Behar-Bechukotai 2017 - 5777 Betrayal and Forgiveness

Post date: May 18, 2017 10:58:01 PM

(Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34)

This week we read the last three chapters of Leviticus. Although the book's name and its opening verses suggest it primarily contains instructions for priests (our ancient spiritual leaders), it proves to be a guide for every person to act in a holy manner, to exercise a discipline of judgement and behavior, to emulate God, such that we become a mamlechet cohanim - a nation of priests (Ex. 19:6).

Chapter 25 begins with a description of shmitah and the Jubilee. Every seventh year, the Torah commands us to let our land lay fallow, neither sowing the field nor pruning the vineyard. This is shmitah – allowing the land to rest. Interestingly, agricultural scientists suggest that crop rotation – essentially allowing the land to rest from producing a specific crop – is important for the health of the land as well as for maximizing yield. Different crops take different nutrients from the soil. Regularly planting the same crops on the same piece of land drains the land of those nutrients. Giving the land a shabbat – a rest – every seven years similarly allows the nutrients in the land to be replenished.*

Additionally, every 50th year**, we are commanded to celebrate the jubilee. This is a time when, not only is the land allowed to rest, but Israelites are commanded to release all debts. All farmland that was relinquished to service a debt must be returned to its original owner. Similarly, those who sold themselves into servitude (slaves) and prisoners would be returned to their native families.

This was a radical concept in the ancient world. As we discussed last year, the Jubilee served as a giant societal reset button, aimed at preventing a permanent underclass in Jewish society. Even 3,000 years ago, our wise leaders recognized that, over time, people would stratify into haves and have-nots, a situation that would better be rectified through law than through revolution.

After discussing the jubilee, the next chapter goes into great detail describing all of the terrible fates that will befall the Israelites should they not heed God’s commandments. These passages specifically call out exploitation of the poor, the indebted, the servant class. God will not suffer those who exploit the weakest among us. God will destroy the high places, bring the land into desolation, bring down plagues, and smite the people. We are warned that “you will eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall you eat.” In fact, today, there are active slave markets in Libya, and human suffering in Syria that is even more horrifying than this hideous prediction.

Right after that dire vision of the future, God says something surprising. After the people will have gone against God, “they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, in their treachery which they committed against Me, and also that they have walked contrary unto Me… then will I remember My covenant […] I will not reject them, [...] for I am the LORD their God.”

This is almost completely counter to the message of the previous chapter – the prior 39 verses went to great lengths (and into great detail) describing the horrors that would befall the Israelites as soon as they strayed from God and God’s commandments. And now – what is this passage? It seems to be a softening – a gentle and kind ending to an otherwise gruesome threat.

These verses describe forgiveness as the ultimate response to the deepest of hurts. God sets the example of forgiveness.

It is not the kind of forgiveness that happens when someone is late for a meeting, forgets to pick up a loaf of bread at the store, or neglects to wash your favorite workout pants after wearing them to the gym. This is forgiving someone whom you love dearly for an act of utter betrayal.

The Torah specifically refers to the Israelites going against God’s word, but it is easy to see how this applies in our own lives.

How many of us have been betrayed? By a friend? A lover? A colleague? A family member? And how many of us have perpetrated such betrayals? John Gottman is a psychologist who specializes in couples therapy. He has devoted much of his research on the challenge of building trust after betrayal, as well as on methods to do just that. Betrayal is a wound that many take to the grave. But God forgives.

If we humans are created b’tzelem elohim – in the image of God – I like to think this is the kind of passage we must embody. To forgive someone for a betrayal, this deepest of hurts, takes much more than a heartfelt apology and an embrace. It takes work. Hard work supported by a deep, inner strength and the will to move forward. This may be the underlying message of the Jubilee. The Torah clearly dissuades us from living all our lives enslaved to our past.

Like some others, I often find myself stuck in a place of anger. I find it hard to forgive. True forgiveness is not to say the words and remain angry. True forgiveness is to let go of the anger and greet the person with a clean slate. This is challenging for me. I am not alone. A friend recently told me the adage that maintaining one's anger is like drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies. It’s important to remind ourselves of this often – remaining angry exacts a toll on us.

As difficult as it may be sometimes, being b’tzelem elohim – forgiving, letting go of even our most justified anger – permits us the freedom to choose a future, unencumbered by the debts of our past.

May we all have such strength.

-Yvonne Asher, Samuel Asher

* The rules of shmita, of leaving farm fields fallow every 7th year, only apply to our ancestral homeland, and it is practiced to this day in Israel by many, if not most, religious farmers, although there are exceptions. The next shmita year will commence on Rosh Hashanah 5782 or September 7, 2021.

** As is the case with everything in Jewish law, there is some debate as to whether the Jubilee is the 49th year, or, what I believe is better supported by the text, the year immediately following 7 cycles of 7 years, the 50th year.

Curiously, the Roman Catholic Church observes a Jubilee every 50th year. The most recent Jubilee was 2000, and it was ushered in with a fantastic ritual at the Vatican on New Years Day.