You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Behar.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer
Rabbi Mel Gottlieb
Our Parsha teaches us about the law of Shmita (the seventh year ) and Yoveil (the 50th Jubilee year) which when observed in Israel would teach us to respect nature rather than take advantage of it. It would leave the earth alone for a well deserved rest once every seven years.
It would refrain from overproducing to engage in cutthroat competition, and the cultivation of greed. It would in essence see the world as G-d’s creation, given for everyone’s benefit. Our parsha begins with the verse, ”When you come into the land that I THE LORD HAVE GIVEN TO YOU” (25:2-3). (It does not say the land that YOU have acquired on your own). This is to remind us that it is GIVEN on condition to act ethically. It is a GIFT, thus contingent on our behavior and gratitude carrying out the laws and values of Shmita. The Torah reiterates this in our parsha once more, “For the land is Mine, for you are sojourners and residents with Me” (25:23). We read this idea as well in this week’s study of Pirkei Avot, “One who says, ‘What is mine is mine and what’s yours is yours is the characteristic of a Sodomite (or a mediocre person). One who says, ‘What is mine is yours, and what yours is yours is a pious person (a Chasid)’(Avot ch. 5:10, or 5:13). Our Sages state that the destruction of the first Holy Temple, and the desolation of our land were consequences of the failure of earlier generations to observe and respect the Shmita and Yoveil years. Rashi says that the Babylonian exile lasted for 70 years because the Jews failed to observe 70 Sabbatical (Shmita) years in Israel. Even when the 6th year was abundant, there were some Jews who were still anxious and greedy. They imagined, ‘Maybe next year we can make even more!’
Once the world and its resources are indiscriminately exploited, as if they were made only by and for humans, the godliness that should pertain to the care of nature is replaced by human destruction to satisfy greed. War and desolation, ecological disaster, and perpetual pollution are the result. G-d’s plea to respect nature and observe its laws is today a universal imperative.
It is our faith in Hashem that gives us the peace of mind to know that innate sustenance is a reality if we do not abuse our gifts on this earth. The purpose of this commandment of Shmita is to root the Jewish people in faith and trust in G-d. For it is natural to assume that when the people came to the Holy Land, they would probably occupy themselves with working the land in a natural manner; and when they prospered, they might forget that this is a gift from G-d. They instead may turn away from this realization when they prosper, thinking that it was only their own strength, the might of their hand that produced their wealth; they might erroneously think that the world is conducted purely by their own natural talents, and there is no authority superior to them. Therefore, the Torah commands the people to leave the land uncultivated during the seventh (Shmita) year, and thus the farmer implicitly acknowledges the sole supremacy of God over the land and the loving Providence that is always Present in our world. In this way, the fallacies and illusions of human power are stripped away, and the truth of our partnership with G-d and the mandate to carry out the laws of the Torah for the benefit of all humanity remains.
Moreover, as we observe Shmita the quality of life is tangibly improved through the affording of a breathing space from the bustle of everyday life. The individual recovers from the influence of the mundane at frequent intervals every Shabbat, and what Shabbat achieves for the individual, the Shmita year achieves for the nation as a whole.
The nation as a whole has a need of expressing from time to time the revelation of its own divine light, not suppressed by the cares and toils of everyday life. The temporary suspension of
the normal social routine raises the nation spiritually. A year of solemn rest is essential for both the land and the nation, a year of peace, quiet, and time for spiritual contemplation. At this time there is the cessation of the exercise of private acquisitiveness of our produce, and allowances are made for those who have to repay loans, and ‘ Those Israelites who were impoverished and
sold to work for others must be released and returned to their families in the Jubilee year’ (25:39-43); thus the covetousness of wealth stirred up by commerce is forgotten. Generosity and gratitude for the blessings of G-d over the earth is affirmed.
According to Rav Kook, normal economic conditions, including equality and freedom from oppression, do not constitute the ultimate aim of society, but are merely an essential condition for preventing THE SUPPRESSION OF DIVINE SPIRIT and a means for promoting its moral elevation. The institution of Shmita invested the whole nation with a spirit of forgiveness and repentance, remedied the injustices of the past, and allowed the Light of spirituality to become manifest once more. Thus Shmita was ushered in on the Day of Atonement- Yom Kippur.
So Shmita moves us from Greed and insecurity to faith, from ego to soul and reconnects us to the Light. We fully realize that we never totally control anything, be they slaves, land ,money, etc. Our fight over land as if WE OWN it, rather than appreciating our land and possessions as GIFTS to be appreciated, shared, and celebrated with all who live amongst us is a prime value of Shmita. It is our faith in Hashem that gives us peace of mind; sometimes when we succeed with the land, we think it is only as a result of our hard work and forget the Source, and forget to give gratitude to Hashem. Shmita and Yoveil are reminders of our soul commitments.
At times of chaos and world suffering as we experience today, there is a tendency to lose faith, and rely on ourselves to create security for ourselves and forget that we are all interconnected in G-d’s creation. Our rejuvenation of our faith relies on the power of our soul to imagine meaningful changes that will help renew the force of love in our earth. The resiliency of our soul can always be revivified by our study of Torah, our prayers, our communal energies, our walking in nature. It is our power of faith translated into good deeds that our world needs now more than ever. It is precisely at times of despair when our G-dly natures, our inner souls arise to find the necessary level of depth and strength to turn things around in the human heart, renewing the world of the Jubilee where all of us can share G-d’s bounties together. It is at times when we feel that ‘all hope is lost’ that a deeper sense of HOPE and FAITH can arise.
May we all be renewed with the spirit and power of Shmita/Yoveil and bring a world of peace and jubilation in our time. And let us say Amen!
From Institute For Jewish Spirituality
Of Black Swans and Sabbatical Years
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD,
If you haven’t seen it yet, take a minute to watch the finish from this year’s Kentucky Derby. It’s a sight to behold.
The two leading horses are racing neck-and-neck (literally), jockeying for position (again, literally), as they make the final turn of the one-and-a-quarter-mile track at Churchill Downs. Slowly and then suddenly, Rich Strike, a horse no one even expected to be in the race, comes out of nowhere to win. It’s shocking on every level: Rich Strike had 80-1 odds of winning, the second-highest odds in the history of the 148-year old race. He only became eligible for the Derby a day earlier due to another horse being scratched from the race with 30 seconds to spare before the registration deadline. And then, to top it off, he comes out of nowhere to win the biggest event in horse racing. Someone in Hollywood is surely working on a script already.
