May 20, 2006 - 22 Iyar 5766
Annual: Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34 (Etz Hayim, p. 738; Hertz p. 531)
Triennial: Leviticus 25:39 - 26:46 (Etz Hayim, p. 738; Hertz p. 531)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 - 17:14 (Etz Hayim, p. 763; Hertz p. 551)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
Parashat Behar begins with the laws of the sabbatical year. The Israelites are to sow their fields for six years, and in the seventh year they are to let the field lie fallow. This is followed by the laws of the jubilee. The Israelites should count seven cycles of seven years. Then in the 50th year, on Yom Kippur, all property is to be released and returned to its original owner. There is to be a redistribution of wealth every 50 years.
If the Israelites practice these laws, the land will yield a harvest large enough to feed everybody during the sabbatical year. Nobody owns land forever, for the land belongs to God. A home in a walled city may be sold forever (following a one year opportunity for the owner to redeem it), but land never can be. If an Israelite is impoverished, it is forbidden to loan him money with interest. If he is forced to sell himself into indentured servitude, a family member must redeem him. Israelites can own slaves from the nations around them, but not from their own brothers and sisters. In the jubilee year, all servants go free, including those who were not redeemed and those who choose not to leave in the sabbatical year.
Parshat Behukatai contains the shorter of two tochachot, or sets of curses, found in the Torah. If the Israelites faithfully follow the laws, they will find blessing on the land. If they do not follow the laws, they will be stricken by a long list of curses, including various diseases, being routed by enemies, having insufficient food, and being forsaken in the land. However, even following these horrible curses, God will remember his covenant and never totally abandon his people.
There is a final chapter at the end of Leviticus that lists various vows and offerings to the Temple. A person can pledge his or her worth as a human being as well as the worth of an animal, house or other property. The portion describes how such offerings are evaluated. The book ends with the words "These are the commandments which the Lord gave Moses for the Israelites on Mount Sinai."
Issue #1 - The Number Seven
"Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield, but in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest" (Leviticus 25:3-4)
- The number seven is a magic number. And yet there is nothing obvious, nothing in the heavens, that gives any reason for its special status. If we think about our measures of time, we see that most correspond to a specific natural phenomena. A day is to one rotation of the earth, a month corresponds to the phases of the moon and a year equals a revolution around the sun. What does a week correspond to? Would primitive people living on an island, building a calendar over the generations, have come up with the idea of dividing time into weeks?
- What are some of the ways the Bible uses the number seven? (Answers: seven days of creation, seven days of Passover, seven days of Sukkot followed by a one-day festival, seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot, seven Biblical festival days, Rosh Hashana is the first day of the seventh month, seven years is the sabbatical cycle, seven sabbatical cycles in the jubilee.) Where are other places where seven is important to Jews? (Ideas: tefillin wrapped around the arm seven times, seven blessings at a wedding, seven days of mourning. Can you think of others?)
- Even millennia are measured in sevens. "R. Kattina said, Six thousand years shall the world exist, and one thousand it shall lay desolate (leading to the days of the messiah)" (Sanhedrin 97a). This counting gives us food for thought; we are in the Hebrew year 5766, which makes the seventh millennia 234 years away. On the other hand, the ancient astronomers spoke of seventh heaven as the highest concentric circle, the ultimate of happiness.
- Why is seven so magical? Perhaps the number seven is a deep part of the human psyche. In mathematics seven is the first prime number (a number with no divisors besides one and itself) following the first perfect number (a number that is the sum of its divisors - for example, 6=1+2+3). In music, in the diatonic scale there are seven notes before the scale starts over (do, rei, me, fa, so, la, te). Seven seems to resonate with the very essence of the universe.
Issue #2 - What's a Human Worth?
"The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Speak to the Israelite people and say to them, when anyone explicitly vows to the Lord the equivalent for a human being, the following scale shall apply." (Leviticus 27:1-3)
- How much is a human being worth? Sometimes we must answer that question. In tort cases, when someone has been injured or killed by someone else's negligence, people must estimate the value of another person to assess damages. Usually it is based on their age and their earning power. The Torah used to estimate human worth in the same way. A person would make a vow to donate their worth to the Temple. The amount was set, based on a number of factors, in particular age and gender. A male in the prime of life (twenty to sixty), was evaluated at fifty shekels of silver, a female at thirty shekels. Children were worth less depending on age, and people over age sixty still less.
- Certainly this is sexist as well as ageist. Why are men worth more, why are children worth less and seniors still less? It seems to be based on their earning power. We can ask the question, has our society today truly changed? Why do we still pay men more than women for the same work? Why do we still value people in their working prime more than those who are retired? Why do we not value the worth of children before their productive years?
- How can we recognize that every human being has a worth beyond their economic ability? This is true for men and women, children too young to work and retired seniors, those on disability and those who cannot find work. What insights do the laws of the Sabbath give us? We have a worth and dignity because we are created in the image of God. Just as God has infinite worth, so each and every human being has infinite worth. Ultimately, no price can ever be placed on a human being.