Behar-Behukotai: One More Double Parsha Before Shavu’ot

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Behar opens with discussion of the laws of shemittah, referring to it as a Shabbat la-Shem, a phrase we might casually take to mean “a Sabbath to Gd.”

Shemittah a Sabbath? To Gd?

Onkelos 25;2 translates the Torah’s references to the year as a shabbat, both in its verb and noun forms (ve-shavetah ha-aretz, the Land shall shavat, or Shabbat la-Shem) with a version of shamot, relinquish (its productivity). Elsewhere in the Torah he renders the verb with Aramaic words such as nehaya, rest, or shabbata, cessation, so he is doing something different here.

When the Torah refers to it as a shemittah (Devarim 15;1 and 31;10, for example), Onkelos also uses the root of shamot.. From the Torah itself, we might get the impression of multiple qualities to the year, some about shemittah, some about Shabbat, where Onkelos folds it all together.

Rashi disagrees. To explain how a year could be a Shabbat la-Shem, for Gd, he says in Gd’s Name, as is true of the weekly Shabbat. Whatever the legal niceties of the year, the Torah wants us to remember it is meant to be dedicated to Gd.

Shemittah and the Course of History

Ramban sees a deeper link between the two. Based on Torat Kohanim, which says the Torah used the word Shabbat specifically to draw our attention to their connection, Ramban says the two reflect a pattern Gd embedded in creation by creating the world in six days and desisting on the seventh. That seventh (day or year) is a time to step back from ordinary involvements, and consider/anticipate a future that focuses more clearly and fully on Gd’s service.

The faith elements of shemittah, its role in declaring Jews’ belief in a future world where Gd’s Presence and role in the physical workings of the world are much clearer, are the reason 26;34 warns of exile as the punishment for failing to observe shemittah. Lack of observance of shemittah is tantamount to denying the underlying principle of how Gd created the world, Ramban says (a whole mouthful when applied to other lacks in observance).

In his view, the necessity of belief in Gd’s creating the world is that only that belief leads to accepting Gd has control over the course of history and the power to bring a World to Come. By observing shemittah, Jews make clear their acceptance of these basic beliefs.

The idea also explains why Yirmiyahu 34;13-14 predicts exile for Jews of his time because they held onto their avadim Ivriyyim, their Jewish indentured servants, longer than the seven years the Torah allowed. It is another seven year cycle, another reminder of the metaphysics of the world. Rejecting it, too, denies important propositions about how the world works.

Hard to Keep

Two comments by Rashi show the Jews of history did not manage to absorb any of the messages of shemittah, the metaphysical ones of Ramban or the ordinary comparisons to Shabbat (or not) of Onkelos and Rashi. Rashi says the Torah says yovel, the fiftieth Jubilee year, is the year after seven cycles of shemittah to forestall what the Jews would have done, leave the land fallow for seven years and then ignore shemittah the next forty-two. Ten verses later, the Torah promises that if the Jews keep the mitzvot, they will reside securely in the Land.

Rashi points out the implication, failure to observe shemittah leads to exile (an idea slightly more explicit in Behukotai, 26;34, where the Torah says the Land will enjoy its Sabbath years during the Jews’ exile). He throws in a calculation the Gemara made, the first exile for lasted seventy years to make up for seventy shemittot they neglected. It assumes the Jews did not observe even one shemittah, were certain from the outset—and never questioned it—that shemittah was too hard to keep. (And that Gd waited almost five hundred years before punishing them!).

The verse in Behukotai shows us this is a joint idea of the two parashiyyot, shemittah as a version of Shabbat. Observing it matters to Jews’ right to stay in Israel, perhaps because of faith commitments it expresses, Jews’ belief in Gd’s control of and role in history.

Giving Life a Chance to Change

At the yovel we just mentioned, sales of ancestral lands revert to the original owner, and can therefore be bought back by the original owner at any point, as long as he pays off the rest of the purchase price, pro-rated for the number of years left until yovel. Sales of homes within walled cities follow a different rule, have a year to be redeemed and then become the permanent property of the new owner. The Torah describes the time period as yamim, 25;29. Rashi reminds us the Torah used the same word for the amount of time Rivkah’s family suggested she stay before going to marry Yitzhak (Bereshit 24;55).

In both cases, Onkelos translated the word as idan be-idan, time to time. It suggests an idea of the year coming around again, that when it hits the same point as the previous year, that’s when we know it is time to move on. On this time around, events are this way, Rivkah is too young to leave, the house must be sold. By the next time the world hits this configuration of the sun and earth, life will either have changed (so they have reason to keep Rivkah home or the house can be bought back), or the planned future goes on.

