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Parashat 05/07/2010

Parashat BeHar-BeChukotai
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Jewish history has had its ups and downs; in fact a substantial majority of our history has been spent in exile from our Land.  I believe that if we look at our two parshiyot we will find the underlying cause of this phenomenon, and its solution.

We begin with our attitude towards the Land.  The beginning of Parashat Behar contains the laws of Shemittah (the Sabbatical year) and Yovel (Jubilee).  Gd is quite direct in expressing the reasons for these laws:  For you are strangers and sojourners with Me in the Land.  The laws of Shemittah require that every seventh year the land must lie fallow.  All fields, which are generally considered private property, must be left unguarded for all to enter and eat what spontaneously grows from the field.  In other words, property rights have their limits.

This concept is taken to another level with the laws of Yovel.  The nation counts 7 Shemittah cycles of 7 years each (that is, 49 years) and the 50th year is the year of the Yovel.  On Yom Kippur the shofar is blown throughout the land, and everyone returns to the ancestral portion allotted to his family upon the conquest of the Land in the days of Joshua.  Gd explicitly states The Land is not to be sold in perpetuity.  In other words, one cannot really buy land in the Land of Israel.  The Land belongs to Gd and was apportioned, using a lottery, in the time of Joshua.  A lottery, in Biblical terms, is not a game of chance; rather it is a way for Gd to make His Will known (see for example the “lottery” that determined who was responsible for the military defeat at Ai shortly after the nation entered the Land, or the one that determined who had violated King Saul’s oath in the book of Samuel).  Apparently, for the maximum growth of individuals and the nation, each family was supposed to be in a specific place.  Over the course of a half-century inequities and distortions occur, and the Yovel is a way of returning to the initial, balanced state.  Again, property rights are limited.

The reward for observing these laws is stated in verse 25:18 – You will live in the Land in security.  I believe the basis of this security is that by observing these laws we put ourselves into an appropriate relationship with the Land, and by extension with the material world in general.  The Hebrew word for one’s ancestral portion of land is achuzah, which has the connotation of grasping or holding on to something.  Now this word offers us a question – who is grasping what?!  We are all familiar with “grasping” people, people who are so attached to material possessions that they cannot let go, and their actions are shaped by their need to hold on.  In fact, they do not grasp the material world – they are firmly grasped by the material world!

The nature of the material world is that it is always changing.  Objects, individuals, civilizations go through cycles of growth and decay.  Nothing in the material world lasts forever.  Therefore if we grasp onto the material world, we will never have security.  The State of Israel has discovered this over the past 62 years; perhaps the US is just beginning to understand.

Perhaps Gd is telling us that if we want security and material blessings, we have to look beyond the material world.  Underlying the material world is the infinite realm of Divinity and holiness.  A couple of weeks ago we were commanded to be a holy nation, a nation whose primary mission is to serve Gd.  What service does Gd need – Gd is infinite and has no needs?!  Yet Gd gives us commandments in order to infuse Divinity into the material world.  As the created universe begins to become more and more integrated, it begins to reflect its infinite source more and more, giving delight to its Creator.  As we grow in holiness – that is, as the infinite value of life becomes more and more infused in our consciousness, we become less and less attached to the changing material world and its vagaries.  This, and this alone, is true security.

Our Sages tell us that exile comes when the laws of Shemittah and Yovel are not observed.  It is a paradox of life that the more tightly we hold onto something, the more likely we are to lose it.  Perhaps this is Gd’s way of reminding us where our true nature and our true home lie.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 5, Mishnah 11

Exile comes to the world for idolatry, forbidden relationships, bloodshed and neglecting Shemittah.

We have discussed above the relationship between exile and neglect of Shemittah (I actually didn’t realize as I wrote that line that the reference was so close at hand).  What about the other 3, which are the three sins which one must suffer martyrdom rather than violate?  I believe the common thread in all these sins is an improper relationship between the individual and the infinite.  Idolatry is assigning independent power to anything other than Gd; therefore it is often described as denial of the fundamental principle of Judaism: the uniqueness and omnipotence of Gd.  Bloodshed denies the divinity inherent in human beings.  Healthy marital relationships nurture growth and development both of the partners and of their offspring; engaging in forbidden relationships stunts this growth and prevents the universe from reflecting its divine origins.  The dislocations resulting from any of these activities makes it impossible for the Land of Israel to sustain its holiness, and it expels its inhabitants.  Once we have, through t’shuvah, re-established a proper relationship between ourselves and Gd, the exile will end, and we will once again enjoy all the blessings of heaven and earth on our Land.