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Torah Sparks

May 19, 2012 – 27 Iyyar 5772

Annual: Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34 (Etz Hayim p. 738; Hertz p. 531)
Triennial: Leviticus 25:39 – 26:46 (Etz Hayim p. 744; Hertz p. 536)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14 (Etz Hayim p. 763; Hertz p. 551)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser

Parashat Behar begins with an extended discussion of the sabbatical year, the last in an ongoing seven-year cycle. During the seventh year – similar to the weekly Sabbath on the seventh day – the land is given a rest – it is not sown or planted, reaped or pruned. What grows naturally is permissible for use. After seven such seven-year cycles, the fiftieth year is observed as a jubilee. In addition to observing the restrictions associated with the sabbatical year, the jubilee also is marked by the restoration of property to its original owners and by the manumission of Hebrew slaves who have not yet been redeemed from servitude. Sellers and buyers alike are told to be scrupulously fair in real estate transactions, accurately adjusting costs and values as they draw closer to the jubilee.

Parashat Behar’s most famous verse – “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus. 25:1), the inscription on the Liberty Bell, refers to the jubilee year.

The mandate for economic justice and fair business practices associated with the sabbatical and jubilee years is extended to everyday treatment of people in financial straits. It is forbidden to charge advance or accrued interest on loans, and if an indigent Israelite should enter into servitude, he must not be subjected to harsh or demeaning labor. Such indentures are dissolved at the onset of the jubilee.

Parashat Bechukotai presents a series of blessings that God will bestow upon the people Israel if they obey His commandments and comply with the covenant. In contrast, a much lengthier catalogue of curses and harsh consequences is invoked as the punishments if the Israelites neglect God’s law.

God’s loyal devotion to the covenant, however, is unflagging. God assures the Israelites that even when they are exiled to the land of their enemies, even when Israel as a nation fails in its covenantal duties and “forgets” God, God never will forget Israel or abandon it to destruction. God will continue to support and to shield Israel out of fidelity to the divine “covenant with the ancients” – referring either to the patriarchs or to the tribes of Israel that gathered at Sinai – or to both.

Parashat Bechukotai continues with the valuation of possessions and livestock, to assure payment for vows can be made properly; it describes the procedure for redemption of property and tithes consecrated to the sanctuary and the limitations placed on the redemption process. With the conclusion of parashat Bechukotai, the Book of Leviticus also draws to a close. The divine authority for the sacrificial cult, the fundamentals of significant areas of Jewish ritual practice, and more specifically the laws prescribed in the closing chapters of Leviticus, are explicitly restated in the final verse: “These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.”

Theme #1: “The Seven Year Hitch”

“And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it should yield a crop sufficient for three years.” (Leviticus 25:20- 21)

Derash: Study

“The question is incomprehensible, because in the seventh year they would still have the produce of the sixth year. The question should, instead, be, ‘What will we eat in the eighth year when the sixth year’s crops will have already been consumed in the seventh year?’ Perhaps the Torah wishes to allude to the impropriety of the question. Even a query only about the eighth year is tantamount to a question if one will have enough even when one knows that his storehouse is full. The question itself reflects a certain weakness of faith in God’s omnipotence as a provider.” (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein)

“If they will find it necessary to doubt Him and ask, ‘What shall we have to eat in the seventh year?’ the Lord will have to ‘command’ His blessing. If they had had perfect faith and not questioned Him, the blessing would have come of itself.” (Rabbi Zusya of Anipol)

“Faith is real only when it is not one-sided but reciprocal. Man can rely on God if God can rely on man.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

“Like the body, faith must continually be fed.” (Rabbi Zalman Shneerson)

When you come to the edge of all the light you have known, and are about to step out into darkness, Faith is knowing one of two things will happen; There will be something to stand on, or you will be taught to fly.” (Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull)

Questions for Discussion

The septennial prohibition against working the land was a profound test of faith for our agrarian ancestors. “What are we to eat?” How will we survive? What similar (if perhaps less dramatic) tests of personal and religious faith do we face today in securing a livelihood and providing for our families? How have we acquitted ourselves in confronting these tests?

