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Torah Sparks

Parashat Behar-Behukotai
May 8, 2010 - 24 Iyar 5770

Annual (Lev. 25:1-27:34): Etz Hayim p. 738; Hertz p. 531
Triennial (Lev. 27:1-27:34): Etz Hayim p. 753; Hertz p. 547
Haftarah (Jeremiah 16:19-17:14): Etz Hayim p. 763; Hertz p. 551

Hazak, hazak, v'nithazek!

Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God tells Moses to teach the people about shemittah, the sabbatical year. Once they had settled in their land, the Israelites were to plant, harvest, and store the produce of their fields for six years. During the seventh year of the cycle, the shemittah, they were not to plant or harvest or to store produce that grew on its own. However, everyone was free to take and eat whatever did grow on its own.

After seven of these seven-year cycles, the 50th year was designated the yoveil. Not only was farming prohibited, but all Israelite slaves were to be freed and any land sold during the previous 49 years was to revert to its original owners - that is, land was never actually sold, but only leased until the next yoveil.

When a person had to sell all or part of his land due to financial need, his relatives were to redeem what he had sold. Houses in walled cities could be redeemed for a year from the date of sale and then passed permanently to the buyer. Houses outside these walled cities and houses in the cities of the Levites could not be sold permanently - they remained subject to redemption and reverted to the original owners at the yoveil.

If a person became poor, he was to be loaned money at no interest. If this was not sufficient to allow him to recover financially, he could become an indentured servant who would be set free at the yoveil. Non-Israelite slaves were to be considered permanent possessions.

The commandments not to make or worship idols and to keep Shabbat are repeated.

If Israel follows God's laws and obeys His commandments, the people will be blessed with peace and prosperity. However, if Israel chooses not to obey God's laws, the people will experience increasingly severe punishments - disease, famine, war, and exile. God promises that even after these terrible things befall the people, He will not completely destroy Israel but will remember His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and welcome Israel's teshuvah.

God tells Moses to teach the people about fulfilling vows. Specific amounts are listed for paying a vow of the equivalent of a human being. Details are given for paying or redeeming vows for animals, houses, and land.

First-born animals are not subject to vows - they are automatically consecrated to God. First-born kosher animals are to be brought for sacrifice and first-born impure animals must be redeemed for money. Tithes of produce and animals are described.

1. I Pledge Chai

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: If it is a male from twenty to sixty years of age, the equivalent is fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary weight; if it is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels. If the age is from five years to twenty years, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female. If the age is from one month to five years, the equivalent for a male is five shekels of silver, and the equivalent for a female is three shekels of silver. If the age is sixty years or over, the equivalent is fifteen shekels in the case of a male and ten shekels for a female. (Leviticus 27:2-7)

  1. This valuation does not denote value, but whether he is expensive or inexpensive according to his years; that is the valuation which is stipulated in this section. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. Then there is what the sages likewise taught on this subject, that there is no difference in valuation whether a person is handsome or ugly, ill or blind or one-handed; rather, all are given a valuation according to the years [of age], as the Torah ordained about them. (Sefer HaHinukh (attributed to Rabbi Aharon of Barcelona), 13th century, Spain)
  3. Therefore only a single person was created [at first] to teach you that if anyone destroys a single life it is considered as though he had destroyed a whole world, and whoever saves a life is considered as if he had saved the whole world. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
  4. Groups of men are walking down a road, and they are accosted by non-Jews who say to them, “Give us one from among you that we may kill him; otherwise we shall kill you all.” Though all may be killed, they may not hand over a single soul of Israel. However, if the demand is for a specified person like Sheva, son of Bikhri [who, according to 2 Samuel 20, was also subject to the death penalty], they should surrender him rather than be killed. (Talmud Yerushalmi Terumot 8:10)

Sparks for Discussion

What is the value of a human being? These verses refer to someone who makes a pledge to the Temple of the “value” of himself or another person. Why might a person make such a vow? What is your reaction to this list?

Rashi and Sefer HaHinukh point out that valuation listed here is not the same as value. What does the well-know passage from Sanhedrin tell us about the value of human life? Why is human life so highly valued? What principle is at work in the passage from the Yerushalmi? How would secular ethics respond to this situation? Which position do you agree with?

2. Holiness Begins at Home

If anyone consecrates his house to the Lord... (Leviticus 27:14)

  1. The Kotzker rebbe commented on this verse: When a person is involved in spiritual matters, it is relatively easy for him to do so in a sanctified state. But true holiness is when a person sanctifies the seemingly mundane daily activities of running his house. When one behaves in an elevated manner in his own house, he is truly a holy person (From Amud Haemes).

    Torah ideals and principles are not only for when one is in a yeshiva or synagogue. Rather Torah principles and values apply to all areas of our lives. At home one has many opportunities for acts of kindness to one's own family. Also, behaving properly towards members of one's own family at home is frequently more difficult than behaving properly towards strangers. But the more difficult it is to apply Torah principles the greater the reward. The more sanctified your behavior at home the greater you become. (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Growth Through Torah, p. 304)
  2. While on a lecture tour, the nineteenth-century Rabbi Israel Salanter accepted a man's invitation for Shabbat dinner. As he and his host were preparing to sit down for the meal, the man threw an angry fit at his wife for forgetting to cover the challot. Wounded by her husband's words and ashamed in the presence of their distinguished guest, the woman ran off to the kitchen and remained there. Rabbi Salanter, shocked by the man's behavior, leaned over and said to him, “Excuse me, but I'm getting older and my memory is weakening. Could you remind me of the reason we cover the challot until after we recite the Kiddush?”

    The man, proud to be of assistance to so prominent a sage, explained the symbolism behind the custom; the challot are covered so that they be spared the “embarrassment” of being exposed while all the ritual attention is being focused on the wine…. After he finished, Rabbi Salanter rose and rebuked him: “You are so meticulous about a mere custom of not ‘embarrassing' a loaf of bread. And yet you are so quick and ready to dishonor your wife and hurt her feelings. I cannot eat with you.” Only when the man hurried into the kitchen and pleaded with his wife to forgive him did Rabbi Salanter consent to remain. (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, pp. 483-484)

Sparks for Discussion

Rabbi Pliskin writes that it is often easier to treat strangers well than to act properly and kindly to your own family. Do you agree? Why do you think this is the case? In the story about Rabbi Salanter, why do you think the host yelled at his wife? Have you ever been in similar situation, in the position of the host, the wife, or the horrified guest? What did you do? What might you do better next time?

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