Monday, May 18, 2009


Following is a drash I gave on parashah Behar-B'hukkotai at shul on Saturday. I'm happy enough with it, but I don't think it's especially original or insightful: these portions of the Torah are the ones that are hardest to relate to contemporary life in the diaspora, so in wrestling with this one I took on the relatively conventional question of just plain making sense of the text. I don't think I've answered in any way the question of how to relate the text to contemporary life.

22 Iyar 5769 (16 May 2009)

There are a couple of ways in which this should really be Rex’s drash: for one, it’s his bar mitzvah portion; and for another, parashah Behar is about land tenure, which is his specialty. However, having called him in at the last minute to take over one drash already this year, I had better do this one myself. But of course on some level this is the academic parashah, since it’s all about the sabbatical. Not that I’m senior enough to know what that is like. As a Jewish academic, I would say that at least we can take some credit for originating the idea, but as it turns out part of the point of this portion is that that credit doesn’t actually belong to us.

As usual, there are a number of different themes in Behar-B’hukkotai, and the fact that this is a double parashah (sometimes these two are read separately, depending on the number of Shabbats in a year) makes it even less coherent than average for the last two books of the Torah. As we know, the divisions of the parashiyot are occasionally somewhat arbitrary, and they’re certainly man-made; it was Maimonides who divided the Torah in this way during the twelfth century. But we tend to assume the Rambam knew what he was doing; and we know that we’re called to find some meaning in each parashah nonetheless.

So I’d like to start with something that hit me during my first reading of this portion, before I got into the commentaries and definitions and whatnot, and that is that Behar-B’hukkotai, taken together, are a reminder of the way in which the seven days of creation left their stamp on the shape of the world that followed, from the eighth day onward. The beginning of the portion contains the laws of sabbatical and jubilee, in which the agricultural land of Israel must be allowed to lie fallow every seventh year, and after seven of these cycles, the fiftieth year is declared a jubilee, in which land which has been alienated by sale or debt is to be restored to its original holders, and in which the contracts of debt-slavery are annulled. But the sevens don’t stop there: later in B’hukkotai, God lays out the rewards of observation of the law, and the punishments for not doing so. The list of punishments is much longer than the list of rewards, and over and over we hear that God will increase our punishment sevenfold in proportion to our disobedience.

The cycle of sabbatical and jubilee years seems like the ultimate reverberation of the act of creation through human time. The parallel between Shabbat and the sabbatical year should be obvious; to make it even more so, the Etz Hayim translation says “You shall count seven weeks of years,” meaning seven times seven years, before the jubilee. The seven-day rhythm of Shabbat is reiterated through longer and longer cycles of time, so that a sevenfold multiplication becomes the very standard by which multiplication is measured, even by the hand of God meting out punishment. It occurs to me that the jubilee, which happens every fifty years, is the largest sevenfold multiple of time that will comfortably fit into the span of a human life (which can also be measured in these terms: remember that the allotment of threescore years and ten, as numbered in the Psalms, is the same as ten sabbatical cycles). It makes me wonder, as a historian, whether there are larger sevenfold divisions of time that we’re not hearing about, because the span of human memory is too short to perceive them. Part of the debate about how literally to take the Biblical account of the timespan of Creation is sometimes resolved by suggesting that the days of the first week were longer than the days we experience today. Behar seems to suggest that the whole span of time is divided according to the days of the first week, and that these cycles of seven may multiply into geologic time.

There are three main themes in this parashah. The first is the division of time into sabbatical and jubilee, with its implications for land use and tenure. The second is the redemption of the debts of the poor and the manumission of debt-slavery. And the third is the price for redeeming offerings made to the sanctuary. As in much of the book of Leviticus, these themes are punctuated by several irruptive asides detailing the rewards of obedience and the punishments for disobedience, framed in terms of agricultural fertility, peace, and victory in war.

The laws of sabbatical and jubilee, plus the material on the redemption of slaves, are often taken together as a progressive model of political economy, designed to keep the land from being exhausted from overuse, to keep wealth from becoming concentrated in the hands of a landlord class (thus introducing a widening gap between rich and poor), and to keep families from becoming permanently enslaved by insuperable debt, while encouraging tzedakah, or charity, on the part of those who can help those less fortunate than themselves. It is true that these seem to be the intended effects of the system laid out in parashah Behar, but they are not sufficient to explain it. In general, instrumental explanations of this kind are unsatisfactory for explaining the forms of culture. The laws of kashrut cannot be explained with any thoroughness as a system of food hygiene, any more than the sabbatical and the jubilee can be explained as a proto-socialist model of political economy. To do so confuses cause and effect.

