Commentary for Behar

3 Jun

In this week’s parshah God gives the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee years. During the sabbatical year we are commanded to let the land lie fallow, eating only crops that have been stored from last year or what grows naturally. After seven cycles of sabbatical years we have a jubilee, at which point all land reverts to its original owners, all debts are forgiven and all indentured servants are freed.

Rather than the standard “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:” this section begins “The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: (Lev. 25:1).” This extra bit of detail serves as a narrative reminder that despite everything that has happened and all of the new mitzvot they have learned over the past book and a half, the Israelites have still not left Mount Sinai, where they have been since the giving of the Torah way back in chapter nineteen of Exodus. They will remain at Mount Sinai for another few chapters until they get their (quite literal) marching orders in the second chapter of Numbers. Tradition teaches us that everything in the Torah is written exactly the way it is for a reason, it so begs the question of why exactly this point was chosen to remind us that they are still at Mount Sinai?

Since the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, God has given them many new laws of different types to live by. “Don’t murder,” “don’t steal,” “don’t cheat,” “respect your parents;” these are all laws that most people don’t really have trouble following. Laws like “don’t embarrass others,” “don’t gossip,” and “don’t taunt the foreigner among you;” these are laws that some people may have trouble following, but everyone can understand them because we all know what it feels like to be on the other side of the equation. Laws against idolatry and worshipping others “gods” make sense in our religion. If God is our omnipotent God, then there can’t be any others. Criminal laws are easy for people to understand and all agree they are necessary, even if they might disagree with some of the specifics. While some people might not understand or feel connected to the specifics of ritual laws, everyone understands the general concept that “this is what our group does, so in order to be a member of the group, you have to do it.” They are all laws that, on some level, people understand the value of, whether it is value to the society as a whole or value to the continuance of the religion, in a way that rarely contradicts self-interest in any major, tangible way.

The laws in this week’s parshah are different. During the sabbatical year a farmer will have to give up a huge portion of his or her income due to having very little- if any- product to sell after having fed his or her family first (we are commanded to trust in God that enough food will be provided for us). The jubilee year limits the value of purchasing land (because you will eventually lose the land without getting anything back) and disincentives lending, especially as the jubilee approaches. We often do our best to separate our thoughts of business- and income in particular- from our religious practice as religious figures often give us the message that money doesn’t matter to religion; it is faith and practice that are important. Because of our attempts to separate the two, mitzvot like the sabbatical and especially the jubilee often read to us like poor economic policy rather commandments from God, and thus our self-interest steps in. Following these laws will cause us to make less money. We won’t be able to feed our families as easily or provide ourselves with the luxuries we have grown used to living with, and thus it is these laws more than any others that we will be tempted to ignore. For this reason the Torah prefaces our section with a reminder that the Israelites are still at Mount Sinai. Their revelation might not have been as spectacular as that of the Ten Commandments, but they are still laws given by God and carry the same weight as all of the others.

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