only thing we truly own is our obligation to others, expressed concretely in our commitment to social justice. Without reaching out to care for others, without extending a hand in assistance and friendship, without inviting those in need to share what we have, we fail in our obligation as human beings. Whether it be our money, our houses, or our cars; our family; our personal honor; and even the land we inhabit – the very land God promised to us – we cling to our worldly possessions at our peril. And we relinquish our sense of justice to the peril of all.
Must be hell, living in the world,
Living in the world like you.
Must be hell, living in the world,
Suffering in the world like you.
– The Rolling Stones, “It Must Be Hell”
Not one, not two or three, but five series of escalating punishments will God visit on the nation of Israel if they disobey the laws handed down at Sinai (Lev. 26:14–43). There will be all manner of terrors, of sickness and suffering. The land will be barren and the beasts of the field shall rise up against the inhabitants. Enemies shall flood the land, plague shall strike, and the cities will fall to utter ruin. The few who survive shall flee in panic and disappear, absorbed into the foreign nations.
If there was any doubt, the Torah tells us in fearsome detail of God’s wrathful vengefulness, all pent up, seething, waiting to be unleashed should we falter in our faithful service. This is the final message of the book of Leviticus: Make no mistake, says God; I do not smite randomly, but with vengeance and with rage a-boiling. Numerous scholars point out that these sequences of punishments are actually contractual consequences, fully in line with contemporary royal documents of the ancient Near East: if we abide by our side of the covenant, God will care for us; if we violate our side of the covenant, God will not so much act to destroy us as step aside and allow nature to take its course, with the litany of dreadful outcomes listed here. The scholarly approach is less comforting still, since all these predicted horrors have in fact befallen the Jewish people.
And yet, we must choose to serve and worship this God – the only God there is.
When we come to the book of Deuteronomy, we will again experience this harsh language of rejection, this time from Moses, who blames Israel for his sorrows, and for their own.
What message does Leviticus, the most bare-bones of the Torah’s five books, leave us with? And after the extended language of divine rebuke, how can it casually return to end with a recitation of the laws of gifts to the Tabernacle, of the sanctification and redemption of animals and property, and finally – of all things – of tithing, of actively separating and giving gifts to God, the very God who promises to destroy us and scatter us among the nations of the world?
Let us return to the first – and still unanswerable – question: Why does God tell Adam not to eat the fruit? God tells Adam, “You will die.” The serpent tells Eve, “You will become as gods, knowing good and evil.” It appears they are both right.
Our text hints that Eden is very much on God’s mind as God prepares to threaten us with destruction. Just before the extended rebuke (26:12), God says, “I shall walk among you,” using the same unusual form of the verb “to walk” that appears just before God confronts Adam after the eating of the fruit (Gen. 3:8–11): “And they heard the sound of God walking in the Garden.” God then challenges Adam: “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree?” God walks among God’s creatures, then rebukes them harshly.
God intended Adam and Eve to live forever in joy and comfort. But things break down when free choice enters the equation. The Torah is left to explain, not why the world is the way it is, but how to behave within the world to reestablish our relationship with God, to reenter the pure loving embrace
Imagine how much more pleasant our lives would be if we had no freedom to choose, not to make any decision for ourselves at all but to live eternally in God’s care, eating the fruit of the Garden and dwelling in constant bliss. Of course, we rebel at that thought now, but we react this way only after eating the fruit. We face an eternal paradox: we have no way of knowing whether we would be happy if we had never tasted the fruit. In fact, the very notion of happiness can exist only in a world in which good and evil struggle within us; we are happy when we do good, when we experience good. When we cease to do that which is bad – or merely when we cease to experience that which is bad.
Adam and Eve’s inchoate state fulfills God’s purpose in Creation. It is not total passivity: God gives Adam the job of caring for and tending the Garden, God tells Adam he will have dominion over all the animals and has Adam name them. And noting it is not good for Adam to be alone, God gives Eve to Adam. But neither do Adam and Eve in their unformed state it jibe with our post-Eden understanding of human happiness, which comes from striving and the fulfillment of goals.
What is justice; what are the laws of the Sabbatical year, the Jubilee, all of which were just spelled out in the previous portion: letting the land lie fallow, the cancellation of debts, the restoring of ancient and original patrimonies? What are all these, if not a symbolic return to the primordial Eden, to a state where the land produces richly and all may take freely what they need? But having once been broken, the container can never be whole again. It can be repaired, and will function again as a container, but the lines of breakage and repair will be ever visible.