To complicate this further, most readers take the land-use provisions of the cycle of sabbatical and jubilee to refer only to the land of Israel, such that Rashi, for instance, counts the seventy years from the Babylonian captivity to the completed rebuilding of the Temple (586-516 BCE) as making up for seventy sabbatical and jubilee years that had not been properly observed. The punishments of B’hukkotai suggest that exile from the land of Israel is not only punishment for the children of Israel, but is also meant to allow the land its sabbaticals after all. It’s not entirely clear what this means to Jews living in the diaspora, especially when we may not necessarily consider this a form of exile.

Oddly enough, it is the third theme of Behar-B’hukkotai that helps offer some insight into the meaning of these linked parashiyot. The material on the price of redemption of things dedicated to the sanctuary seems like an odd coda to the story of sabbatical and debt-slavery. It is meant as a guide for those who choose to dedicate a person, or a piece of land, or an animal, to the sanctuary; apparently the actual practice was to give the value of the thing dedicated to the temple, rather than the thing itself. It is essentially a list of prices. But the list contains a particular set of stipulations, reminding the reader that firstlings, first-fruits, and tithes cannot be consecrated to the sanctuary in this way, because they already belong to God. In other words, we are reminded, it is not meaningful to dedicate as a freewill offering that which you already owe (a firstborn son, a tithe of grain). In other words, the commitments made by human beings cannot supersede those established by God.

Once you notice this, you realize that it is a thread that runs through the entire parashah: the idea that the contracts, the covenants of God supersede those made by humankind. The lesson of the jubilee, for example, is that the rights to land are established by God, and may not be changed permanently by human acts. Lev. 25:16 says quite explicitly that what you sell when you sell agricultural land is not the land itself, but a number of harvests, and so the price must be prorated according to the number of years until the jubilee. Similarly, Lev. 25:23: “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine: you are but strangers resident with Me.”

Later, we are reminded that slavery cannot be permanent, at least for the children of Israel (and there are some rather uncomfortable implications to the clear indication that other peoples than ourselves may be permanently enslaved, bought and sold as property). Again, Lev. 25:55: “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God.” We cannot serve a human master when we are already and forever the servants of a divine one. Over and over in this parashah, we are reminded that God’s covenants with the children of Israel come first, and cannot be altered by human action.

Ultimately, this also makes sense of the stange interpolation of rewards and punishments that intervene several times in this parashah, which otherwise seem somewhat arbitrary. The moral problem of reward and punishment is a big one, since we do observe that bad things happen, as they say, to good people; and as a result the list of rewards and punishments, which echoes the version from Deuteronomy that we recite at the end of the Sh’ma, is troubling. We read that obedience will mean that God will cause timely rain to fall for our crops, that our harvests will be rich, humans and animals fertile, times peaceful, and armies victorious. The list of punishments is considerably longer, ranging through pestilence, starvation, cannibalism, and exile from the land. Yet in real experience, we regularly see virtue unrewarded and evil unpunished. It’s a major ethical problem for which a variety of solutions have been proposed over the years, from those who suggest that the reward for obedience will be given in the world to come, to those who maintain that the shape given to our lives by the observation of mitzvot is its own reward.

But note what happens at the end of all these punishments. The people confess their wrongdoing and atone for their sins. They perform the act of teshuva, of return; and God remembers his covenant. Lev. 26:44: “Yet even then, when they are inthe land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling my covenant with them: for I the Lord am their God. I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God: I, the Lord.” As with the counting of the jubilee year, this is a reminder that the covenants of God cannot be changed or altered by the actions of humankind; and ultimately it is this which protects us.

As human beings, we have free will. We have the power to change the world; at our best, to repair the world, to work for justice. But we don’t have the power to break God’s covenants with his creation, including the land itself, but also including ourselves. And so finally, this explains all the sevens scattered through the text. As we sang during Shachrit: V’shamru b’nei Israel et ha-Shabbat; la’asot et ha-Shabbat l’dorotam b’rit olam. “The people Israel shall observe Shabbat, to maintain it as an everlasting covenant through all generations.” God’s covenant with us shapes time itself, and echoes far beyond the limitations of the week.

Shabbat shalom.

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