PARASHAT BEHAR-BEHUKOTAI - BIRKAT HA-HODESH
May 15, 2004 - 24 Iyar 5764
Annual: Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34 (Etz Hayim, p. 738; Hertz p. 531)
Triennial Cycle: Leviticus 27:1 - 27:34 (Etz Hayim p. 753; Hertz p. 547)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 - 17:14 (Etz Hayim p. 762; Hertz p. 551)
Prepared by Rabbi Jodie Futornick
McHenry County Jewish Congregation, Crystal Lake, IL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director
Laws tying the Israelites to the land, and those emphasizing rewards and punishments for their actions.
Triennial I (Lev. 25:1 - 25:38):
The law of the Sabbatical year: Just as people are to rest on the seventh day of the week, the land is to lie fallow for one year every seven years. The Israelites may not work the land during the Sabbatical year, but they may reap and enjoy its produce. They are also commanded that the 50th year is to be a Jubilee Year, a year of release for the land and all its inhabitants. Property is to be returned to its original owner, and all the Hebrew slaves are to be freed. The houses of the Levites are to be redeemable forever.
Triennial II (Lev. 25:39 - 26:46):
The Israelites are to show compassion by making a special effort to redeem persons who have been forced to bind themselves into slavery. Non-Israelite slaves are not beneficiaries of the emancipation of the Jubilee year. The end of Parshat Behar warns people to avoid idolatry and to keep God's Sabbaths. Pashat Behukotai contains the toh'hah, the first and shorter passage warning the Israelites of the consequences of straying from God. The people are given a choice to be obedient to God's laws, in which case they will prosper, but if they go in a wayward direction, they will suffer gruesome punishments. The later passage in Deuteronomy, in Parshat Kee Tavo, is much more detailed and ominous.
Triennial III (Lev. 27:1-27:34):
Following the toh'hah the dire warnings for misbehavior, the Book of Leviticus concludes with a section describing three different kinds of gifts which may be brought to the sanctuary as divine offerings. The final verses of the parshah and the chapter describe a variety of commandments to bring tithes, concluding with the statement, "These are the commandments that the Lord gave to Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai."
Topic 1: What virtues does God expect from the Israelite nation?
When I, in turn, have been hostile to them and have removed them into the land of their enemies, then at last shall their obdurate heart humble itself, and they shall atone for their iniquity, Then I will remember my covenant with Jacob; I will remember also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land. (Leviticus 26: 41-42)
- The section in Behukotai describing the evils that will befall the Israelites should they spurn God's rules ends with a passage allowing for their atonement. God promises not to break the covenant with the people even while they are enduring the punishment of exile. This passage, containing as it does a reference to God's covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is bound up with the Talmudic idea of zchut Avot - the merit of the ancestors. According to this concept, the merit of the patriarchs and the great love which God had for them helped to "tip the balance" of God's judgment in favor of the Israelites even at times when they err severely. The fact that the patriarchs are mentioned in reverse order in verse 26:42 is seen as a reflection of this. According to Leviticus Rabbah 36:25, "If there were no good deeds in Jacob's then Isaac's would suffice, and if Isaac's deeds did not suffice, then Abraham's would suffice; in fact, the deeds of each one alone would suffice for the whole world to be kept suspended in it's position on account of their merit. (Leviticus Rabbah 36:25 as quoted by the editors of Teaching Torah, ARE, 1984)
- Why are the Patriarchs mentioned in reverse order? It seems that God stated three ways in which God's people might deserve geulah (redemption). If they will emulate the virtues of Jacob, who in classical literature was the symbol of Torah and kindness. Then comes the second category - the quality of self-sacrifice that was demonstrated by Isaac in the story of the Akedah. If that is not attainable, let them come up to the standard of Abraham, who was the personification of hessed - loving-kindness and generosity. Finally, God said, "I will remember the land." If Jews will make the desert bloom, the wasteland into a Garden of Eden and reclaim the land of their fathers, they deserve redemption. This is our generation, a generation that now rebuilds. (By Dr. Ephraim Shimoff, The Well of Living Waters: Thoughts on the weekly Torah portion, from the MetroWest NJ Jewish News)
Questions for Discussion:
- The bias of the Midrash is clear. No matter what dire punishment God threatens upon the Israelites, they will ultimately redeem themselves through the merits of their ancestors if not on their own, and they will escape punishment. Do we have a concept in today's world of "Zchut Avot?" Do any of us feel that we are specially blessed by the virtues of those who preceded us? If so, how does this privilege manifest itself in modern life? What have you done lately that will be a "zchut" to those who follow you?
Topic 2: Ending on a High Note
The final chapter of Behukotai details gifts to the sanctuary. Some scholars think that this chapter is a later addition to the Book of Leviticus for which the tochechah seemed the logical conclusion. Rashbam explained the placement of the tochechah before the final chapter because of its association with the previous chapter, Behar. Both portions mention the Sabbatical year. According to Hertz (The Pentateuch and Haftarahs, p. 547), however, the concluding chapter of Leviticus serves to round out the entire book, which begins and ends with laws pertainingto gifts given for the maintenance of the sanctuary. (From Teaching Torah, page 173)
I find myself attracted to this latter explanation because it leaves me with a feeling of Shalom, in the sense of shelaymut, or wholeness. This wonderful community ofour ancestors undertook one of the most extraordinary building projects of the age, a portable house of worship that would accompany them on their journey through the Wilderness. I believe that the underlying message of Dr. Hertz' commentary, however, is that though they might not always behave agreeably or show each other prier respect, the underlying feelings of Shalom would bring them full circle from the place where they began their project to their final beautiful house of worship for God. (Editor)
Topic 3: These are the Commandments. ALL of them?
Emphasizing the word "these," Sifra declares, "Henceforth, no prophet may introduce anything new."
Yet, fortunately, the men who were responsible for this statement found the means, by interpretation and even by legislation, of developing law and thought and to keep them responsive to the needs and circumstances of each generation. (W. Gunther Plaut, in The Torah, a Modern Commentary, page 971, commenting on Leviticus 27:34)
Fortunately, indeed! The Jewish religion is as rich and as deep as it is today because of the wisdom of rabbis, teachers and students over the ages that God intended Judaism as a living religion and the Torah as a flexible document open to interpretation. Marshall Sklare, a Jewish sociologist of the 1950's, dubbed the motto of the Conservative movement as, "Tradition and Change. "As Conservative Jews, which of the Mitzvot of the Torah are we most obligated to adhere to in order to love a committed Jewish life? What are areas where there is room for more change and innovation.