UNIVERSAL TORAH: BEHAR & BECHUKOSAI
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
On Shabbat May 16 the Torah reading in Israel will be BECHUKOSAI while in the Diaspora the Torah reading will be the double portion of BEHAR and BECHUKOSAI. Students in Israel please scroll down this email for the commentary on BECHUKOSAI. From Shabbat May 23 onwards the weekly readings in Israel and the Diaspora will again be in sync.
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BEHAR, Leviticus 25:1-26:2
THE LAND BELONGS TO G-D
“To G-d belongs the land and its fullness, the earth and its inhabitants.” (Psalms 24:1). “The heavens, the heavens belong to G-d, but the earth He GAVE TO THE SONS OF ADAM. The dead will not praise G-d nor all who go down to desolation. But we will praise G-d from now and forever! Halleluyah!” (Psalms 115:16-17).
Our present parshah, BEHAR, and its “sister”, next week’s parshah of BECHUKOSAI, which in some years is read on the same Shabbat, explain under what conditions the Earth and its treasures are given in trust to the sons of man, and when the trust is taken back by its rightful Owner — if men breach the deed of trust, which is the Torah, G-d’s Covenant.
The social, economic, ecological and environmental lessons of BEHAR are particularly urgent today, when men act as lords of the Earth, owning and controlling vast tracts, depleting and destroying her gifts, despoiling her of her treasures for their own short-sighted gain and pleasure, without ever pausing to consider: Who really owns all this? For what purpose did He make it? On the contrary, the Torah commands us to appoint seasons and special years in which we all reflect on Who owns everything and learn to respect His creation.
BEHAR continues with the theme of the cycle of time, which was also central in last week’s parshah of EMOR in the section dealing with the annual cycle of festivals (Leviticus Ch. 23). The section in EMOR began with the first of all of G-d’s “appointed seasons”, the Holy Shabbat, which is the crown of G-d’s Covenant. BEHAR takes the concepts of “Six days of work, one day of rest” a level higher, dealing with the cycle of years, which is measured in circuits of 7 x 7 Sabbaticals, followed by the fiftieth Jubilee year.
Our parshah of BEHAR thus begins with the Shemittah cycle in which the land is to be worked and tilled for six years, after which it is to be left “fallow” throughout the seventh year. The Torah gives us a picture of an idyllic world in which independent owner-farmers are raising their wheat and grains for bread and tending their vineyards for wine. After all their gifts to the poor and tithes to the priests and Levites etc. during the six years of labor, they are to go a step further in the seventh year, giving their very fields and vineyards back to their true Owner. In the seventh year, they are not allowed to work their own land. Instead, they must open their gates to everyone so that all can have a share in the fruits from the holy Table of G-d — the produce of Israel in the Shemittah year has a special sanctity. Even the animals have their share in the fruits of the Shemittah year — for like us, they too are G-d’s guests on His amazing Earth. The Shemittah cycle is a fundamental rhythm in time designed to help us constantly keep in mind that G-d is the true Owner — of all the world around us and of our very selves.
The fifty-year Jubilee cycle takes us to even higher levels of this awareness. The Jubilee cycle is like a gracious cosmic game in which even the losers eventually get to go back and have a fresh to start all over again — because G-d, the true Owner and Master of all the land and its inhabitants, is truly compassionate. Even in the idyllic world of independent land-owners, one tends to be more successful, while another is less successful. In time, one is forced to sell his land and even his house. Then he falls into debt, and eventually he becomes enslaved. In the Jubilee year, signaled by the trumpeting of the Shofar of Freedom on Yom Kippur of that year, all the slaves go free and all the fields and orchards go back to their original owners.
In our parshah, the Torah sets forth the code of laws applying to ownership of land in particular, and also of other forms of property, and under what conditions. The laws in our parshah include those of sale, and of business honesty and integrity. The forms of property include people’s own selves: under the law of slavery, one person might become the “property” of someone else, whether in the legal or economic sense, or in the spiritual sense, where a person may even fall so low as to sell himself to some form of idolatry.
Rashi on Leviticus 26:1 explains the “moral logic” underlying the sequence of laws set forth in our parshah: “At first the Torah warns about the observance of the Sabbatical year. But if a person is greedy for money and falls under suspicion of violating the Sabbatical year, he ends up selling his possessions. That is why the Torah juxtaposes here the laws of sale, including the sale of moveable articles. If the person still does not repent, he ends up selling his hereditary land. If he still does not repent, he ends up selling his house. If he still does not repent, he has to borrow on interest. in the end he sells his very self, not just to an Israelite, but even to an idol-worshipper.”