The day after the Derby, the writer and climate activist Rebecca Solnit posted a link to the race video on Facebook, calling attention to Rich Strike’s win as a “black swan event.” The term, popularized two decades ago by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, refers to an event that most people assumed simply couldn’t happen—and that, therefore, whole ways of thinking became devoted to assuming it couldn’t happen either. That is, it wasn’t simply an objective question of whether or not something was possible; it was also a psychological question: If my/our worldview depends on the impossibility of this idea, how could I entertain the notion that it might occur? My/our whole world would unravel! So we tend to treat black swan events as not just logical impossibilities; rather, we become emotionally invested in verifying the narrative of their impossibility.
As a climate activist, Solnit encounters this phenomenon a lot. If we read the news, we have good reason to feel like solving the problem of climate change is a black swan. The odds seem increasingly remote that we will keep global temperatures from rising past 2 degrees Celsius. The polar ice sheets are already melting. The invasion of Ukraine isn’t helping. It is totally understandable that a lot of us feel pretty grim about the future. And when we start telling ourselves that narrative, our human tendency toward confirmation bias leads us to reject news that might counter it and embrace news that reinforces it.
But, as Solnit has been doggedly pointing out on her Facebook page for months, there’s a lot of good climate news! Most significantly, advances in battery storage, solar, and wind technology are causing the price of renewables to drop quickly and, correspondingly, their use to increase rapidly. And, while the odds remain quite long, Solnit seems committed to helping the rest of us see the possibility of a black swan. Epicenter and Zandon, the two favorite horses at the Derby this year, had odds of 7-2 and 3-1, respectively. They were the horses racing neck-and-neck to win. The race was playing out precisely the way the math told us it would. Until it didn’t. The lesson for climate? While it’s still a major league longshot, we might, just might, be able to get it together for greener forms of energy to come out of the back of the pack and win the climate derby. (Likewise, Donald Trump was projected as having a 7 percent chance of being elected president in 2016. Black swans don’t take sides; they just describe longshots.)
On the Jewish calendar, we are deep into a Sabbatical year, a year of shemitah. The Torah’s expectations for this year, and for the larger Jubilee cycle in which it occurs, might strike us as fanciful, preposterous even. We are commanded not to farm the land, but only to live off whatever naturally grows. We are expected to forgive debts and release indentured servants. Every 49 years, we are expected to return the land to its ancestral owners. In short, we are, it seems, expected to overthrow the economic table and start anew. It is nothing short of a radical resetting, a recalibration of society.
If this might have seemed difficult to imagine two or three thousand years ago, it feels even more so now. Yet the Torah is not alone in deploying sacred ritual to reconfigure the social order. As David Graeber and David Wengrow demonstrate in their book The Dawn of Everything, societies the world over have done similar things throughout human history. From Native American communities to Neolithic Europe and Mesopotamia and beyond, human beings have shown a remarkable propensity to order our societies in many different ways—and to consciously reorder them when necessary and desirable.
Contra Rousseau, there is no “state of nature,” according to Graeber and Wengrow. Rather, there are innumerable different ways humans have configured social and political life. “If something did go terribly wrong in human history—and given the current state of the world, it’s hard to deny something did,” they write, “then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence, to such a degree that some now feel this particular type of freedom hardly even existed, or was barely exercised, for the greater part of human history.”
That, perhaps, is the greatest challenge we face: that we accept that this is the way things are and will be—whatever that way is. We are so invested in the current scheme of things that we discount the possibility that anything could be otherwise. We lose imagination, we lose freedom, we become fatalists.
The Torah, like other wisdom traditions, invites us to practice a different way of being, the touchstone of which is yetziat mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt. What was is not what must be. What seems inevitable is not destiny. Just because life seems good right now doesn’t mean it’s going to remain that way; just because life looks horrible right now doesn’t mean it will always be so. When we cut ourselves off from the unfolding nature of the world, when we become so invested in a particular way of encountering it, we practice a kind of idolatry, we drive the Divine presence from the world.
Our calling and mission is to do the opposite: to live with mindful presence, aware of the contingency and ongoing becoming of a world which is constantly recreated anew, aware of our interconnection with all other beings, with the earth, with life itself. That is the practice of Shemitah, the practice of Shabbat. It is the practice that enables us to resist our confirmation bias, our fatalism about climate, and to remain open to the possibility—however long a shot it is—that the unexpected might just come about.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Economics of Liberty
The most surprising best-selling book in 2014 was French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century – a dense 700-page-long treatise on economic theory backed by massive statistical research – not the usual stuff of runaway literary successes.
Much of its appeal was the way it documented the phenomenon that is reshaping societies throughout the world: in the current global economy, inequalities are growing apace. In the United States between 1979 and 2013, the top one per cent saw their incomes grow by more than 240 per cent, while the lowest fifth experienced a rise of only 10 per cent. More striking still is the difference in capital income from assets such as housing, stocks and bonds, where the top one per cent have seen a growth of 300 per cent, and the bottom fifth have suffered a fall of 60 per cent. In global terms, the combined wealth of the richest 85 individuals is equal to the total of the poorest 3.5 billion – half the population of the world.
Picketty’s contribution was to show why this has happened. The market economy, he argues, tends to makes us more and less equal at the same time: more equal because it spreads education, knowledge and skills more widely than in the past, but less equal because over time, especially in mature economies, the rate of return on capital tends to outpace the rate of growth of income and output. Those who own capital assets grow richer, faster than those who rely entirely on income from their labour. The increase in inequality is, he says, “potentially threatening to democratic societies and to the values of social justice on which they are based.”
This is the latest chapter in a very old story indeed. Isaiah Berlin made the point that not all values can co-exist – in this case, freedom and equality. You can have one or the other but not both: the more economic freedom, the less equality; the more equality, the less freedom. That was the key conflict of the Cold War era, between capitalism and communism. Communism lost the battle. In the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan in America, Margaret Thatcher in Britain, markets were liberalised, and by the end of the decade the Soviet Union had collapsed. But unfettered economic freedom produces its own discontents, and Picketty’s book is one of several warning signs.
All of this makes the social legislation of parshat Behar a text for our time, because the Torah is profoundly concerned, not just with economics, but with the more fundamental moral and human issues. What kind of society do we seek? What social order best does justice to human dignity and the delicate bonds linking us to one another and to God?
What makes Judaism distinctive is its commitment to both freedom and equality, while at the same time recognising the tension between them. The opening chapters of Genesis describe the consequences of God’s gift to humans of individual freedom. But since we are social animals, we need also collective freedom. Hence the significance of the opening chapters of Shemot, with their characterisation of Egypt as an example of a society that deprives people of liberty, enslaving populations and making the many subject to the will of the few. Time and again the Torah explains its laws as ways of preserving freedom, remembering what it was like, in Egypt, to be deprived of liberty.
The Torah is also committed to the equal dignity of human beings in the image, and under the sovereignty, of God. That quest for equality was not fully realised in the biblical era. There were hierarchies in biblical Israel. Not everyone could be a king; not everyone was a priest. But Judaism had no class system. It had no equivalent of Plato’s division of society into men of gold, silver and bronze, or Aristotle’s belief that some are born to rule, others to be ruled. In the community of the covenant envisaged by the Torah, we are all God’s children, all precious in His sight, each with a contribution to make to the common good.
The fundamental insight of parshat Behar is precisely that restated by Piketty, namely that economic inequalities have a tendency to increase over time, and the result may be a loss of freedom as well. People can become enslaved by a burden of debt. In biblical times this might involve selling yourself literally into slavery as the only way of guaranteeing food and shelter. Families might be forced into selling their land: their ancestral inheritance from the days of Moses. The result would be a society in which, in the course of time, a few would become substantial landowners while many became landless and impoverished.
The Torah’s solution, set out in Behar, is a periodic restoration of people’s fundamental liberties. Every seventh year, debts were to be released and Israelite slaves set free. After seven sabbatical cycles, the Jubilee year was to be a time when, with few exceptions, ancestral land returned to its original owners. The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is engraved with the famous words of the Jubilee command, in the King James translation:
Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.
So relevant does this vision remain that the international movement for debt relief for developing countries by the year 2000 was called Jubilee 2000, an explicit reference to the principles set out in our parsha.
Three things are worth noting about the Torah’s social and economic programme. First, it is more concerned with human freedom than with a narrow focus on economic equality. Losing your land or becoming trapped by debt are a real constraint on freedom. Fundamental to a Jewish understanding of the moral dimension of economics is the idea of independence, “each person under his own vine and fig tree” as the prophet Micah puts it. (Mic. 4:4) We pray in the Grace after Meals, “Do not make us dependent on the gifts or loans of other people … so that we may suffer neither shame nor humiliation.” There is something profoundly degrading in losing your independence and being forced to depend on the goodwill of others. Hence the provisions of Behar are directed not at equality but at restoring people’s capacity to earn their own livelihood as free and independent agents.
Next, it takes this entire system out of the hands of human legislators. It rests on two fundamental ideas about capital and labour. First, the land belongs to God:
“Since the land is Mine, no land shall be sold permanently. You are foreigners and resident aliens as far as I am concerned.”
Second, the same applies to people:
“Because the Israelites are My servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.”
This means that personal and economic liberty are not open to political negotiation. They are inalienable, God-given rights. This is what lay behind John F. Kennedy’s reference in his 1961 Presidential Inaugural, to the “revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought,” namely “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”
Third, it tells us that economics is, and must remain, a discipline that rests on moral foundations. What matters to the Torah is not simply technical indices such as the rate of growth or absolute standards of wealth but the quality and texture of relationships: people’s independence and sense of dignity, the ways in which the system allows people to recover from misfortune, and the extent to which it allows the members of a society to live the truth that “when you eat from the labour of your hands you will be happy and it will be well with you.” (Ps. 128:2)
In no other intellectual area have Jews been so dominant. They have won 41 per cent of Nobel prizes in economics. They developed some of the greatest ideas in the field: David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, John von Neumann’s Game Theory (a development of which gained Professor Robert Aumann a Nobel Prize), Milton Friedman’s monetary theory, Gary Becker’s extension of economic theory to family dynamics, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s theory of behavioural economics, and many others. Not always but often the moral dimension has been evident in their work. There is something impressive, even spiritual, in the fact that Jews have sought to create – down here on earth, not up in heaven in an afterlife – systems that seek to maximise human liberty and creativity. And the foundations lie in our parsha, whose ancient words are inspiring still.
 Thomas Picketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, translation: Arthur Goldhammer, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.
 Isaiah Berlin, ‘Two concepts of liberty,’ in Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969.
 This is the argument set out by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in his book, Development as Freedom, Oxford Paperbacks, 2001.
 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_Nobel_laureates.
“Holy Land and Holy Freedom”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel,
This parsha opens by telling us that it was on Mount Sinai that God gave the command of the shmitta (sabbatical, seventh) year, and the yovel, fiftieth year, mitzvot that have to do with the resting of the land and release of slaves.
The specification of Mount Sinai seems significant. Beyond the major revelations in the book of Shemot, Sinai is rarely mentioned. The book of Bamidbar points to the ‘wilderness (midbar) of Sinai’, but Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) is in that book connected only with the origin of the regular burnt offering (Num 28.6). In Vayikra, the mountain appears by name only a couple of other place, when summing up the sin and guilt offerings (Lev 7.38) and the covenant overall (Lev 26:46). For “Mount Sinai” to appear in connection to Behar, at the outset of the parsha, highlights this set of commandments.
What is the unique significance of the sabbatical years, such that their origin on Mount Sinai should be emphasized? On one level, the Torah may be emphasizing that even though these commandments may be difficult, they are very important. The parsha addresses at length the anxiety that the people might have if they cannot plow and harvest for an entire year, by emphatically reassuring them of God’s blessing. Still, you must still keep these commandments, as they are from Sinai.
But in addition, as we saw in Parshat Kedoshim, God’s “Sabbaths” are mentioned at the beginning of those key instructions on how to be holy. Not just the seventh day but the seventh and fiftieth years are part of a life of holiness. The foundation of our distinctive freedom is the celebration of human dignity and equality associated with our weekly day of rest; and that same dignity and equality before God is embodied in the ways we live on the land that God gave us.
For example, the Jewish people are warned not to sell the land permanently (as it will have to be returned to its original tribal owners in the 50th year), for “the land belongs to Me.” The Jewish people are “strangers and residents with Me.” The land is not part of your personal wealth, but a vehicle for holiness in God’s eyes.
Details are specified as to how the land can be sold and redeemed, with differences between walled cities and open ones – the latter belong to “the land” – and the property of Levites. Clearly, these differences could favor some over others, so the commandment follows: “if your brother falls into poverty, and his hand falters before you, you shall support him, whether he is a stranger or a resident, to live with you.” Here too occurs the prohibition on taking interest from a loan. The demand for holiness is expressed in relationships among the people: each Jew has the responsibility for the life and dignity of every other.
Further, although slavery is permitted, we are forbidden from working a fellow Jew with “slave labor.” We are also instructed to redeem other Jews from slavery to a non-Jew. In this land, one must not countenance slavery as was practiced in Egypt or other ancient nations.
Parshat Behar is saying that, like Shabbat in the realm of time, the Land is a place of freedom in the realm of space: “I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be a God to you.”