The Levi’im and the Connection to the Land

The Levi’im have different rules, 25;32 telling us they have ge’ulat olam, a permanent right to buy back what they sell. Yovel works for them as well, so all their sales will revert to the original owner then. Arachin 33a assumes the verse refers to where one Levi sold property to another, an idea Ramban thinks tells us the Torah and Gemara thought Levi’im were supposed to sell to closer relatives first. It explains to Ramban why Yirmiyahu’s cousin Hanamel comes to him to purchase land, 32;7, and the story in Rut 4 about Boaz convincing the closer relative to let him buy it.

That’s true of all Jews, suggesting an element to land ownership I am not sure we always stop to realize. I have heard yovel and land redemption explained as social justice issues, ways to help avoid permanent or widening gaps of wealth in society. The person forced to sell ancestral lands will get them back, a sort of new start, every fifty years.

Ramban’s explanation of why the Torah singles out Levi’im to demonstrate the Torah’s preference for selling to relatives tells us this is also about retaining the tribal quality of land ownership. Ramban says we might have thought Levi’im had less right than others to sell their land, because the land was less specifically theirs. Where Gd gave the Land to the other tribes, each of whose members had an individual right to his land, the Levi’im only received whole cities. We might have thought no individual Levi was a full enough owner to be allowed to sell. He even suggests they in fact were not allowed to sell to non-Levi’im, to keep those cities in the tribe.

Strangers Among Us

In the context of redemptions, the Torah discusses where Jews or non-Jews might need to sell themselves, as indentured servants or slaves, even to a non-Jew. In laying out the possibilities and the various rules, the Torah refers to an array of types of non-Jews we might encounter in Israel. 25;45 speaks of the toshavim ha-garim, the residents who reside among you. Onkelos writes arlaya, the uncircumcised, an idea he inserts again two verses later, where the Torah refers to ger ve-toshav as someone who might purchase a Jewish slave.

[Interestingly, in 25;35, the Torah also uses the phrase ger ve-toshav when referring to non-Jewish poor the Jews are supposed to support. There, Onkelos writes yedor ve-totav, one who lives and resides, leaving out the uncircumcised part. I think it most likely he didn’t think it wasn’t crucial to the description there, only to the question in the later verses, of buying slaves and/or being alert to redeem Jews who have been forced to sell themselves to non-Jews.]

Where Onkelos seems to have lack of circumcision as the marker of a non-Jew in Israel, Rashi to 25;35 says a toshav is one who has agreed not to worship any power other than Gd but still eats nevelot, non-kosher meat. (Onkelos and Rashi were explaining different words, ger for Onkelos, toshav for Rashi, so it is not a contradiction. In addition, Onkelos gives no positive quality to explain what allows the non-Jew in.)

Onkelos does tell us what would lead some of them to come to Israel. 25;47 imagines a ger toshav would purchase a Jew, or an eker mishpahat ger, for Onkelos an Armai mi-zar’it giyora, an Aramean (his generic word for a non-Jew), the relative of a convert.  It suggests converts retained ties to their old family (an interesting assumption, considering Onkelos was himself a ger), strong enough for those family members to move to (or perhaps remain in) Israel and be part of the society, including buying Jews for slavery.

The Influence of Non-Jews

The next chapter points out a downside, in Rashi’s view. The Torah warns against taking on idols, a catchall for any object of worship other than Gd, 26;1. Rashi says it comes here to remind the Jew sold to a non-Jew s/he may not adopt the non-Jew’s ways, not idolatry or Sabbath desecration (26;2’s warning) or anything else.

Ramban agrees with Rashi, cites Torat Kohanim with the warning to remain separate from the owner in those ways. Ramban notes the second verse also commands Mikdashi tira’u, to retain awe for the Temple. Ramban thinks it tells us the slave must find ways to visit the Temple on major holidays, like any other Jew. It is the Torah’s way to say the Jew must continue his positive ways of connecting with Gd, despite his slavery, let alone not violate any prohibitions.

Onkelos brings up the idea of non-Jews’ influence on Jews when Gd reminds us of having taken us out of Egypt, broken the staves of our yokes, freed us to walk upright (Onkelos says be-heruta, in freedom, unpacking the metaphor). For the yoke, he writes nir amemaya, the yoke of the nations, although the verse was clearly talking about Gd’s freeing the Jews from Egyptian slavery. Onkelos put in amemaya, I suggest, to stress the Jewish people’s truest freedom comes when they are immune to the pressure of other nations.

The idea provides an apt lead-in to the issues of the tochachah, the warnings of what will happen should the Jewish people fail to listen to Gd. Prior to that, the Torah has made clear our interactions with non-Jews are one easy place to fall away from proper service of Gd. Even as masters, where we might have thought their oppression would stop Jews from thinking to take on their ways, the Torah knows the danger, knows we can end up admiring them and seeking to be like them.

When the World Goes Well

Before reminding us what Gd had done for the Jews in Egypt, the beginning of Behukotai promised all sorts of goods, starting in 26;4 with Gd giving the rain at the right time. Ramban says it comes first because timely rain balances the atmosphere, clears and improves the air, springs and rivers flow properly, and the improved environment enhances health generally—there’s plenty of fruit, people find themselves healthy and well, there will be no or fewer fertility and miscarriage issues. It all starts with rain.

He is so certain of the interconnections, he reads the Torah’s saying the land will produce its yevul, its produce, means more than specific crops, it means the whole ecology. The earth will function well, for people, for animals, for plants. When the Jews act well, such that Gd “can” bring rain at its right time, the entire system flourishes.

A specific example comes in the next verse, 26;5 says ve-hisig lachem dayish et batzir, there will be so much grain to thresh, it will last all the way to the vine harvest. As Nefesh Ha-Ger and Oteh Or pointed out (and ArtScroll did us the favor of finding), Onkelos usually translates the verb as to catch, which would have worked fine in this verse. Instead, he writes vi-ara, the grain-threshing will encounter the wine harvest, emphasizing how sudden or surprising it will be. The blessing lies in the amount of grain and the experience, being caught up in absorbing one blessing before another already comes along.

Ramban isn’t done with his spiritual ecology lesson, however. In 26;6, the Torah says Gd will remove evil animals from the land, an idea R. Shim’on in Torat Kohanim thinks means Gd will remove the evil from the animals, where they will no longer hurt humans, as was true in the Garden of Eden. Berachot 33a has a similar idea, sin kills, not serpents. Ramban thinks this and verses in Yeshayahu mean animals were originally herbivorous, learned to eat other animals only when people sinned.

The apex of people acting well and its benefits comes in 26;11, where Gd promises or predicts the Divine Presence will reside among the people. Ramban points out all of the blessings to this point were phrased as being about the land of Israel, because the land is shaped by the Jewish people’s actions.  (He means Israel isn’t rainy or not, hot or cold, or any other weather adjective; it all depends on the Jewish people and the status of their relationship with Gd).

His sense of Israel as non-natural shapes his view of certain individuals and the nation as our religious success grows. The more people observe Gd’s Torah, the less susceptible they are to the vagaries of what we call nature. Right now, those righteous people who live blessed lives without many cares seem to be coincidences, especially since some evil people also live those kinds of lives.

For Ramban, as the level of national goodness grows, and the blessings become more regular, everyone will concede it is not natural, Gd’s miracles will become clearer and more open.  (A thought experiment: is Israel’s start-up success a matter of Jewish ingenuity, or is there an element of Divine assistance to it?) He assumes the point will come when Jews, singly and as a nation, will not need to pay attention to Nature, will have abundance and health non-naturally.

The Way Down

After blessings come the warning. Should the Jewish people leave Gd, punishment will come. Rashi points out 26;14-15 lays out seven sins on the way to the destruction, sins Rashi understands the verses to mean feed each other, one leading to the next: not learning, not performing mitzvot, being disgusted by others’ observance, hating the Sages, preventing others from obeying Gd, denying the mitzvot, denying the One.

In failure to learn, Rashi includes learning in order to find the derivations of laws. He might have meant only that derivations are necessary to know a law fully, know how to apply it to a novel circumstance. I suspect he meant more, the learning leads to observance both by having the technical knowledge as well as because if we are invested in something, we are more likely to try to bring it to fruition. Learning the system, its sources and workings, will strengthen observance, I think he might have meant.

The issue of derivations also explains the link to hating when others observe halakhah, Gd forbidthen hating the Sages (ditto). When others act in ways we find incomprehensible, we are likely to be put off by it. Our ignorance leads us to judge others as foolish, and then to dismiss the whole system (including, Gd forbid, the One) as untrue.

Blessing Within the Curse, the Key to Breaking the Curse

Among the punishments that then come, 26;32, Gd says I will render the land desolate. Rashi points out a hidden blessing, non-Jews will not find a way to settle the land. Usually, if a people is exiled, others come to live there. Gd will make it untrue for Israel, which lay largely desolate until Jews started coming back there. (According to Wikipedia, between 1890 and 1948, the Jewish population of Israel increased almost fifteen fold, and the overall population quadrupled.)

Another blessing in the curse comes in 26;36, Gd will bring morekh to the hearts of the Jews in exile. Onkelos translates it tavra, brokenness, a verb he uses again five verses later when the Torah speaks of how the Jews might appease Gd for their sins, by having their hearts yikana, submit to Gd. For Onkelos, brokenness seems the first step to submission, to being willing to follow Gd’s Will than whatever one decided was one’s own will. Per Onkelos, Gd will have already given us that brokenness, through the experience of exile, if only we can channel it in the right direction.

Behar-Behukotai, this time around, opens with a particularly hard observance, one highlighting the Jewish people’s connection to the Land, a land where they will have interactions with non-Jews, positive and negative, and will have the chance to do well and live above Nature, or do the opposite, suffering the consequences and, if they/we are wise enough, see the openings within those to fight our way back to Gd.

About Gidon Rothstein

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