Behar 2016 - 5776

Post date: May 26, 2016 4:43:31 AM

Parshat Behar, Leviticus 25:1 - 26:2

This week’s parsha describes the laws of the yovel – the Jubilee year. After every six years, the seventh year is a shabbat shabbaton for the land – a year of true rest (repeating a word in this manner is often considered a form of emphasis in the Torah), where the fields are not plowed and the vineyards not harvested. This is also referred to as a year of sh’mitah – where the land is not planted and allowed to rest.

In addition, at the seventh cycle of the land resting – after seven times seven years, or on the fiftieth of 50 years – is the Jubilee* year. The Jubilee year has many requirements, including the returning of any possessions to their original owner and the freeing of any slaves. This was, in effect, a giant reset button for the Israelites, a way to restore people to their ancestral family lands and a way to prevent the emergence of a permanent underclass in Jewish society.

In recounting the laws of the Jubilee (50th year), God reminds us of the commandment – even in the Jubilee year – to sound the Shofar on Yom Kippur. In fact, the shofar is sounded on the jubilee year specifically to "proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof!" There are several other connections between parshat Behar and Yom Kippur. First, the year of sh’mitah – the year of letting the land lay fallow – is referred to as a shabbat shabbaton, the same language used to refer to Yom Kippur. Shabbat is sabbath for the week. Yom Kippur is Shabbat for the year, and Jubilee is Shabbat for the earth.

Second, the verb la’shuv (to return) appears in both contexts. The Yom Kippur liturgy frequently refers to teshuvah – repentance – as one of the acts to be done before one can be sealed in the Book of Life. Parshat Behar, on the other hand, uses a different form of the same root (shavtem and tush’vu) meaning to return or give back.

Parshat Behar also clearly connects to B’reisheet – the creation of earth in six days, and God resting on the seventh day. This pattern is borne out again in the cycle of sh’mitah, as well as the Jubilee year. In B’reisheet, a system of relationships is set up. First, God creates land and humankind. Then, God gives responsibility for the land to humankind. In doing so, a triangle of interdependent relationship arises between God, land, and humankind. Each of these relationships – God and humankind, God and land, land and humankind is unique, and treated differently in the Torah.

Here, in Parshat Behar, we see the same set triangle of relationships played out again. Humankind and the land connect through the laws of sh’mitah – the land must be honored and allowed to replenish itself after use. Humankind can use and benefit from the land for six years, but must let the land rebuild during the seventh year. Modern farmers and gardeners alike can attest to this necessity – land cannot give indefinitely, and to expect this destroys the potential of our earth.

God’s relationship with the land is described in passuk 21. Anticipating the people’s fear at letting the land lay fallow, God proclaims that prior to a sh’mitah year, the land will produce three times its typical abundance, thereby giving the people, their livestock, and all strangers who dwell with them enough food for not only the seventh sh'mitah year of rest, but also the following jubilee year of rest.

The last relationship – between God and humankind – is borne out in the reference to Yom Kippur in passuk 9. Yom Ha’Kippurim is a holiday of atonement – an act that can only take place between a human being and a deity (or, in some faiths, another human being acting on behalf of a deity). Thus, we see here all the critical relationships from B’reisheet coming to bear on this week’s parsha. The focus, however, in Behar appears to rest on the relationship between humankind and the land. A large portion of the parsha is spent discussing both sh’mitah and the agricultural rules for the Jubilee year.

What can we make of these relationships, both here and in B’reisheet? I believe the imagery of the triangle can offer an answer. The prototypical triangle is one that is equilateral – all sides equal in length and all angles equal in degree. Equality in the relationships described does not mean uniformity – certainly a human being’s relationship to the earth is different than their relationship to God. However, equality can come in reverence, importance, and honor. Thus, the rules of sh’mitah should be honored no less than those of Yom Kippur. Our relationship with the earth must be no less important than our relationship with God.

Imagine the beauty and balance we can restore to the ecosystems around us if we spent even a fraction of the time and energy we spend honoring God honoring our earth. We are comfortable praying, studying, and learning. Parshat Behar challenges us to be equally comfortable engaging in conservation efforts, supporting renewable energy, and safeguarding the flora and fauna that we live alongside. In B’reisheet, we are given the responsibility by God to care for the earth – it is a responsibility that we cannot take lightly.

Yvonne Asher

* Note that Jubilee is a cognate of the Hebrew word yoval. In transliteration, "J" is substituted for the sound of "Y", as it is in the word "hallelujah." And in Hebrew, the letter "vet" is interchangeable with the letter "bet", distinguished only by a dagesh (dot) in the middle. Thus, jubilee is derived from yoval.