Like Shabbat in the realm of time, our relationships must preserve human dignity and equality before God, even when servitude exists: “For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt they shall not be sold as a slave is sold. . . . For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.”
These themes are emphasized by two verses that end the parsha, included even though they come from a new chapter of Vayikra, chapter 26 (which as Parshat Bechukotai goes on to discuss rewards and punishments). This coda forbids idol worship, and then reminds us:
“My Sabbaths you shall keep, and My Holy Place you shall revere. I am the Lord.”
Time and space once again: Times where we embody freedom and dignity. Places where we are all present with God and equal before God. The Mishkan, here referred to as mikdash or sanctified place, is a reminder of our encounter with God on Mount Sinai. And, in the context of Parshat Behar, we understand that the entire land, God’s land, is to be made holy by these commandments from Sinai.
From My Jewish Learning
Elevation or Obstacle?
The mountain in this week’s Torah portion can be a place of spiritual growth or an impediment.
BY RABBI KERRY M. OLITZKY
Several weeks ago, Parashat Tzav‘s titular word (tzav, “command”) served as a precursor to a Torah portion filled with rules and instructions. There are cues in the name of this week’s portion as well. This is fitting, though — the Torah readings are not meant to be viewed as independent entities, but as markers that guide us along our spiritual path. The guideposts keep us on track and in relationship with God, while at the same time helping us feel more in sync with the rhythms of Jewish life.
What is interesting about this week’s Torah portion and its name is that Behar (“on the mountain”) can represent both spiritual enlightenment and elevation (through our personal spiritual journeys) or a monumental obstacle, a place that is just too high to traverse. The title only tells us so much; it does not reveal whether the mountain should be viewed as a place of spiritual growth or an impediment. That is why we have to look beyond the title and examine the text itself, to see what guidance is given. For me, the answer is contained in the juxtaposition of Lev. 25:17 with 26:3ff. And God is the bridge between the two texts.
The Divine directive is clear to us: “Do not wrong one another. But fear God, for I am the Lord, your God.” (Lev. 25:17) And if we follow this instruction (“If you follow My statutes, and observe My instructions, and do them…” [Lev. 26:3]), the rewards are great.
Here is what is in store for us: “Then I will give your rains in their season, and the land will yield her produce, and the trees of the field will yield their fruit. And your threshing shall reach unto the vintage, and the vintage shall reach unto the sowing time; and you will eat your bread until you are satiated and dwell in your land safely. Then I will give peace in the land, and you will lie down, and none will make you afraid. I will cause evil beasts to cease in the land, neither will the sword go through your land. And I will have respect for you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you; and will establish My covenant with you.” (Lev. 26:4-6, 9)
If we wrong one another, we will not reap the benefits that are implicit in living in harmony with the community nor will we achieve what God has promised us. But if we live harmoniously with those in our community, that reward will be augmented by the promise of God–our world will be lush and fruitful and none shall make us afraid and we will have Divine protection.
These are not just guidelines for moral living. Nor are they simply instructions for how to interact with those who live in our midst. They are guidelines for living a spiritual life in the context of a Divine relationship. In that way, they are instructions for insuring–for guaranteeing–a vibrant future.
We need not wait for the world to come as imagined by the Rabbis. Rather we can experience it here on earth, in our own time, if we can learn to live in harmony with one another. The journey to spiritual fulfillment is not easy, and can be fraught with pitfalls–hence the “mountain” in the portion’s title. God’s instructions can seem like obstacles at times. If we can live according to God’s rules, however, we will be rewarded not only materially but spiritually as well.
When we are able to accomplish this task, then the obstacle of the mountain will give way to the mountain as the peak of spiritual ecstasy.
This commentary was provided by special arrangement with Big Tent Judaism.
From Brian Yosef Schacter-Brooks
“When you come into the land that I give to you, the land will rest a Shabbat for the Divine…”
The Torah reading Parshat Behar opens by talking about Shabbat not as a day of rest for people, but as a rest for the land. It says:
Ki tavo’u el ha’aretz asher ani notein lakhem, v’shavta ha’aretz Shabbat laShem- When you come into the land that I give to you, the land will rest a Shabbat for the Divine.
It then goes on to explain what it means for the land to rest:
“Sheish shanim tizra sadekha v’sheish shanim tizmor karmekha v’asafta t’vuatah-
“Six years your will plant your field, prune your vineyard and gather in your produce.
“Uvashana hashvi’it Shabbat shabbaton yiyeh la’aretz-
But the seventh year should be a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the land… don’t plant your field or prune your vineyard…”
Now the Torah doesn’t talk much about vegetables. When it refers to planting fields, it’s mostly talking about grain, and from the grain is made the ancient staple, bread. Pruning vineyards is a reference of course to grapes that are made into wine. Now wine and bread are not only basic foods, they’re also sacramental foods- forming the ritual part of sacred meals on Shabbat and festivals. In fact, the first mention of this is in Bereishit 14:18 when Makitzedek, the priest-king of Shalem, blesses Avraham and brings him bread and wine.
I heard once from a friend a special teaching that he heard from Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach of blessed memory. He pointed out that wine is something that gets better and better with age. You pay more for wine depending on how old it is. Bread, on the other hand, has to be fresh. No one wants a fifty year-old loaf of bread.
Similarly, there’s an aspect of the spiritual path that’s ancient and an aspect that’s fresh and new. For example, the Torah, and really the whole Jewish tradition, is ancient and there’s a special richness in that. And even though there are plenty of passages in the Torah that may seem wrong and even disturbing, that’s offset in a sense by the richness of being connected to a lineage that’s many thousands of years old. And yet, that richness doesn’t really come to life unless it’s combined with fresh, new insights and interpretations. No one wants to hear the same old canonized interpretations over and over again. For the tradition to really live, it also has to be like bread- we need khidushim- new insights.
On a deeper level, the very practice of Presence also contains these two aspects. On one hand, there is nothing more ancient than the present moment. There’s nothing that’s ever existed that didn’t exist in the space of its own present. That’s why one of the names of God is Atik Yomin- the Ancient of Days. And when you become fully present to the ancient space of this moment, there’s an intoxication, as you drink in the wine of the Being.
At the same time, in becoming present to That which is most ancient, there’s also a spontaneous letting go of mental and emotional baggage from the past so that everything in your experience becomes alive and new like a freshly baked challah.
So on this Shabbat B’Har and B’khukotai- the Sabbath of the Mountain and the Decree- may continue to ascend the mountain of transcendence and freedom through both the wine of tradition and the bread of immediacy, bringing that transcendence into the flow of actual life, doing our part to fulfill the decree of tikum olam- transforming this world into a celebration of creation and an expression of love.
