Parashot Behar-Behukotai

Texts that Call for Faith
By Rabbi Judith Edelstein

This year, as in many, these two Torah portions are combined into one reading in order to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of the lunar calendar. Behar iterates the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, to occur every seventh and fiftieth year respectively. At these times the fields and vineyards of the Israelites are to remain untouched, except for gathering produce from past years, which could be shared with others and eaten, but could not be sold for profit. All land is to be returned to its previous owner; this requires adjustments in payments as the Jubilee year approaches. One is prohibited from charging interest on a loan to an indigent Israelite. Hebrew slaves are to be treated with respect and can be redeemed by a relative. Finally, Hebrew slaves can go free, although gentile slaves are to remain captive, and possessions are to be passed down to the next generation.

In contrast, Behukotai is viewed as an epilogue to the last ten chapters of laws, known as the Holiness Code. It is a unique parashah within Leviticus, as it does not contain legal or ritual material. (The JPS Torah Commentary, p. 182) What it does include instead are promises and threats from God. The gist is that if Israel obeys the Holy One’s injunctions, God will enrich the land and the nation with peace and prosperity. If, however, the commandments are trespassed, a debacle will follow: famine, disease, wild beasts, and devastation, culminating in exile. Eventually, the Sabbaths, which were withheld as punishment, will return, and the Israelites will come back to God, repentant. At that point the Holy One will renew the covenant with them. One of my earliest memories of Behukotai has to do with my first B’nai Mitzvah student whose portion this was. I instructed her to focus on the first few pages and to skim through the rest, essentially to ignore the latter section. I was not prepared to explain this text to a trusting adolescent who was encountering Judaism for the first time in a positive, meaningful way. Twenty years later, I still find difficulty with this parashah and can only read it as a parable within a historic context, where, in order to establish and implement a social order, the redactors of the Torah utilized reward and punishment because they did not know about positive reinforcement. Yet now I understand that this parashah, as well as Beharbeyond insisting upon obedience, depicts a God yearning for blind faith.

“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 ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years” (Lev. 25:20-21). Here and elsewhere in this chapter God asks the Israelites for a trust that parallels his demand of Abraham.

“Sustenance for each day on its day” (Exodus 16:4). “He who created the day creates the sustenance for it. From this verse R. Eleazar of Modim inters: He who has enough to eat today but wonders, ‘What will I eat tomorrow?’ is lacking in faith. (Mekhilta, Be-shallah, Va-yassa2) Interestingly enough, the trust that God pursues in Behar, when the Holy One stipulates no sowing, doubles back in the form of admonition and destruction in Behukotai – basically, if you don’t believe in Me, you’ll be sorry. These bookends reveal that our ancestors struggle with and are as cautious about faitihfuness and obedienience as we are today. (Ever wonder how many of them had active vegetable patches hidden under the cedars of Lebanon?)  Whereas in modernity many of us romanticize our forebears as being pure and constant in their trust, the sages viewed them with greater realism.

“You find that any observance for which Israel were willing to give up their lives has been preserved…But any…for which Israel were not willing to give up their lives has not been preserved…Thus the Sabbath, circumcision…for which Israel were willing to give up their lives, have been retained by them. But such institutions as…sabbatical and jubilee years, for which Israel were not willing to give up their lives have not been retained by them.” (Mekhilta, Ki-TissaShabbata, 1; Yalkut Shimoni, Ki Tissa, 391)

Clearly the Sabbatical and Jubilee years disappeared because the Israelites were fearful of starving to death and did not have sufficient faith to leave their field and vineyards fallow. Abrabanel (15th century Portuguese Jewish commentator) in the JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Leviticus, p. 204, proposes that the 50th year of a person’s life be used to expiate sin in order to live the remainder of one’s life “in holiness, free from the toil of the material world.

He may be on to something. Were we to have faith in and practice Abrabanel’s suggested observance of the jubilee year, we might bring it back.

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Rabbi Judith Edelstein, D.Min, BCC is the part-time rabbi of Congregation Shirat HaYam in Nantucket, MA. She teaches at the JCC in Manhattan and works independently with private students for conversion, B’nai Mitzvah and other life cycle events.