Yet even the most degraded goes free in the Jubilee year, in which the blast of the Sinai trumpet of Freedom on the Day of At-One-ment signifies that all the debts have been paid through the redemptive power of Binah, the Fiftieth Gate. This theme of freedom in our parshah is particular relevant to us in the present season, as we count the days of the Omer in the seven-fold count of the days and weeks leading up to the Fiftieth Day, the Day of the New Offering, season of the Giving of the Torah: Freedom.
At the very heart of the entire system of redemption set forth in the Torah through the festival cycle and through the Sabbatical and Jubilee cycles lies the Shabbat, which is the very essence of the Sinaitic code. When Moses first asked Pharoah to free the Israelites, all he requested was that they should go “into the wilderness” (away from the technology of civilization) in order to liberate themselves from slavery to earthly lords of the land like Pharaoh. The commandment of Shabbat was given at Marah (Exodus 15:25), prior to the Giving of the Torah at Sinai. The concept of Shabbat is built into the concept of the Manna, which appeared for six days of the week with a double-portion on the sixth day. Shabbat is the fourth commandment. Immediately after the Ten Commandments in Exodus ch. 20, the Torah begins MISHPATIM with the laws of slavery, which involve the Sabbatical and Jubilee concepts.
Now in BEHAR, as we approach the conclusion of the elaboration of the Sinaitic code (BECHUKOSAI sets the seal on this, while the name of our parshah — “On the Mount” — reminds us of Sinai) the Torah returns to the theme of Shabbat as being at the very center of the Covenant. The concluding verse of our parshah is: “Guard My Sabbaths and have reverence for My Sanctuary, I am Hashem” (Leviticus 26:2). The entire time-scheme set forth in BEHAR — the Shemittahs and Jubilee year — is founded on the concept of Shabbat. Then in the following parshah, BECHUKOSAI, we see that the vengeance of the Covenant is built around a structure of seven-fold punishments for the spiral of sin caused by the violation of the Shabbat.
It is a strange irony that the observance of the Shabbat as set forth in the Shulchan Aruch, the practical Code of Jewish law, is something that most of the contemporary world finds impossible to accept. While the entire world accepts the concept of the Work and Leisure cycle, the world is unable to accept that a person may voluntarily take upon himself to abstain from all kinds of activities on the Sabbath day, and so too in the Sabbatical year, in order to show that he takes upon himself the Kingdom of Heaven, the world of the true Sabbath.
No serious political or intellectual commentator today would take seriously the idea that the complete observance of Shabbat and Shemittah, including abstinence by Israelites from the 39 prohibited labors on Shabbat and all the prohibited labors of Shemittah, could be the key to the redemption of Israel and saving the world ecology.
This contemporary neglect of the concept of Shabas a serious concept is in stark contrast to the centrality of the Shabbat in the prophetic vision of the world of the future, in which the Sanctuary in Yerushalayim is at the very center.
“For so says HaShem to the castrated who will guard My Sabbaths and chose what I desired and who hold by My Covenant. And I have given them in My House and within My walls a place and a name better than sons and daughters, I will give him an eternal name that will never be cut off. And the sons of the strange people who will be attached to HaShem to minister to Him and to love the name of HaShem, to be to Him as servants — all who keep the Shabbos and do not transgress it, and who hold by My Covenant — I will bring them to My holy Mountain and make them rejoice in the House of My Prayer, their whole-offerings and peace-offerings will be for favor on My Altar, for My House will be called The House of Prayer for all the peoples. Thus says HaShem, Who gathers the scattered of Israel — more will I gather upon him and those of his who have already been gathered.” (Isaiah 56:7).
In other words, in the world of truth, where everything belongs to G-d (as opposed to the world of the lords of the land, where everything is falsehood) the pride of place goes to those who weekly take on the discipline of Shabbat, abstaining from every form of the 39 forbidden labors as explained by the sages, in order to receive the holiness of the day.
It is in strange contrast that the observance of Shabbat and the Shemittah in the Land of Israel are today matters of contention, with a majority of the population apparently not against blatant violation and defiance of the Shabbat, which is publicly favored by leading judges, politicians and commentators.
In order to save Israel, there needs to be a full-scale international program to explain to Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths that the observance of Shabbat and Shemittah by true Israelites, with the support of gentiles, is in fact the very key to bringing prosperity and blessing into the entire world.
The observance of Shabbat and of Shemittah is an art-form, in which man submits himself to a code which focuses his mind on the ways we interact with and manipulate the environment on the days of the week and during the non-Sabbatical years.