Consider Rabbi Shneerson’s adage. He seems to suggest that the impact of the sabbatical year observance on our food supply was not merely a test of faith but an illustration of the very nature of faith, which like our physical bodies “must be fed.” How do we achieve a nourishing and healthful diet of faith? What are the indispensible building blocks (the food groups!!) of our faith? For what – in terms of faith and spiritual experience and growth – do you hunger?

Is perfect faith possible? Desirable? Can we question God’s ways and still keep faith that ultimately our lives and events around us are unfolding as they should? That things will work out in the end?

How do we instill in our children a confident faith in God’s providence and protective care without sacrificing the values of personal responsibility and hard work?

How would you respond to the “incomprehensible” nature of the verse, as discussed by Rabbi Feinstein? Why is the question concerning the seventh year framed as it is? Does it suggest panic? Lack of foresight? Faithlessness? Preoccupation with temporal matters and material goods?

Theme #2: “Mi Casa Es Su Consecration”

“If anyone consecrates his house to the Lord, the priest shall assess it. Whether high or low, as the priest assesses it, so it shall stand.” (Leviticus 27:14)

Derash: Study

“The Jew’s home has rarely been his castle. Throughout the ages it has been something higher, his sanctuary.” (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

“The happy enjoyment of life, kept within moral limits, is itself elevated to an act that is near to God, in which every home becomes a temple” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)

“True holiness sanctifies the seemingly mundane activities of running a household. One who behaves in an elevated manner in one’s own house is truly a holy person.” (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)

“Judaism teaches that the home is the great reservoir and fortress of our faith. The home is even more important than the synagogue, for Judaism could conceivably survive without the synagogue if the Jewish home was to remain intact.” (Rabbi Hillel E. Silverman)

Questions for Discussion

In Leviticus, “consecration” of a person’s home meant transferring ownership of the house to the central sanctuary or Temple, or alternatively buying back the donated home to effect a monetary gift. In the latter case, the owner was required to pay a 20 percent surcharge over the value of the donated home (see verse 15). The sources cited above treat the consecration of our homes as a process of spiritual activity and religious commitment centered around our own households. What are the primary ways in which we consecrate our homes today? Does transforming the Jewish home into a “temple” produce benefits that redound to our central sanctuaries – our congregations and synagogues – as well?

How is “the happy enjoyment of life” (see Hirsch) an act in the service of God? How does Jewish religious commitment contribute to personal and domestic happiness? Conversely, how might personal happiness lead to lives of Jewish piety?

To what extent, and through what means, should congregations and religious organizations concern themselves with the level of Jewish commitment in the homes and personal lives of their constituent members? Their leaders?

What does it mean to “behave in an elevated manner” at home – where we are accustomed to greater informality, where we are off guard, where we are able to be ourselves? In what ways should we strive to elevate our actions in the comfort, security, and privacy of our own homes?

Historic Note

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai, read on May 19, 2012, includes dire curses for noncompliance with the covenant, among them: “I will set My face against you; you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you” (26:17). On May 19, 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured by Union cavalry troops in Georgia.

Halachah L’Maaseh

The week ahead, leading up to Shavuot, is a complex time on the Jewish calendar. As is announced in today’s blessing of the new moon, rosh chodesh Sivan will be observed on Tuesday. Thursday, Friday, and next Shabbat are “shloshet y’mei hagbalah” – the three days of preparation or demarcation preceding Shavuot, and recalling the three days of preparation and purification preceding the Sinai revelation (see Exodus 19:11-16). The day between rosh chodesh and shloshet y’mei hagbalah –that is, 2 Sivan (Wednesday May 23 this year) – is known as yom ha-meyuchas, the cay of distinction or the well-connected day” (from yichus – relationship or family pedigree)! In part, this designation merely reflects the day’s proximity to the special occasions that immediately precede and follow it. However, there is also a tradition that it was on this day that God informed the people Israel that we were to be “a nation of priests and a holy people” (See Exodus 19:5 and Rashi ad loc). Yom ha-meyuchas took on an added festive element in the 20th century, as the Six Day War, so formative in the life of the state of Israel, concluded on 2 Sivan – yom ha-meyuchas 5727.

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