Category Archives: Behar

Predicting the Sabbath (Behar)

Predicting the Sabbath (Behar)

Envisioning the end is enough to put the means in motion. -Dorothea Brande

In the Torah portion of Behar, God instructs Moses to relay the commands of the Sabbatical year, among a slew of other related and unrelated commandments. The Sabbatical year was the divine decree that in Israel, in the Promised Land, the fields needed to lay fallow every seventh year. Every seventh year the farmers were given a divinely mandated break from plowing, sowing and working their fields. The farmers who followed God’s directive were blessed with abundant crops.

The Berdichever mentions a related verse:

“And you (Moses), speak to the Children of Israel: My Sabbaths they should guard.”

The verse is unusual in two regards. It singles out Moses with the pronoun “you” – usually God just says to Moses “speak.” The second curiosity is God referring to the Sabbath as His – “My Sabbaths.”

The Berdichever resolves these peculiarities by citing a Midrash. The Midrash tells how while the Jews were still enslaved in Egypt, besides pleading to be freed, Moses also requested that the Jewish slaves be granted a day of rest every seven days. Moses intuited that the Jewish people and man in general needed a weekly period of rest. Hence, when God speaks with Moses about this particular commandment, about the Jews taking a day of rest, God addresses him as “you” – acknowledging this idea of Moses which anticipated the command God would eventually give the Jewish people.

However, God also wanted to underline that the Sabbath is not merely a day of rest for the weary, that it is not just a good idea which Moses thought of, recognizing our need. God is saying that we need to observe a weekly Sabbath even if we are not “weary” from our labors. We need to observe the Sabbath first and foremost because God commanded it. Hence, God refers to the divinely ordained day of rest as “My Sabbaths.” It’s not a human invention. It’s not just because it’s a good idea. There is something deeper and divine in abstaining from labor on God’s Sabbath.

Moses had the uncanny ability to predict God’s establishment of the Sabbath. He understood the fundamental aspect of this particular commandment.

May we embrace the Sabbath, take a break from our labors, imbibe the rejuvenating powers of this special day and get physically, spiritually and emotionally recharged on a weekly basis.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Jerry Posner’s father on his 100th birthday! Mazal Tov!

Positive Discrimination (Behar)

Positive Discrimination (Behar)

It is often easier to become outraged by injustice half a world away than by oppression and discrimination half a block from home. -Carl Rowan

Judaism is tribal. Its prime concern is for members of the tribe. Its laws, restrictions, concerns and benefits almost exclusively deal with Jews. Throughout history, Jews, the Torah and the Talmud have been accused of unfair discrimination and racism. Many Rabbis and commentators have explained the rationale for the preferential treatment by Jews of other Jews above gentiles. One explanation is that it is more of a spectrum of responsibilities.

Jewish law codifies that one’s responsibility is first and foremost for oneself. “If I’m not for me, who will be?” is the famous dictum from the Mishna of Pirkei Avot, followed immediately by the phrase “if I am just for myself, what am I?” My father would often explain: “If you can’t take care of yourself, how can you take care of anybody else?”

The next circles of responsibility are for one’s immediate family, followed progressively by other family, friends, neighbors, community, the Jewish people, and then the rest of the world. One cannot and should not have the same measure of responsibility for every single person on the planet. However, within this hierarchy the Torah repeatedly stresses certain individuals for whom we should take additional responsibility, for whom we should have extra concern. Those are “the stranger, the orphan and the widow,” the more disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our community.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 25:50 (Behar) adds a nuance from the Talmud which demonstrates a type of reverse discrimination. He states that while it is an abominable sin to steal from a fellow Jew, it is actually even worse to steal from a non-Jew.

He explains that stealing from a non-Jew is not just criminal but actually what is called in Hebrew a “Chilul Hashem,” a desecration of God’s name, one of the worst offences possible. The perpetrator of a “Chilul Hashem” is in a sense “embarrassing” God, and God will want to have nothing to do with such a person.

One of the primary missions of a Jew is to be a beacon of light to the world. When we betray that mission by demonstrating to the non-Jew that we feel comfortable stealing from them, it is a catastrophic failure of our mission on Earth, which in a sense negates our very purpose of being.

May we always be careful and honest in our dealings and even more so with those outside the tribe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our very distant cousins, the Samaritans, on their fascinating reenactment of the Pesach sacrifice.

The Dangers of City-centric Societies

The Dangers of City-centric Societies

Country people tend to consider that they have a corner on righteousness and to distrust most manifestations of cleverness, while people in the city are leery of righteousness but ascribe to themselves all manner of cleverness. -Edward Hoagland

The biblical laws of Yovel, the Jubille year, when land was returned to the ancestral heirs, seems antithetical to our own modern perception of property rights. Once every fifty years, all lands in Israel were returned to their original owners or their descendants. However, there is more.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 25:34 has a fascinating analysis as to details of the laws, the reasons, and their effects on Israeli society. I will both paraphrase Rabbi Hirsch and quote from him below:

All houses in unwalled cities were also returned. The only exception were houses in walled cities which could be sold permanently, but only in cities that were walled at the time of the original conquest of the Land of Israel.

Cities in existence could not expand beyond their original area at the expense of arable soil. No farmland could be converted for urban use. If the cities became overcrowded, new cities could be built, but only on land that had never been used for agricultural purposes.

The first effect is that in the long run it maintained “the original distribution of the land according to tribal and familial divisions.” Its main purpose was to: “Restore and regenerate the social and political life of the nation.”

