BEHAR-BEHUKOTAI (Lev 25:1 - 26:2; 26:3 - 27:34)  5769 (2009)

May 16, 2009


What Sabbaths do we have in the Torah?

Seventh Day - To commemorate Creation and Deliverance

Seventh Year - To give the Land of Israel a rest

Seventh Year of being a slave - Hebrew slave goes free, individualized

Yom Kippur - Sabbath of Sabbaths, holiest day of the year

Jubilee Year - Count seven sevens of years, then 50th year

Lev 25:2         The Land shall keep a Sabbath unto Adonai.

This Sabbath is for the Land of Israel.  The passage reads like the 4th Commandment: Sow, prune and gather for 6 years, but the 7th year is a Sabbath of solemn rest.  What grows in the 7th year is for you and your servants, cattle, the sojourner.

This Jewish idea of a year of rest for the Land and the workers was revolutionary.  Historians say that ancient peoples who lived alongside the Jews and saw them practice the laws of shemita, as it is called, had trouble comprehending their behavior. The Roman historian, Tacitus, attributed the practice of shemita to laziness on the part of the Jews.  In Deuteronomy 31:10, we learn that the Sabbatical year was also a time for national education - On Succot of the 7th year, all Jews come to Jerusalem and hear the reading of the Torah.  The Torah is the Book of the Week of the Jews every 7th Succot.

Then 25:8-10 the Jubilee year, proclaim liberty throughout the Land.  Jewish slaves are freed.  Also, every man is returned to his possession, his ancestral land reverts to his ownership if he sold it to another before the Jubilee year.

Incidentally, why called "Jubilee?"  Because the shofar is blown on Yom Kippur, to proclaim liberty, and Yoveil, the root of Jubilee, means horn.

So every 50th year we have a reset to zero, in terms of slavery and land sales being abolished.  Now will the value of a land sale be different if the ancestral owner sells it 40 years, or 2 years, before the Jubilee?  Yes, of course.  The Torah recognizes this, saying in 25:15-16: According to the number of years after the Jubilee you shall buy it off your neighbor...According to the multitude of years you shall increase the price...and the fewness...diminish the price. - because the seller will get it back in the Jubilee Year.

Nechama Leibowitz points out that Henry George, the 19th Century American champion of the poor, viewed the reset to zero of the Land as follows: Moses had observed in Egypt what happens when private ownership is permitted without restraint: Ownership and power becomes concentrated in a small number of rich people.  This creates a polarized class system, very rich and very poor.  Work for the majority of the people then becomes slavery.  Nechama notes that this leads to oppression, as in ancient Rome, or modern Poland or Ireland where poverty was widespread with almost no middle class.  The Jubilee year prevents monopoly and retains for each family a share in the Land and the ability to have a decent quality of life.  Henry George said: It is not the protection of property, but the protection of humanity, that is the aim of the Mosaic code.  Judaism often receives beautiful tributes from non-Jews.

The Torah does not support a state of pure capitalism.  The Torah also does not advocate pure socialism, where wealth is divided among all equally. Wealth is certainly not a sin in the Torah's eyes. The Torah system is in essence, a modified system that makes certain that the poor can be resuscitated and restored to a point where they can have a chance to regain their dignity.  [National Jewish Outreach Program]

Nechama notes that in this case the Torah implements social justice through a specific economic mechanism.  In other cases, the Sages say that education of the individual is the key.  There is a strong Jewish view that universal education is vital to assuring equal economic opportunity and outcomes.

Nechama also quotes Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who views the 7th year as fostering a spiritual respite for the nation just as the Sabbath day spiritually uplifts the individual.  The Sabbatical Year is spiritual like the Sabbath Day is.  So the nation which in Biblical times is made up mostly of Land workers have a national year of rest from working the Land. 

For the 7th and 8th year, how can we be sure there will be enough food if we can't plant?  The Torah promises God will provide - 25:19-21: And the Land shall yield her fruit, and you will eat until you have enough and dwell therein in safety....And I will command My blessing on you in the 6th year and it will bring forth produce for 3 years.  [Don't plant in 7th, still have crops for 8th.]

Another interesting concept: 25:23 - And the Land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the Land is Mine, for strangers and settlers are you with Me.  Since God is the ultimate owner, this curbs human appetite to buy and own more. 

An additional obligation begins in 25:25 - If your brother becomes impoverished and sells part of his ancestral heritage, his redeemer who is closest to him shall come and redeem his brother's sale

These last two verses in Lev 25:23 and 25 reveal the twin aspects of the shemita year.  The 7th year is both a rest for the land reflecting God's ownership of the world, and an act of kindness to poor people, slaves and workers.  It encompasses both holiness of the land and humanism for the people.

More on helping the impoverished is in 25:35-36: If your brother (fellow Jew) be waxen poor... you shall uphold him... Don't take interest....

Rashi interprets "upholding" the poor man as not letting him fall: Help him early rather than later.  He compares this to an ass having trouble under its heavy burden.  While the burden is still on the ass, one man can hold it and right its balance.  But once the burden falls to the ground, five men cannot lift it.

And also we are to treat our fellow Jew kindly if he is our slave, 25:39.... You shall not make him serve as a bond-servant [but] as a hired servant....  What's the difference?  His work must not be of little value, but rather should involve craftsmanship or tilling the Land.

25:43 - Don't rule over him with rigor.... The Hebrew word FaReK sounds a lot like Pharaoh, and you recall that in Exodus 1:13 Pharaoh feared the increase of the Israelites and made them serve with rigor.  What "rigor" means, there and here, is to compel the slave to do unnecessary, demoralizing work.  For example: having him dig a hole and then fill it in.  The commentaries have much psychological insight into what is most damaging to a person.

A Hebrew master must take good care of his Hebrew slave.  The Talmud says: Whoever acquires a Hebrew servant acquires a master over himself.  [Kiddushin 20a]  This is analogous to the Jewish view that a good leader is first and foremost a servant of the people being led.  Laws to protect slaves were enacted around the beginning of the Common Era to eliminate possible abuse by the master.  The slave had to be provided a standard of living equal to the master in terms of food, wine and lodging. 

In addition to God saying The Land is Mine [Lev 25:23] God also says: [Lev 25:42] For they are My servants, whom I have taken out of the Land of Egypt....]  [25:55 - For the children of Israel are servants to Me, they are My servants, whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt - I am HaShem your God.]  The Redemption from Egypt was about the Israelites going from serving Pharaoh to serving God - and it seems more difficult, with more commandments, to serve God than Pharaoh.  So this is about our relationship with God.  I think it is also about how our relationship with each other, how we treat one another.  It has been said that What matters most to God is how we treat other people. 

The Redemption from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai create a relationship between a people and God; and also relationships among each individual within that people.  Most of the commandments are humanistic, and they relate both to our relationship with one another and with God.

The covenant involves four levels of relationships (point): individual to individual, individual to the Jewish community, individual to God and the community to God.         

Lev 26 - Blessings and Curses. 

One blessing, in 26:8 - Five of you will chase 100, and 100 of you will chase 10,000.  The ratio of power goes from 1:20 to 1:100.  Rashi: The few who observe the Torah are not to be compared to the many who observe the Torah.  There is greater power in more numbers.  So each additional person who joins the righteous increases the group's power geometrically.

One curse, in 26:34-36: I will scatter you among the nations....And as for them that are left...the sound of a driven leaf shall chase them.... [Milton Steinberg novel about Elisha ben Abouya]


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