From Rabbi Zelig Golden
Love and Rebuke, Shmita and Our New Story – Parhot Be-Har and Be-Hukkotai
In this week’s parsha Be-Har (“on the mountain”) and Be-Hukkotai (“by my decrees”) we are first given the agricultural law of Shmita, a Sabbath for the land. “Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest.” (Lev. 25:2-4). In lieu of working the land, we are told to eat what the land produces without effort, and give freely of the bounty to all who are hungry.
Parsha Be-Har also gives us the Yovel – a complete release of all land ownership and release of all slaves every fifty years. (Lev. 25:8-10). “Seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years… and you shall hallow the fiftieth year…You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” (Lev. 25:8-10).
It’s no coincidence that we are given Shmita and jubilee during this holy time of counting the Omer.
From Passover’s redemptive passage through the narrowly parted sea to Shavuot’s revelatory climb to the top of the expansive holy Mountain, we count forty-nine days, reflecting for one week on each of seven mystical sephirot, refining our spiritual and emotional attributes in preparation for receipt of the Torah.
The “Omer,” literally a Biblical measure of grain, exemplifies the direct correlation of our spiritual refinement to our connection to the land and all that it provides. In recognition of the holy partnership between God, the earth, and humans, it was traditional on Shavuot to offer two loaves of bread at the Temple.
Shmita is the ultimate expression of this divine relationship. The Torah teaches that if we obey the tradition of giving the land its Shabbat, we will live upon the land in security and abundance. (Lev. 25:18-22). The root of Shmita means “release.” Thus, to fully live in abundance, we must let go. Whether literally or in our hearts, we must relinquish ownerships and drop away our materialism. We must let those we enslave go free, including ourselves. Unencumbered, we can then climb the holy mountain of self-reflection and self-discovery, and surrender with faith to the truth of lives. This is the essence of receiving “Torah.”
Shmita provides a powerful paradigm for our people. In this time of ecological uncertainty and global injustice, Jews across the world are stepping toward the task of embracing shmita and the profound values it professes. Our friends and partners at Hazon have created an incredible set of resources that explore the Biblical sources and lineage of thought about shmita. I highly encourage you to explore these invaluable resources at the Shmita Project.
Yigal Deutscher has also articulated a powerful Shmita vision through 7Seeds, which articulates a shmita consciousness that weaves the principles of permaculture, indigenous consciousness, and transition town activism into a holistic system based on ancient Jewish values. As he explains:
These are potent times of transition, from perceived scarcity to revealed abundance, from the age of the individual to the age of the communal…. In this momentum of growth, there is a stirring and rising of the ancient memories planted deep inside us from the wisdom and tales of our early ancestors. In this timeless story, there is a code which lays out the vision for a sacred community that is grounded in abundance, equality, generosity, love, and the ability to have trust in the unknown. This code is held within the shmita cycle.
Yigal explains that shmita is not only about the seventh year. Rather it indicates how we might conduct ourselves during the six years preceding because shmita is a holistic cycle rather than an isolated moment in time. What would it be like if in the sixth year we really could rely on our agricultural systems to feed us with no planting, weeding, and pruning? What would our farms look like? How can the modern art of permaculture support this ancient way? What if we really could live in a gift economy and release our debts in the seventh year? What would it take during the six years preceding shmita to make such a world possible? I encourage you to explore Yigal’s Shmita Manifesto, a beautiful articulation of the potential of shmita for our time and for what I think provides the most potent answers to these questions.
The values of shmita directly relate to the core teachings of Wilderness Torah. Each Passover, for example, we gather in the desert and spend solo time with ourselves in the wilderness. Before we go, we ask the question found in the midrash: “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness of Sinai?” The midrash teaches that unless the people make themselves hefker (“ownerless”) like the wilderness [and yes, just like the food during shmita], they would not be able to attain the wisdom of the Torah.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7). So too, making our food and property hefker like the wilderness provides a powerful key to our personal evolution and the transformation of our fundamental relationships. As Yigal explains in the “Shmita Manifesto”:
To leave land fallow is not simply to pause, or to create a static snapshot in time. It is to allow for a period of transformation and renewal. When we step aside, the land responds, and she does so by expressing her untamed, wild self, recalling a period beyond domestication, beyond civilization…shmita offers us a delicate edge where our two identities, our civilized and wild reflections, can meet and merge together, in union and love.
The Shmita teachings from Be-har, the great vision from atop the mountain you might say, is accompanied by the very real and terse decrees from the companion parsha Be-Hukkotai. There is a stark corollary here where Torah reflects for us that severe consequences may befall us when we fail to remain in right relationship with our world as proscribed by the sacred laws contained in Shmita and Yovel.
If you follow my laws and faithfully observe my commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. (Lev. 26:3-4). … You shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. (Lev. 26:5).
But if you break my covenant … you shall sow seed to no purpose … I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper . . . Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit. (Lev. 26: 15-19).
In very stark terms we are instructed that how we conduct ourselves here on earth has real consequences. This same teaching is echoed with the Shema. The second portion of the Shema takes us directly into the relationship between our conduct and rain. “If you follow My commandment … to love … with all your heart and with all your soul,” the Shema continues, “then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time, the early and the late rains, that you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil” (Deut. 11:13-14). The Shema next explains that if one fails to follow this commandment, then “there will be no rain” (Deut. 11:17).
Is it possible that our love can bring the rain? Is this a mystical truth or are we getting down to earth here? Perhaps the love the Torah points to here is a real practical love. How we eat, what we drive, how we consume – these can all be done with love for the earth and the conduct required to truly exemplify that love. What does that look like? Are we really willing to take a hard look at this?
It has become common practice by some Jewish communities to excise this second paragraph of the Shema, such as the Reconstructionist siddur Kol Haneshama and many Jewish Renewal siddurim. I understand the impulse to reject the harsh, pedantic God voice of Deuteronomy. I want to argue, however, that perhaps this voice is needed more than ever.
Reb Zalman summarized this well when he wrote, “the Earth is in a dire crisis for survival, and we have as yet no means to re-dream our hoped-for story. We have faced an historic turning point: the millennium. There is a need for visioning the future of human spirituality in harmony with our Gaian understanding” (“Renewing God Model,” Tikkun 2001). In order to re-dream our hoped-for story, as Reb Zalman so beautifully invites us to do, we have to get real with the times we are in and the challenges we face.
Be-har and Be-Hukkotai provide critical parts of our cultural map that we must take seriously in creating our new story, a vision that we actually perform on earth that takes the next seven years, seven Shmita cycles, and seven generations truly to heart.
From Wilderness Torah
Shmita: Shabbat for the Land
by Rabbi Zelig Golden
22 Elul 5775 | September 17, 2014
Greetings from Jerusalem!
