Tag Archives: Behar

Commentary for Behar-Bechukotai

24 May

This week we read the laws of the Sabbatical Year. God instructs us to leave our fields fallow every seventh year, and modern science has proven that this is very beneficial for the land, allowing it to replenish its nutrients, which is in turn beneficial to us as those nutrients are passed to the crops we grow and then to us. This has made this mitzvah a favorite of Jews who try to spread the good word to their non-observant fellows, and when combined with studies about the mental health benefits of Shabbat observance and other such things is used to weave a message that can essentially be boiled down to the following statement: “our omniscient God knows what is best, therefore it is best for you to do what God says.” And there is nothing false about that statement. The problem is that this approach tends to result in people viewing their observance of mitzvot through two possible lenses. The first is “I am doing this because I believe it is best for me” while the second is “I am doing this because God says that this is best.”
Both of these views share the same flaw, which is that they ignore the importance of the two-way relationship between God and us. Your doctor might tell you that you need to eat healthier and instruct you to eat less ice cream and more Brussels sprouts, or perhaps you yourself found an article online that said that people who replace ice cream in their diet with Brussels sprouts will lose weight. You might eat the Brussels sprouts instead of the ice cream, but most people aren’t going to be happy about it.


While one who fulfills a mitzvah simply because he or she thinks it will be better for him or her in the long run to have done so than to have not done so has still Halachically fulfilled the mitzvah, and one who fulfills a mitzvah because it is God’s will that the mitzvah be fulfilled is certainly doing something theologically laudable, something is missing when mitzvot are performed in such a cold, computational, almost emotionless way. In a week and a half we will celebrate Shavuot, a holiday where we show our joy in having received the Torah and all of the mitzvot therein. That sense of joy comes not because we like being told what to do and not out of some sense of selfish joy at having been given the secrets to wind up better off in the long term, but out of a celebration of having been given these mitzvot to help us explore our relationship with the One who gave them to us.


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.

Commentary for Behar-Bechukotai

19 May

In the first of this week’s two parshahs, we learn the laws of the Shmitah year. Every seventh year we are required to let the fields in the Land of Israel lay fallow so that the land itself may have a Sabbath. This is a huge sacrifice for a heavily agrarian society to make. Not planting any crops for an entire year would almost certainly mean a year full of food shortages.

Usually when God commands people in the Bible to do something so counter-intuitive to their instincts, the following of that commandment is portrayed as a test of faith. When the ninety-nine year old Abraham circumcised himself, he was not only putting himself through immense pain and risking an infection, but his advanced age made the pain harder to bear and made the risk of infection both greater and more deadly. But Abraham, pious man that he was, had faith that God would help him bear the pain and protect him from infection, and that is exactly what happened.

In the case of the Shmitah year, though, the exact opposite is true. God preemptively addresses the concerns the Israelites were sure to have by saying “And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year if we man neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years, so that when you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop (Lev. 25:20-22).” God is not just promising us ahead of time that God will ensure that the sixth year’s harvest will be enough to last us until the end of the eighth, but God is actually giving us the food in advance. This means that if you really wanted to, you could (extremely inadvisably) try to “cheat” God by eating the extra produce from the sixth year and also just go ahead and plant crops during the Shmitah year anyway.

This begs the question of why God would set up a situation that allows us to cheat the system in the first place? After all, if God wanted to feed us during the Shmitah year, God could just cause manna to fall from the sky every day like during the Israelites’ journey through the dessert.

By giving us three years’ worth of crops at once, God is teaching us that we have to manage our resources. God does God’s part by providing us with all of the food we will need, but after that it is up to us to ensure that we allocate it correctly. Just as we put our faith in God to provide us with the ability, guidance, and resources we need, so to does God put faith in us to use those gifts correctly.

Commentary for Behar

12 May

This week’s parshah, Behar, in which we learn the laws of the Jubilee year, is always read during the Counting of the Omer. These two periods have a lot in common. We are required to count them both, and we do so in seven sets of seven (weeks for the Omer, Sabbatical cycles for the Jubilee), and in both cases we count forty-nine units (days in the Omer, years in the Jubilee cycle) in order to build up to an even more special, joyous fiftieth unit during which we celebrate our relationship with God (the giving of the Torah on Shavuot and God’s ownership over the land and our fealty to God and God alone in the Jubilee).

A deeper look reveals some very interesting contrasts and correlations between these two periods. While every individual Jew is commanded to count the Omer, the courts are tasked to keep count of the Jubilee cycles on behalf of the community. The Kabalistic tradition teaches that there are seven attributes that we are supposed to focus on improving in ourselves during the Counting of the Omer, while the releasing of debt slaves and reverting of property rights at the Jubilee is seen as an improvement of our society as a whole.

Strangely, though, the culminating “fiftieth day of the Omer,” Shavuot, is a holiday focused on the communal acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish People, while the day that the Jubilee year officially begins, Yom Kippur, is a day of personal introspection where we look at our own flaws and resolve to improve ourselves as individuals for the coming year. It seems backwards that period of focus on ourselves as an individual should lead up to a communal holiday while the major economic upheaval which the community is responsible for managing should begin on a day when we are judged for our individual actions (especially when there are other days on the calendar during which we are traditionally judged as a society, such as Shmini Atzeret or the Tenth of Tevet).

One thing that both days have in common is that they are both days when the Torah was given. While the initial revelation at Sinai occurred on Shavuot, a series of calculations by Rashi reveals that the on which Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets was Yom Kippur. One of the commonly used division for the mitzvot in the Torah is miztvot incumbent upon the individual vs. mitzvot incumbent upon the community as a whole. While looking at things along these lines can certainly lead to interesting insights, it is important to remember that they are all interconnected. The Gemara on Shevuot 39a warns us with the well-known statement “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh- all of Israel is responsible for one another.” It is our duty to help each other fulfill our individual responsibilities just as much as it is our responsibility as individuals to do our part for the community. Similarly, when we as individuals achieve a goal, the whole community celebrates with us, and when the community calls on us, we must ensure that we are ready to answer.