Behar-Bechukotai: Words from the Mountain

Rabbi Mira is with IfNotNow NYC.

In this double parashah of Behar Bechukotai, we come to the conclusion of the Book of Leviticus. Throughout this tome, also called as instructions for the priests or Torat Cohanim, we find guidelines for “holiness” or separation from the ordinary and the profane: from the different kinds of sacrifices, to the priests’ concerns about purity and impurity in the Temple and in themselves, to the communal and intimate lives of the Israelites.

Behar, “on the mountain” where Torah was given, continues with instructions for holiness, including matters of land tenure: how property rights are to be allocated, and who can claim the rights to utilize, manage, and transfer land along with corresponding restraints and responsibilities.

The first principle is the Sabbatical Year, Shemita, or release: “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord.” The land shall sit and rest, v’shavtem haaretz. Every seventh year, the land is to be released from being poked, tilled, and fertilized, just as the overworked person must be allowed to rest. Produce may be gathered and eaten, but the people may not plow or plant. The divine guarantee is that on year six of the seven years, the produce would be abundant enough for all until the harvest of the following year.

The second principle is the Jubilee or Yovel. According to Leviticus 25:10, “You shall consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim release throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you. Each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.” The Israelites were commanded to count seven times seven years for seven full Sabbatical Years to announce the 50th year of the Jubilee, which is heralded ceremoniously on Yom Kippur with a blast of the ram’s horn, yovel. Our own American Liberty Bell contains the inscription: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land.”

IfNotNow members and other organizers with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence helped build Sumud: Freedom Camp in the West Bank.

What does this release of the Jubilee look like? Hebrew slaves would be set free. Land will not be cultivated. Lands and homes that are not inside the walled cities would be returned to its original owners. Land that had been sold in order to pay for debts can be reclaimed. The reason for this largesse is stated in Leviticus 25:23: “For the land is Mine.” If the ultimate owner of all the earth and its inhabitants is God, then neither land nor living being can be sentenced to servitude forever.

There are those, however, who hold that Shemita and Yovel are no longer in effect with the destruction of the Temple and the central court of the Sanhedrin. Others hold Shemita as still applicable to modern times, but not Yovel. According to the Rabbis, Yovel hinges upon the time when all the Jewish people are located in Eretz Yisrael, bizman shekol yoshveha aleha. Yet one cannot help but see how the Kedusha or holiness of Shabbat emanates from the principles of Shemita and Yovel. From the motif of seven and multiples of seven to the provisions to care for the land and release the people from indentured servitude, we see a deliberate effort to inspire Shabbat upon the process of structuring the entire society. But today instead of release, there is more and more contraction behind political and ideological battle lines, and more and more embeddedness of the maintainers and caretakers of “management.” There is more and more contraction, and less and less Kedusha. And in this week’s Torah reading, the number fifty of the Yovel hovers like a prophetic drone witnessing the fifty years of occupation. Are these verses simply midrashic seasoning for sermons? Is there anyone out there?

Enter the tochacha or rebuke, in Parashat Bechukotai at the end of the Book of Leviticus, a precursor to the larger body of rebuke coming soon to your nearest theater in the Book of Deuteronomy. Chanted rapidly in a low voice often by the clergy except for the intrepid Bar/Bat Mitzvah, these verses are warnings of the worst kind. Should the Israelites choose to treat the instructions of God casually or obstinately, there will be consequences. One after the other, rebuke rains down until Leviticus 26:42 when words of consolation compel the reader to switch to a normal voice: “Then I will remember My covenant with Yaacov: I will remember also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.” Breathe out. Fair enough, the covenant is a partnership. May we come up equally strong in our part of the pact.

At the conclusion of the Torah reading and the Book of Leviticus in synagogues throughout the land, the Gabbai will signal the entire congregation to stand up for the last aliyah. The words Chazak chazak v’nitchazek will ring out from the congregation at the end of the reading and will be repeated by the Torah reader. Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened! May we take the words from the mountain and be strong. May we be strengthened in our commitment to mitzvot and social justice and may we grow stronger in kindness to one another.

“אם אתה מאמין שיכולם לקלקל תאמין שיכולים לתקן”
“If you believe that breaking is possible, believe that fixing is possible.”
 — Rav Nachman of Breslov