I have been here nearly two months and after an intense summer, I am grateful for the calm that has returned and the ability to synchronize with the rhythms of life and land. With each passing day, as the moon of the month of Elul wanes, the stinging heat of summer gives way to the cool fall air, and I hear the shofar blast echoing off of the cobble roads of Jerusalem.
The New Year is almost upon us and it’s time to wake up! This Rosh Hoshana is not just any new year, however. Just one week from now, we will light the Rosh Hoshana candles and sound the shofar to welcome the year 5775 and to begin the shmita year – the once-every-seven-year Shabbat for the Land. Around Jerusalem, shmita is the talk of the town.
Commonly translated from the Torah as the “Sabbatical Year,” shmita literally means “release.” The final year of a 7-year calendar cycle, shmita prescribes a cultural paradigm when we rest the land and forgive debts, shifting our cultural systems to foster an equitable, just, and healthy society. As Yigal Deutscher (founder of 7Seeds and Sukkot on the Farm 2014 keynote speaker) explains,
“Shmita is the focal point of Jewish earth-based traditions. More than a calendar year; shmita is primarily a way of being, a blueprint for a sacred, whole-systems culture, one grounded in vibrant, healthy and diverse relations between self, community, ecology, economy, and spirit.”
At the core, shmita calls us to rest the land: “In the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest — a Sabbath to G!d.” (Leviticus 25:4). The Torah explains, “Six years you may sow your land and gather in its produce, but in the seventh year you shall release it and fallow it; the poor of your people shall eat from it, and what they leave over, the field animals shall eat.” (Exodus 23:10-11). Just as we have a day of rest once every seven days, the land, we are instructed, is to have a year of rest every seven years.
My friends all around Jerusalem are preparing to shift gears for the shmita. A whole host of rules and guidelines help us honor this Shabbat of the land. At the core is the prohibition from working the land or harvesting its produce as a commodity — during this year we do not plow, plant, prune, or cultivate. All we can do is allow the land to be just as it is, and to enjoy only the perennial fruits and wild edibles that grow on their own (called sefichin). These fruits, the rabbis teach, possess a heightened level of kedusha, or holiness, because they are taken with the intention of honoring the land during its year of rest. This kedusha sanctifies the harvest so that these foods must be eaten in their natural growing season, and never be wasted.
Furthermore, these harvests are not to be sold in the marketplace, as a commodity. The produce of the seventh year is said to be “ownerless” (hefker) and accessible to all.
As Rambam, the great medieval philosopher and commentator, explains:
“It is a commandment to divest one’s self from everything that the land produces in the seventh year, as Exodus 23:11 states: ‘In the seventh year, you shall leave it untended and unharvested.’ Anyone who locks his vineyard or fences off his agricultural field in the Sabbatical year has nullified a positive commandment.”
During this time, all who are hungry are permitted to walk into the fields and take what they need for this is also a time of taking down fences, sharing with neighbors, equalizing access to the bounty of the land, and opening to the faith that we will all have enough.
Intertwined with resting the land is the impulse to also create a more just society. During this year, the Torah also calls us to forgive debts:
“At the end of seven years, you are to make a release [shmita]… he shall release every loan of his hand, forgiving what he has lent to his neighbor. He is not to oppress his neighbor or his brother, for the Release of G!d has been proclaimed.” (Lev. 15:1-2).
How shmita plays out here in Israel is fascinating. It’s important to note at the outset that the mitzvot (commandments) for shmita technically only apply to the land of Israel and to Jews living on that land. So, while I’ve delved into exciting conversations about shmita as the societal paradigm for sustainability and justice with potent universal values, here in Israel the conversations on the eve of shmita are also necessarily focusing on thetachlis, or details, with questions like:
“Can I harvest tomatoes that were planted prior to Rosh Hoshana?”
“What vegetables are permissible to buy in the shuk (market)?”
“Can I buy vegetables grown by non-Jews living in the land of Israel?”
“What about vegetables grown in a green house or raised beds?”
“Do shmita rules apply to herbs grown in pots in the kitchen?”
The answer to this last question is “no” because potted plants are not rooted in the land itself. Because we Jews have lived mostly unrooted from this land until only a couple of generations ago, the rules and customs that governshmita are a work in progress. So, like the rabbis of the Talmud, there is disagreement about many questions and the rabbis are actively debating and guiding Israeli society on how to navigate modern farming, markets, and a food system.
At least some of the rules are clear. For example, it is plain that shmita fruits and vegetables cannot be sold in the marketplace as usual. So, communities are organizing direct relationships with farms and farmers to receive shmitafood direct from the land. Here in my Jerusalem neighborhood Nachlaot, I will be joining a special shmita food co-op that will observe the letter and spirit of shmita – to learn more about the shmita rules and how this co-op works, check out the Nachlaot Shemitta Co-op website.
Whether we live in Israel or not, shmita provides a powerful paradigm for our people. In this time of ecological uncertainty and global injustice, Jews across the world are stepping toward the task of embracing shmita and the profound values it professes. Our friends and partners at Hazon have created an incredible set of resources that explore the Biblical sources and lineage of thought about shmita. I highly encourage you to explore these invaluable resources at the Shmita Project.
Our very own Yigal Deutscher, one of the driving forces behind the ShmitaProject, has become one of the foremost voices on shmita as a Jewish paradigm for healing the broken threads between individuals, communities, land and the sacred. Yigal’s 7Seeds Project articulates the use of shmitaconsciousness to weave the principles of permaculture, indigenous consciousness, and transition town activism into a holistic system based on ancient Jewish values. As he explains:
“These are potent times of transition, from perceived scarcity to revealed abundance, from the age of the individual to the age of the communal…. In this momentum of growth, there is a stirring and rising of the ancient memories planted deep inside us from the wisdom and tales of our early ancestors. In this timeless story, there is a code which lays out the vision for a sacred community that is grounded in abundance, equality, generosity, love, and the ability to have trust in the unknown. This code is held within theshmita cycle.”
Yigal explains that shmita is not only about the seventh year. Rather it indicates how we might conduct ourselves during the six years preceding because shmita is a holistic cycle rather than an isolated moment in time. What would it be like if in the sixth year we really could rely on our agricultural systems to feed us with no planting, weeding, and pruning? What would our farms look like? How can the modern art of permaculture support this ancient way? What if we really could live in a gift economy and release our debts in the seventh year? What would it take during the six years preceding shmita to make such a world possible? I encourage you to explore Yigal’s “Shmita Manifesto,” a beautiful articulation of the potential of shmitafor our time and for what I think provides the most potent answers to these questions.