It is through abstinence from manipulating the environment for one day of the week that we learn how to elevate our activities on the other six days, and we turn our daily work into the work of building a sanctuary of holiness around us here in this world. Observance of Shabbat and Shemittah enhance our respect for the natural world around us and for the various grades and levels of life and being. The Shemittah teaches respect for the environment and ecology.
Shabbat is the key to the entire redemption: “If Israel will keep two Shabbosos, the Son of David will come immediately.”
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BECHUKOSAI, Leviticus 26:3-27:34
IF YOU WILL GO IN MY STATUTES
Our parshah, BECHUKOSAI, puts the seal on the book of Leviticus, which is the “heart” of the Torah (Genesis being the “head”, Exodus the “arms”, Numbers the “legs” and Deuteronomy the “mouth”, Malchus). BECHUKOSAI marks the conclusion of G-d’s revelation to Moses in the Sanctuary in the camp at Sinai and the sealing of the Sinaitic Covenant, while the coming book of Numbers recounts the journeying of the Children of Israel on their way to the Promised Land.
As the seal on Leviticus, the book of the “heart”, BECHUKOSAI addresses the two sides of the heart: love and fear. Our love of G-d is aroused by the promises of blessing if we will GO in His statutes, while our fears are aroused by the dire punishments for failure to do so.
What does it mean to GO in His statutes? This is explained by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:
The life of Torah and mitzvos should be one of constantly striving to move forward from level to level in our fulfillment of the actual commandments. In every commandment that we carry out, there is a level of meaning that we can grasp within our minds, yet at the same time, the mitzvah has profoundly deeper meaning that is now beyond our grasp. These two levels are those of NA’ASEH (“we will do”) and VENISHMA (“we shall hear”) respectively. NA’ASEH applies to that which is within our grasp now, the physical mitzvah with its plain intention — WE WILL DO. We must go ahead and do it now on the simple level even if as yet we do not have deeper understanding, even if the level of VENISHMA, WE SHALL HEAR — understanding — is still beyond us. To GO in G-d’s statutes means to strive constantly to turn that which is as yet beyond us — our VENISHMA — and make it into our NA’ASEH, something that we CAN meaningfully accomplish. This is brought about when we pray to G-d to help us in our practice and to give us deeper understanding. Deeper understanding also depends upon deeper study.
When we thus turn what was our VENISHMA into a new level of NA’ASEH — because we now incorporate our newly attained, deeper insight into our practice — we thereby discover that a new level of VENISHMA opens up ahead of us. It is this higher level of VENISHMA that we must now strive to attain and turn into a new, higher level of NA’ASEH for ourselves. We must continue this way striving to go from level to level, constantly integrating new levels of understanding into our practice. Thus we constantly GO from level to level in our practice (Likutey Moharan Part I, Torah 22).
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AND IF NOT.
Rashi in his commentary on BECHUKOSAI explains how the terrible penalties for failure to follow the path of the Torah are built upon a seven-fold schema, because the essential cause of the exile was the violation of the Sabbath and the Sabbatical years. At the very core of the sins that invoke the terrible cycle of punishment are seven basic sins, each of which drags the next in train: (1) Neglect of study. (2) Neglect of practice. (3) Despising others who practice. (4) Hatred of the sages. (5) Preventing others from practicing. (6) Denial of the divine origin of the commandments. (7) Denial of the existence of G-d.
Graphic illustrations of the fulfillment of all of the terrible penalties described in our parshah in actual Jewish history are recounted in the Midrash. The infringement of the seven basic sins causing the exile has been a recurrent theme in all of Jewish history from biblical times until today. The rebellion of the Ten Tribes under Jereboam son of Nevat against the House of David under Rehav’am represented a craving for greater license than was permitted by the House of David, whose royalty depends upon constant study of the Torah and in particular the oral tradition. Under the northen king Ahab [whose influence is said to have been worldwide], hatred and persecution of the sages — the prophets — became institutionalized. Later on, the Assyrian King Sennacharib’s chief spokesman marching against Jerusalem under Hezekiah was a renegade Jew, Ravshekah.
After the end of the Babylonian exile, the return to the land and the building of the Second Temple, new challenges to the authority of the Torah arose, such as from those who denied the afterlife or the oral law, or denied the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Among the most notorious enemies of the Torah were those who hellenized in the Second Temple period, when it was “politically correct” to be Greek. The festival of Chanukah commemorates the miraculous saving of the authentic Torah pathway from the assault upon it by Greek culture.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam (Maimonides) wrote a letter known as IGERET TEIMAN encouraging the Jews of Yemen to remain faithful to the Torah and give their lives if necessary rather than submit to forced conversion by their Moslem rulers. In this letter, Maimonides explains the difference between the assault upon the Torah by Greek thought and the assault upon the Torah by Christianity and Islam.
