PARASHIYOT BEHAR-BEHUKOTAI - MEVAREKHIM HAHODESH
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
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-
“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
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
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)
“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
“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
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?
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.
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.