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Parshiyyot BeHar-BeChukotai 5778 — 05/12/2018

Parshiyyot BeHar-BeChukotai 5778 — 05/12/2018

BeHar: Vayikra 25:1-26:2
Bechukotai: Vayikra 26:3-27:34

Our two parshiyyot are generally read together during non-leap years, but they have themes that appear quite different. I would like to try to relate what seem like quite disparate questions on the two.

Parashat Behar starts out with the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years (the English word Jubilee comes from the Hebrew yovel). The Sabbatical year, as the name suggests, comes once every seven years. The land must lie fallow, and everything that grows by itself must be left for any person or animal (domestic or wild) to eat. Virtually all agricultural work is prohibited, which means that virtually everybody in the agrarian Israelite society rested for a year.

The Jubilee Year was the 50th year following a cycle of seven Sabbatical cycles of seven years each (7 x 7 = 49, and the 50th year was the Jubilee). The Jubilee year has all the restrictions of the Sabbatical year, plus additional laws, primarily laws that push a kind of social “reset” button: All ancestral land that had been sold returns to its original owner (i.e. the family to which it was assigned after the conquest of the Land under Joshua’s leadership), and all Hebrew indentured servants go free to return to their families (even those who had refused to leave after their 6-year term and were supposed to serve “forever”).

Abarbanel finds various symbols in these laws for the cycles of 7 and 7 x 7, cycles of nature (7 days in a week) and cycles of human life (“… the days of a man’s life are 70 years…” – Ps 90). He also notes that these laws hint at the fundamental impermanence of physical creation. He traces the root of the word yovel to yivleh / “to deteriorate, rot,” and concludes that it indicates that just as Gd created the world from nothing, He could just as well return it to nothing at any point. This is borne out in our liturgy in the phrase He renews in His goodness every day the work of Creation. How can we understand this?

We learn from Kabbalah that, in fact, Gd is all that there is. Gd is unbounded and eternal, beyond time and space, beyond creation. Gd, as it were, then “contracts” Himself to “leave space” for the bounded, finite, temporal values of creation. Another way of describing this process is that Gd “hides” his essential nature (“hides His Face”) so that it appears as if there is a separation between Gd and creation. In fact, however, both these explanations indicate that the entirety of creation is nothing other than the virtual, internal dynamics of Gd. As the Rabbis say, Gd is the place of the world; the world is not the place of Gd. In order for there to be the appearance of creation, it takes a constant act of Will on Gd’s part. Were Gd to cease to will the world into being even for a moment, it would simply cease to exist, for it is nothing other than an expression of Gd’s Will.

The Sabbatical and Jubilee year laws bring the relative efficacy of our own actions into sharp focus. All of our plowing and planting, sowing and reaping, buying and selling, ceases. Yet existence continues. It is like the story of the scientist who tells Gd that science has figured out how to make life from dirt. Gd asks for a demonstration. The scientist bends down and scoops up some dirt. Gd says, “Oh no – get your own dirt!”  Or, in the words of the Psalmist: The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein. The Sabbatical and Jubilee laws remind us that although we must act in the world, we and our actions are actually just part of the great cosmic drama that takes place within Gd. We dare not arrogate to ourselves ownership of action nor of its fruits.

Now turning to BeChukotai, the parashah introduces the tochachah, rebuke, with a promise of material prosperity if we follow Gd’s commandments. It would seem that Torah would need to tell us of the sublime spiritual rewards of doing Gd’s Will. As usual, Abarbanel reviews several approaches of the commentators who preceded him. His own view is that material rewards accrue to the community as a whole, if the behavior of the community warrants them. That is why these verses are stated in the plural. For the individual, however, the rewards of the mitzvot are indeed spiritual, as our Sages tell us: The mitzvot were not given to us for personal enjoyment.

I’d like to look at one of the explanations that Abarbanel quotes, that of Rabbeinu Nissim (14th century, Catalonia). Rabbeinu Nissim points out that physical rewards are an outer expression of Divine Providence, that is, Gd’s overseeing of the affairs of human beings, and the world as a whole. We understand Gd to be transcendental to the world, and we understand that the transcendent, being beyond boundaries, is also beyond time, space and change. How then can Gd interact with this world that He created?  Nevertheless, by adjusting His action in the world to ours, He makes it apparent that He does interact with the sublunary realms.

Based on our discussion above, perhaps we can get a better understanding of Divine Providence. Gd is not actually separate from the world. The world exists within Gd. Only in our finite state of mind we perceive ourselves and creation as separate from Gd, and it is only in this state of consciousness that the issue of whether Gd acts in creation or not arises. From Gd’s perspective, He is all that there is, and whatever He does, He does within His own nature. Our job is to grow to the point where we realize this truth and live it.  The commandments of the Torah, each in its own way, are our teachers.

Commentary by Steve Sufian

The main thing that we can learn from this parshah is to schedule regular periods of rest into our lives and schedule deeper, longer rest also regularly: just as we are to rest every seventh day and the land is to rest every seventh year.

Behar” means “on the mountain”, literally, Mt. Sinai; symbolically, that level of our awareness when we are able to hear Gd and to express Gd’s Will in our actions in our familiar everyday world.

Also, since Rabbinic tradition derives “Sinai” from “sin-ah”, “hatred”, a reference to the hatred of other nations for the Jews who received the Word of Gd, we might see Mt. Sinai as being the mountain of hatred, above which is Gd, freeing the mountain, Moses, and through Torah given to Moses, all of us.

Hatred comes from fear which comes from restrictions and the suffering that goes with living life at a level less than we feel we need, deserve. But contact with Gd, through attunement, through rest, loosens the restrictions, opens the awareness to fuller happiness and ability, and dissolves fear and hatred. The Sabbath and the Sabbatical Year are examples of means to gain this rest and to gain the experience that brings trust and releases doubt and fear.

Bechukotai” means “By My Decrees.”

In Behar-Bechukotai, the double parshah, Gd declares that land belongs to Him and cannot be sold permanently. And just as every 7th day, by Gd’s Decrees, we must rest from work, so also every seventh year, the land must rest.

In this parshah, Gd tells Moses about the Sabbatical year: every seventh year, no work is to be done on a field and the produce is free for anyone to take: human or animal.  Lev 25: 21. Gd says that in the sixth year, He will bless the land so that it produces enough for three years, and, thus have not only enough for the sixth year, but for the seventh and the eighth also.

Symbolically, the Sabbatical can mean that when we are fully attuned to Gd, our work is easy, and the benefits of it do not feel hard-earned but like Gifts from Gd, Gifts that we can share freely, KNOWING that Gd is our Shepherd, we shall not want. So the Sabbath is not only every seventh year, or day, but the all-time reality of our life; each moment Gd is giving us rest, each moment is bearing fruit for itself and for the future.

And the seventh Sabbatical, the 49th year, all work ceases, all indentured servants are set free.

Just as the land belongs to Gd, so does everyone and everything, including servants.

Symbolically, this can mean that the restrictions we place on the freedom of our thoughts and feelings to flow into action – restrictions that come from, for example, from our choice of professions, daily routines, residence – the restrictions are released and we can live life freely in the confidence that Gd is blessing our thoughts and feelings, renewing our lives.

Interestingly, when we look at the cortex of the brain, the grey matter, we see it has six layers and below the cortex is white matter. We can look at this as a concrete basis, symbolizing the six days in which Gd created/revealed the separation between Heaven (the subtle) and Earth (the gross); the seventh is the day of rest. Similarly, in terms of years, and in terms of seven times seven years – each group of six is a subtler level of the cortex and of the affairs of the physiology and of our lives governed by that level; each seventh is, similarly, a transcendence within the layer to a more restful level of functioning.

So it seems to be that Torah is built into our physiology, our physiology is built of Torah, and by attuning ourself to Torah, we attune every aspect of our personality to Gd and Gd’s Creation–we become capable of loving Gd with “all our heart, all our soul, all our might” and we become capable of loving not only “our neighbor as our self” but also all of Gd’s Creation–land, crops, animals, mountains.

Torah and the various aspects of Rabbinical Guidance (Talmud and Siddur, for example) and our healthy life style create the routines and intuition that can return us to full knowledge of the Oneness that is Gd and We Combined, of the Oneness that is Pure Oneness, of our Self that is Pure Love, capable of Loving Itself and our neighbor, all Creation, as our Self.

Baruch HaShem