The Greek philosophers denied the existence of G-d (Level 7) and the revelation at Sinai (Level 6) and accordingly provided justification for preventing Jews from practicing the Torah, e.g. Shabbos, circumcision, etc. (Level 5). leading to open violation and vilification of the Torah by the Hellenists. Greek philosophy was a direct assault upon the Torah, leaving the Jews of the time with a choice — whether to go after the Torah or after the Greeks.
On the other hand, Christianity and Islam did not blatantly repudiate the entire Torah of Moses. What they did was to establish alternative Torah’s that were more acceptable to non-Jews, leaving the Jews of their respective periods with a different kind of choice: whether to remain faithful to the traditional Torah of Moses or to follow an alternative “Torah”.
Hatred of the sages of Israel is deeply entrenched in Christianity, because the claims of its founder and his followers about his divinity were a direct assault upon the authority of the sages and an attempt to steal the Torah from its true guardians, the House of David under Hillel (as later handed down in the Mishneh and Talmud). The adherents of the new religion wrote their own “Torah” openly mocking the Torah of Moses, as when their leader is displayed licensing the plucking of grain on the Sabbath for charitable reasons against the protests of the “Pharisees”, who are depicted as being mean. In the writings of the new religion, the Pharisees (i.e. the rabbis of the Mishneh) are characterized as the evil face of institutionalized religion. The new religion drew all of its teachings from the Torah, but detached them from the accompanying stringencies of the Law, while attaching them instead to its own devotional system focussing on its own saints and heroes. Particularly after the conversion of Saul (Paul), who was a Pharisee, the new religion institutionalized the systematic vilification of the Torah tradition of the rabbis, turning the written Torah (Torah, Nevi’im & Kesuvim, TaNaCh) into a mere introduction to its own new “Torah” or “Testament”, which was meant to replace the Sinaitic Covenant.
Denial of the pathway of the Torah of Sinai — the written Torah and the oral Torah — is thus deeply built into the very structure of Christianity, which became the dominant religion in the western and many other parts of the world and one of the main foundations of its culture, together with that of Greece and Rome. As Christianity gained strength, persecution of Torah-observant Jews together with burnings of Torah scrolls and Talmuds became a regular occurrence.
Denial of the Torah given to Moses at Sinai is also inherent in Islam, the founder of which claimed to have supplanted Moses as the ultimate Prophet. The founder of Islam was initially enamored of the Torah of Moses, but wanted to adapt it in his own way. Angered at the stubbornness of the Jews in resisting his changes, he established his own new “Torah” as an alternative to the “old” Torah. Islam saw itself as the stick with which to beat the recalcitrant Jews who despised and neglected their own Torah. In the writings of Islam the “People of the Book” are depicted as renegades to their own teachings.
During the long exile since the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews who have remained faithful to the Torah of Moses have been surrounded until today by a most formidable cultural assault against their own tradition from the two younger sister religions, Christianity and Islam. This two have gained the ascendancy and taken all the glory, parading their own alternative Torahs in the face of the Torah of Moses.
It is understandable that over the generations, many Jewish souls, subject to this cultural onslaught, have fallen victim to the allurements of the surrounding religions. In addition, since the time of the European renaissance and the “Age of Reason”, secularism has become a new alternative to religion of any kind, creating yet another allurement from the stringent code of Judaism, which looks more irrelevant than ever in the modern world.
In this way the Torah of Sinai has been apparently completely marginalized by almost the entire world. The Sinai tradition is guarded by seemingly powerless networks of rabbis and their students, sitting in the Yeshivahs, daily studying the oral tradition as brought down in the Talmud, and by the numerically tiny proportion of the world’s population who are Torah-observant.
What is it about the real Torah that makes those who love her cling to her even in the face of adversity on every side? Throughout the generations until today, those who keep the Torah of Moses and abstain from the 39 forbidden labors on the Sabbath have been the butt of every jester and jeerer. Meanwhile Christianity, Islam and every other religion are on the ascendant, including the religion of Satanism and the universal religion of self-indulgence and material consumption.
What love is it that makes those who strive to follow the authentic Torah of Moses continue day after day in the face of all this? How do we keep on GOING in the Torah, even though her face is shrouded in a dark cover — for in this upside down world, the deeper meaning of the Torah is not revealed?
But if we keep studying the Torah, she will reveal her face to us. The way to keep GOING in the Torah is to GO ON STUDYING the Torah!
In the merit of our study of the book of Leviticus and our on-going study of all the Five Books of Moses, may we be blessed with all the blessings of our parshah: “If you will GO in My statutes.”
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum