It seems almost impossible for me to study Torah during the last two months without connecting the messages in each parashah to the frightening storm in which we all find ourselves. This week’s double portion Behar/B’chukotai is no exception; it is a Torah portion that speaks to the heart. The chapters present a vision of a society guided by God-given principles of human freedom, human dignity and concern for the most vulnerable in society. And it goes without saying that the global pandemic has brought the issue of valuing human life into sharper focus.
Although not found until the end of Behar, I want to begin with its emphasis on how the needy are to be protected and cared for by the community. Four times the words, ve-chi yamuch achicha, or “and if your brother (or sister) should be reduced to poverty,” begin an explanation of how the poor are to be treated. The single emphasis of interpreters of Torah’s words “and if your brother should be reduced to poverty,” is the obligation to offer help. If a person is in debt, we are to lend him money without interest. If it is clothing, food, or shelter that is required, we are to provide it. Commenting on the Torah’s statement, Rashi notes that it is followed by the words, “you shall strengthen him.” These words, Rashi says, mean: “Don’t let the poor fall and become impoverished so that it will be hard for them to recover. Instead, strengthen them the moment their strength and fortune fail.” Within the realm of Jewish ethics, tzedakah is to be given immediately, generously, and always in a way that protects the dignity of those in need.
Maimonides counsels that human beings must learn to listen to one another, to speak to one another with sympathy, and never to insult those whose lives are broken by poverty and sickness. Helping a person who has fallen into trouble is not a matter of whim or sympathy. It is a mitzvah, a commandment of God. Let us remember that the word used for “charity” in Hebrew, is tzedakah from the root tz-d-k, meaning “just”, “morally correct.” Within our Jewish tradition, tzedakah is a matter of doing the right thing.
We are to clothe, feed, and shelter the needy as if they were extensions of our own flesh and blood. Our standard of care for them ought to be what we would wish for ourselves.
This is who Temple Jeremiah has always been, and perhaps even more so, during this unprecedented pandemic. We have not let social distancing stop us from our mission to help those in desperate need. Whatever we have been asked to do, we have answered the call with a full heart and a generous spirit. Torah continues to guide us, and I continue to be proud to call Jeremiah my home, my extended family.
But the messages this week are unique in another sense. Behar begins in a very unusual way. “The Eternal One spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them:…” (Lev 25:1-2). Since the Book of Exodus, we have come to expect phrases in the Torah like “The Eternal said to Moses…”; “The Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron…”; and, in Leviticus, “The Eternal One called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting…” (Lev 1:1). Why, in this instance, do we have a somewhat different “introduction” mentioning Sinai? After all, we already know – and assume everywhere else in the Torah – that Torah was given at Sinai. To the question that is asked, “Why say it again?” One might suggest that this phrase is intended to make us sit up and pay attention, not so much to the actual laws that follow, but to the message or meaning embedded in these statutes and ordinances.
The first set of regulations following our introduction includes laws about the Sabbatical Year – the land’s Sabbath. Every seventh year, the land must have a complete rest: “…you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the after growth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines…. But you may eat whatever the land during its Sabbath will produce… ” (Lev 25:4-6).
The next group of laws is related to the Sabbatical in many ways, especially in the use of the number seven. “You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years – so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years” (Lev 25:8). Then, on Yom Kippur in the fiftieth year, the shofar is sounded and a Yovel (often translated as “Jubilee”) is proclaimed. The mitzvah, or commandment is to observe the yovel, the fiftieth year. “It shall be a julilee for you; each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.”
During this entire fiftieth year, the land again lies fallow (yes, for the second year in a row!). Nothing is to be planted, and God promises the Israelites that enough food will grow for them to eat and stay healthy until the harvest returns after their resumption of planting in the fifty-first year. All agricultural lands that have been sold in the previous fifty years revert to the original owners, and Israelite slaves are to be set free.
At first glance, it may be difficult to relate to the laws of Sh’mitah (the Sabbatical year when the Land of Israel lies fallow – and the yovel, or Jubilee year. It appears to refer to agricultural laws that have little to do with us in our urban environment. However, like everything in Torah, we take another look, dig deeper and we discover additional layers of meaning and connection to our own lives.
Commenting on this parashah, Rabbi Yitzkhak Nafkha (third century CE) looked at Psalm 103:20 (“Bless the Eternal, O God’s angels, mighty creatures who do God’s bidding, ever obedient to God’s word.”) and wrote, “This is referring to those who observe the mitzvah of letting the land lie fallow. Why are they called ‘mighty creatures’? Because while it’s common for a person to fulfill a commandment for one day, for one Shabbat, or even for one month, can one do so for an entire year? This person sees his field and trees ownerless, his fences broken and fruits eaten, yet controls himself and does not speak. Our rabbis taught, ‘Who is strong? One who controls passion.’ Can there be a mightier creature than a person like this?” (Midrash).
Rabbi Dreskin of New York shared a poignant story of the tragic loss of his 19 year old son several years ago. It made me think of the many families struck down by the Covid 19 virus. Families have lost loved ones – grandparents, moms and dads, children, siblings, friends. They have been thrown into a period of distress during which “the land is laying fallow; nothing can be planted and nothing will grow.” They wake up each day, dress themselves and feed themselves, but can do little more. They meet the day, but produce nothing. They live off what is already there. Like Rabbi Dreskin and his family, ‘they need to survive this vast emptiness that has been cast across the landscape of their hearts, and they can only try, to accept on faith, that a day will arrive when they will be able to resume their plantings, enabling new crops, new projects, and new love to once again begin to grow.”
Hopefully one is not alone in such fallowness. We can only pray that caring friends and extended family members are reaching out to them, holding them, feeding them, and watching after them, until they are ready to resume their lives. It is hard to take in how many men, women, and children are going through these experiences, losing someone they love and waiting out the period of grieving (some will be for months, some for years) until returning to the fields and starting to plant anew.
Perhaps Rabbi Yitzkhak Nafkha was thinking of nothing more than farming when he commented on the challenge of the one-to-three-year observance of sh’mitah and yovel. But it wouldn’t be surprising if he sensed this parallel too. After all, is there anyone who gets through life without having to face the death of someone they love? It may come later than sooner, which is preferable of course, but eventually death comes. And each of us must manage the deep emotional loss, and navigate the sometimes tortuous journey through grief and back to wellness.
Especially now, faith in the return of economic well-being, or faith in the return of optimism, hopefulness, and joy, can be elusive. For a time, we may have to be the ones to hold others as they journey through their own barren lands and are unable to regain a sense of life’s bounty for themselves. And for a time, we may lose sight of it ourselves when, perhaps, the most we can do is sense that others are watching over us until we’re ready.
In the Jubilee year, jubilation may not be the first thing on our mind. It’s important to remember that while it may take some time, each of us can (and likely will) return home, and that the land will once again send forth its goodness.
Aharon Yaakov Greenberg wrote: When we feel most alone in this world, we should not conclude that God has abandoned us; it is in those very moments that God draws close.” They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy,” the psalmist so determinedly prays (Psalm 126:5). And during those times in our lives when we cannot even bring ourselves to sow, may we know that even then, we are not alone; even then, God is planting seeds.
When we eventually are able to build our world back up, we will be reminded of how fortunate we were that we pulled ourselves out, by working together with one another and as partners with God. This Shabbat we stand for the last verse of B’chukotai and proclaim: Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik, “Be strong, be Strong, and together, we will be strengthened!”