The values of shmita directly relate to the core teachings of Wilderness Torah. Each Passover, for example, we gather in the desert and spend solo time with ourselves in the wilderness. Before we go, we ask the question found in the midrash: “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness of Sinai?” The midrash teaches that unless the people make themselves hefker(“ownerless”) like the wilderness [and yes, just like the food during shmita], they would not be able to attain the wisdom of the Torah.” (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7). So too, making our food and property hefker like the wilderness provides a powerful key to our personal evolution and the transformation of our fundamental relationships.
As Yigal explains in the “Shmita Manifesto”:
“To leave land fallow is not simply to pause, or to create a static snapshot in time. It is to allow for a period of transformation and renewal. When we step aside, the land responds, and she does so by expressing her untamed, wild self, recalling a period beyond domestication, beyond civilization…shmita offers us a delicate edge where our two identities, our civilized and wild reflections, can meet and merge together, in union and love.”
In just one week, we welcome shmita. The door is wide open to embrace the ancient wisdom from the Torah and the rabbis. Join us for Sukkot on the Farm as we celebrate the harvest from the previous year and explore shmitaas our central theme, looking toward a different type of harvest in the coming year. Here in Israel, I’ll begin shmita by considering even more deeply where my food comes from and how I can sink into a more natural rhythm. For six days we work and the seventh we rest — so too in this seventh year I want to set the intention that I begin learning how to embrace and embodyshmita. What intention might you set for this shmita year?
With warm regards from Jerusalem, I leave you with the words of Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel (from his seminal work, Shabbat Ha’Aretz(“Sabbath of the Land”)):
“What the Sabbath achieves regarding the individual, the shmitaachieves with regard to the nation as a whole. A year of solemn rest is essential for both the nation and the land, a year of peace and quiet without oppressor and tyrant…it is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards G!d who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness.”
Shana Tova u’Metuka — A Happy and Sweet New Year!
From the Maqam Project
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
Shmitah-Sabbatical year — reading and resources for the next two shabbats and for Shavuot
May 8, 2014
This Shabbat and next, we read about Shmitah, the sabbatical year, first in parshat Behar (Lev 25:1-26:2), and then in parshat Bechukotai (Lev 26:3-27:4). The next Shmitah starts this coming fall on Rosh Hashanah. The following paragraphs about Shmitah are from my book, Ecology and Kabbalah: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World, to be published by Cambridge U Press next fall (hopefully in time for Rosh Hashanah).
If you haven’t already, it’s time to start imagining what you might do to make the Shmitah year special. For anyone planning a Tikkun (Torah study) for Shavuot – see below for great resources to help you incorporate learning and study about Shmitah this Shavuot.
For the first time in modern Jewish history, the Jewish world is becoming focused on the meaning of the Shmitah or Sabbatical year, in advance of the next Shmitah year, which starts Rosh Hashanah 2014. This is a wonderful and wondrous thing, for there is no more radical teaching in the Torah than Shmitah, the sabbatical year of release, and Yovel or Jubilee, the fiftieth year of redemption. Every seventh year in Biblical Israel was to be a Shmitah, a release, a time when the land was not actively farmed, and all debts were canceled. In the Jubilee/Yovel or fiftieth year, after seven Shmitah cycles, the land was redistributed so that each family or clan had a roughly equal share. Also in the Jubilee, any slave who chose not to be freed in his or her own seventh year of service was required to go free.
This system of rest and renewal fulfilled on a grand social scale the ideal of Shabbat. (One might even say that the purpose of Shabbat is to practice for Shmitah.)
Shmitah and Jubilee, along with Shabbat, are fundamentally Earth-centered, and essential elements of any Jewish theology about Nature. Shmitah-Jubilee was directed equally towards creating a right relationship with the land, and towards creating a right relationship between human beings. A society based on Shmitah would also, not incidentally, eschew the excesses and failures of both capitalism and communism. An important link can also be made between Shmitah and permaculture, since the practice of Shmitah would lead people to plant perennial crops and fruit trees, which could still produce food in the seventh year, instead of annual crops that need to be replanted every year.
According to the Torah’s description of Shmitah, the rights of the land take precedence over the rights of people. The land will “enjoy her Sabbaths” (Lev 26:34,43) – even if that means seeing the humans who dwell on her exiled or wiped out. (Lev 26:34,43) Not only that, but the wild animals also have the right in the Shmitah year to forage freely on cultivated lands. (Lev 25:7) With these laws, the Torah is explicitly teaching that our moral frame of reference must extend beyond the human world. It is also suggesting that Shmitah is a kind of return to Eden, where all the creatures shared the same food supply.
In our modern context, it is so easy to forget that the more-than-human world (what we call Nature) should be an area of moral concern, not only from an ecological perspective, but also from the Torah’s perspective. Our human-centered way of looking at things does not account for the preference that the Torah has for the land over humanity. The Torah treats the land as a subject with interests, deserving rewards, and exercising rights. For the Torah is clear – in both the laws of the Jubilee and Shmitah years (Lev 25), and in the consequences that are to befall the people if they do not observe these laws (Lev 26) – that God will take the side of the land of Israel against the Jewish people, if it is necessary to choose.
This is not only the perspective of parshat Behar and Bechukotai. It is also the perspective of the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, which reads, “And it will be, if listening you will listen to my commandments…that I will give the rain of your land.…Watch yourselves, lest your hearts turn astray…and [YHVH] shuts the heavens and there will be no rain…and you will be lost from off the good land that YHVH is giving you.” (Deut 11:13–17) It is easy to read these words as a simple description of how God punishes disobedience, but they are rooted in a deeper reality, in which the commandments revolve around Shabbat and Shmitah.
Ultimately, fundamentally, the Torah is about sustainability, as is clear in the exhortation to “choose life, in order that you will live” (Deut 30:19), and in the conclusion of this part of the Sh’ma: “Set these my words on your heart…in order that you may increase your days and the days of your children upon the face of the ground…like the days of the skies over the land.” (Deut 11:18–21)
This is the land ethic of the Torah, which is congruent even with some of the more radical statements of deep ecology (where the needs of the land come before human needs), and in solidarity with the idea of a land ethic articulated first by Aldo Leopold in 1949. Leopold’s most important proposition is this: human beings as a species are citizens of the land and not rulers over it.
The Torah’s ethic is a natural extension of the connection in Genesis 2 between Adam and adamah (soil, ground, or earth), when God put the human in the garden of Eden “to serve her /l`ovdah”. This is the same idiom the Torah uses for serving God – as in ul`ovdo b’khol l’vav’chem in the second paragraph of the Sh’ma: “and you will serve Him (YHVH your God) with your whole heart” (Deut 11:13) L`ovdah is frequently and incorrectly translated as “to work her”, i.e. to use the land the same way one uses a draught animal. But no one would ever translate the phrase “l`ovdo” to mean “you will work YHVH”. In fact, some midrashim do understand l`ovdah to mean spiritual service (e.g. Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer, ch.12, p.21, where the incongruity of the object of `avodah or service being the garden is sidestepped by imagining that the object of service is Torah).