Our return to God can never be complete. God drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden and made them live in the world. Even after we perform the complete acts of contrition, after we do full repentance, we can never actually return to the Garden. We must live in the world. Says the Torah, you cannot return to the Garden, but God will bring a taste of the Garden to you in every place in which you serve God faithfully and with a full heart. The consequence of the knowledge of good and evil is to live constantly torn between joy and sadness, between bliss and despair, between comfort and the fear of death.
Several commentators wonder why, amidst God’s desperate chastisement of Israel, this portion and the preceding one focus on mundane matters of farming, land husbandry, and social welfare. Shouldn’t God’s threats be balanced by a profoundly spiritual message? But the banausic message of daily living is itself profoundly spiritual. It is precisely in the day-to-day where we encounter God. Does God’s world contain terrors? Absolutely. And the randomness of violence, whether from people or from nature, is in itself terrifying; the greatest effect is not even in those whom it slaughters, but that it makes each one of us live in constant fear. And God is very direct about this: I will slay you how and when I desire. How are we to know when we have displeased God? If Nadab and Abihu didn’t know, how am I to judge my own actions?
The book of Leviticus, the book we have identified as the Torah’s crux and core, leaves us with a choice to either accept or reject the world God has created. Which also means to either accept or reject God.
When we reject someone who has hurt or disappointed us, we rid ourselves of their presence, but unless we act to forgive them, we will carry forever the impression of the hurt they caused. If there is a final message and lesson to take from Leviticus, it is one of acceptance and forgiveness. Just as God ends the series of rebuke with an assurance of forgiveness, we must also learn to forgive. Not merely one another; that is simply a baseline for maintaining a functioning society. We must learn to forgive God.
The Torah has exhorted us to emulate God, to walk in God’s ways and to follow God’s example, and so become a holy nation. And what greater example, what more difficult, and yet more powerful aspect does God reveal over and over than God’s own ability to forgive?
Forgiveness is not a onetime action, it is a lifelong process and an ongoing struggle. This is true with those closest to us, with ourselves surely, and no less so in our relationship with God. Jewish law and tradition make much of the obligation to ask forgiveness, but the granting of forgiveness is a far more painful process than even the hurt which first gives rise to the need to forgive.
Now, as we leave Leviticus, for all the tragedy we stand to experience at the hand of God, the Torah reminds us that God is all we have. Yes, Nadab and Abihu died horribly in God’s world and in God’s immediate presence. Yes, the Jewish people have been slaughtered in the millions throughout history. How can we turn to God with anything other than anger and fear? How can we not reject God altogether?
The apologetics of some thinkers leave us no better off. To say that all good comes from God, while evil comes from the hearts of human beings, is intellectually pathetic. It dodges the issue, robbing God of omniscience and omnipotence. No, we must blame God for everything. But we also must thank God for everything. We must be honest in our pain and disappointment, even in our anger with the Creator. Without that honesty, we will never have a truly intimate relationship. And without the opening for a loving, intimate relationship with the Creator, we have no place to turn with our gratitude.
Truly, we cannot know God’s mind, and to attribute motives to God is intellectually farcical and spiritually criminal. Leviticus leaves us with a final message of forgiveness. God says, “I will punish you; I will destroy you. And I will forgive you.” Perhaps the hardest work we can do in our lives is that of forgiveness. Of asking forgiveness from others, of forgiving others, and not to leave out the critical work of learning to forgive ourselves. It has been long taught by spiritual teachers, as well as documented in scientific studies, that the two most powerfully positive habits of mind are those of forgiveness and gratitude. When we approach the world with gratitude, we release all sorts of positive brain chemicals. Our physical health improves, and we have a powerful, positive impact on those around us. Forgiveness is the bridge to gratitude; when we work to practice forgiveness, we learn to accept our lives and ourselves. In so doing, we unleash our own spiritual power on the world.
As master meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says, learning to forgive means accepting that I will never have a better past. At the end of Leviticus, God says: I will forgive you. As difficult as it is, as overwhelming as the damning evidence seems against God, if we do not return that forgiveness, we will never free ourselves to accomplish our spiritual task in this life. There is no better, no more compelling place to practice forgiveness than in working to forgive God. God, whose immense gifts, and whose dread acts of destruction, are forever with us. We cannot rid ourselves of God. Rather than fleeing, rather than rage and resentment, let us learn all we can from this relationship. Ultimately, our relationship with God is not for God to decide, but for us.
God, thank You for forgiving us, and for teaching us by example the gift of forgiveness. I pray that I may learn to forgive others, to forgive myself and, especially, to forgive You.
Yours for a better world.