“The houses in unwalled cities not cut off from arable land could not be sold in perpetuity, but had to revert to the original family. City and countryside remained linked as family properties. As a result, every field and every vineyard normally would be owned by an individual who also owned a house in the nearest city. Thus the purpose of this momentous, sweeping legislation was to encourage the combination of the city dweller’s intelligence and ingenuity with the simple life of the countryside.”

“A state whose population is, and remains, settled primarily in moderate-sized country towns is protected not only from peasant dullness and stultification but to an equal extent also from the extremes of urban luxury and proletarianism.”

However, in the few well-defined and controlled walled cities, “a population could develop without ties to the surrounding arable land, an urban population compelled to make its living from commerce and industry.”

But the law for all other cities prevents their expansion “into metropolises detached from the surrounding countryside.”

“It is an effective way of preventing the rise of an economic system in which some families must live in perpetual poverty while huge tracts of land remain in the hands of a privileged few. A powerful class of landowners living in the midst of a landless and therefore pauperized class can never arise or survive in a country where every fiftieth year that land as a whole reverts to its original owners, with the richest returning to his original patrimonial property and the poorest getting back the field that had been his inheritance.”

The above is a divinely prescribed economic and social policy. Policymakers would be wise to give it some thought and attention. And may the rest of us find that right balance between city life, its priorities and values, and those of people closer to the land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To The Jordan Company, who I had the pleasure of meeting in the shiny spires of Manhattan, but who seem particularly well grounded.

Miraculous Nature

Miraculous Nature

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. -Albert Einstein

seed-sowing

There is a biblical command of the sabbatical year, the original divine order to leave ones field fallow every seven years. To willingly forsake ones livelihood, to have faith that nature itself will somehow be altered and that one’s food production will increase miraculously would seem foolhardy at best. However, the biblical text itself anticipates this fear and promises abundant produce to those who comply with God’s will.

In a sense, we have come to define nature as phenomena we have been accustomed to: the rising of the sun, the birth of a child, the decomposition of a seed and its subsequent growth into a plant, and so much more. Nature is commonplace and taken for granted, though no less incredible, even if science has given us explanations for how these things take place.

The Sfat Emet in 5637 (1877) explains that miracles and nature are one and the same and that what we know as nature is in fact the greatest miracle. Furthermore, for a person of faith that understands the divine origin of both and that they are both expressions of divine will, what the world calls miracles can occur to a person of faith with greater frequency because they are no longer blind to the hand of God.

He adds that just as there are laws of nature, there are likewise laws of miracles, which the people of Israel are predisposed to.

May we appreciate the miraculousness of nature and the naturalness of miracles.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israel’s various technology industries. It is becoming natural to see the miracles they are developing.

 

Beneficial Obedience

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/behar-beneficial-obedience/

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Behar

Beneficial Obedience

The ship that will not obey the helm will have to obey the rocks. -English Proverb

hands-generations

 

God gives the law. The expectation is that we will follow it. But He knows us well. He knows we are a stiff-necked people. He knows that we easily give in to our more basic desires. He knows that wealth, power and comfort corrupt us. He knows that poverty, helplessness and distress weaken us. Nonetheless, we are commanded. We are enjoined to obey.

There are a plethora of blessings that are listed for those that follow God’s commandments, just as there is a long list of curses for those that ignore God’s directives.

The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 25:11 highlights a particular facet of obedience. He claims that being obedient assures one that their lineage will continue. There is something about following God’s orders that instills in God a desire to see future generations of such people. On the other hand, the punishment for the disobedient is exile. The disobedient will not be able to enjoy life at home. They will be exiled. They will have to wander the earth, separated from their roots.

May we pay attention to what God wants of us and merit a long lineage in our homeland.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the new government of Israel.

Family Reconciliation

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/behar-family-reconciliation/

Netziv Leviticus: Behar

Family Reconciliation

So much of what is best in us is bound up in our love of family, that it remains the measure of our stability because it measures our sense of loyalty. All other pacts of love or fear derive from it and are modeled upon it.” -Haniel Long

Fights within families are part of human nature. Spouses; children with their parents; siblings – all have their share of altercations. However, sometimes some disagreements are so vitriolic, so hard fought, so anger-inducing that a separation ensues. The separation may be short-lived and the family members reconcile, reunite and family life continues. But other times, the damage is so deep, so hurtful, that only time and distance seems to ease the pain.

The Torah mandates that every fifty years the properties within the land of Israel must revert to their original owners. It is the Jubilee year that is celebrated at the end of a cycle of seven Sabbatical years. The Netziv on Leviticus 25:10 notes that the verse of the Jubilee uses a dual language. It states that each person will return to his inheritance and to his family.

The Netziv explains that this verse is speaking to family members who have grown distant, who have left their ancestors home, who may have differences, who may have traveled to distant lands and foreign shores. It is stating that the Jubilee is an opportunity to return home, to reconcile, to return to ones roots. Not only is it an opportunity, not only is it a right and a privilege – it is an obligation.

May we not have to wait for the Jubilee to return to our proper homes.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the State of Israel on its 66th birthday and to its Uruguayan emissaries. It’s wonderful to celebrate our homeland’s growth and success together.

 

Beware the Jealous

Ohr Hachayim Leviticus: Behar

Beware the Jealous

“The thermometer of success is merely the jealousy of the malcontents.” -Salvador Dali

Since the beginning of the modern State of Israel our neighbors have continuously tried to kill us. More than a century ago Jewish pioneers came to a land of swamps and deserts and with back-breaking sacrifice created a modern miracle of terraforming.

[continued at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/beware-the-jealous/]