We can only understand these ideas if we try to understand the meaning of agriculture to the ancient Hebrews. Ploughing and sowing were seen as ways of serving the land; agriculture was meant to be a sacrament. Agriculture that destroys the earth, e.g. the agriculture of Mesopotamia, was seen as violating not only the land itself, but also the very purpose of humanity. Agriculture that sustains the earth, for us and for all creatures, is, in the eyes of the Torah, the highest human service, towards the land and towards its Creator.
The Torah laws that determine our health and humanity as a society are laws dealing with justice in the broadest sense, not only for the poor but also for the land. From the divine perspective, human society, and humanity as a species, only has moral standing when its interests do not conflict with the intrinsic interests attributed to the land, who will “enjoy her Sabbaths”. Even from the perspective of human needs – most especially the need for justice – we must not put on moral blinders that prevent us from empathizing with the community of creatures and the ecosystems that surround us.
The laws of Shmitah teach that the human social order has value or validity only when justice encompasses the land, both as a moral subject and a covenantal partner. What has intrinsic value is not humanity, but justice, which is humanity’s potential. In all cases, the highest ethical priority is given to the land or, in modern terms, to the ecosystem, while all the creatures – even human beings – must find their place and ethical status in the greater context of the land.
– David Seidenberg
(P.S. Rainbow Day this year is May 26th-27th. See for info.)
Shmitah Resources for further learning, divrei Torah (sermons), projects, and more:
, hosted by Hazon and curated by Yigal Deutscher
You will find resources and writings there from Yigal, myself, Arthur Waskow, and others. The burgeoning focus on Shmitah is largely due to the tireless efforts of Yigal and Hazon to Shmitah-awareness to the Jewish community. The site includes an entire Shmitah curriculum.
Here are direct links to two of the pieces I’ve written:
“Shmita: The Purpose of Sinai”, The Huffington Post, May 2, 2013, – a two page essay on the purpose of the Jewish covenant
“Genesis, Covenant, Jubilee, Shmitah and the Land Ethic”, – source sheets with commentary and study guide on the book of Genesis and its relationship to Shmitah.
You can also read Aldo Leopold’s essay “The Land Ethic” at .
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
This week’s portion: creating liberation; Shavuot; and the Jubilee
Posted: 05 May 2014 07:19 AM PDT
This week’s Torah portion, Behar, tells us that when we enter into the land we may farm for six years but the seventh year should be a Shabbat for the land. During that year we should neither sow nor reap; it is a chance for the earth to experience the sacred rest which is part of the structure of creation. The Torah goes further: not only is every seventh year meant to be a shmita (sabbatical) year, but after seven “sevens” of years — 49 years — the 50th year is the Yovel, or “Jubilee,” and that year too is a year of sacred rest.
During the Yovel, all debts are cancelled; those who have gone into indentured servitude are released; and any land transactions which have taken place are annulled so that the land can return to its original owners. Or perhaps I should say, original caretakers — since Torah is clear that the land may be lent to the tribes of Israel, on condition of appropriate behavior thereupon, but it truly belongs to the Holy One of Blessing.
It’s always striking to read these verses during the counting of the Omer. This week’s Torah portion instructs us to count seven “sevens” of years, and to celebrate the 50th year as a time for proclaiming liberty throughout the land. Right now we are counting seven “sevens” of days, and we will celebrate the 50th day as the time of the giving of the Torah. What might the parallel teach us? How is Shavuot like the Jubilee?
In his collection Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber recounts that the rabbi of Kotzk was asked: “Why is Shavuot called ‘the time the Torah was given’ rather than the time we received the Torah?” The Kotzker answered: “The giving took place on one day, but the receiving takes place at all times.” Shavuot is the day when we celebrate God’s gift of Torah — but the reciprocal process of actively receiving Torah is ongoing. The Jubilee year is the year when we celebrate release from our accumulated debts and transactions — but the reciprocal process of actively creating liberation is ongoing.
The sabbatical and Jubilee year teach the importance of emunah, trust and faith. In the ancient world, taking a year off from cultivating food was a profound gesture of emunah. It required a leap of faith in God Who would provide even if we stopped our farming and harvesting. (And if that were true of the sabbatical year, how much more so the Jubilee year.)
My b’nei mitzvah students frequently ask me whether this ever actually happened. Maybe, maybe not. I can offer a variety of rabbinic teachings about the conditions under which we are traditionally considered obligated to follow these teachings. But for me, that’s not the interesting question. I’d rather ask: what spiritual truths can we learn from this week’s Torah portion?
As Shabbat is our weekly reminder to relinquish work and to recognize ourselves as holy and beloved regardless of our job titles, salaries, or accomplishments, the shmita year reminds us that the earth too is holy and beloved regardless of how “valuable” it may be and regardless of how we may usually put it to work for us. And the Yovel year urges us to let go of debts and grudges, to relinquish old angers and outdated paradigms, in order to experience true freedom.
It’s only when we are free that we can choose to enter into a different kind of relationship — the covenant between us and God which we reconsecrate and renew at Shavuot. Slaves to Pharaoh, slaves to overwork, slaves to opinion and custom can’t enter into real relationship with God. But once we are free, then we can choose: not to be enslaved, but to serve. Our purpose in this life is not earning money or seeking fame. It’s serving God through caring for our planet and living in right relationship with each other.
This requires emunah, trust and faith, no less than the temporary cessation of farming did. To proclaim release and liberty — to consciously free ourselves from old paradigms, constricted understandings, the grudges and hatreds we have taken on — requires us to trust that something better is possible. It requires us to believe that there is more to who we are than our accumulated labels. But imagine if each of us could really do that. What new Torah might we be capable of receiving at Shavuot then?
From Rabbi David Ingber
“Shmita: The Purpose of Sinai” (R. David Seidenberg, neohasid.org)
What does Shmita, the Sabbatical year, have to do with Mt. Sinai?
?מה עניין שמיטה אצל הר סיני
This question was famously asked by one of the oldest midrashim, Sifra (Behar 1) and it has been pondered over for centuries. The question arises from the way the portion about the Sabbatical year is introduced in the Torah: “YHVH spoke to Moshe in Mount Sinai saying: Speak to Israel’s children and say unto them: When you come to the land which I give you, the land will rest, a shabbat for YHVH…In the seventh year, it will be the Sabbath of sabbaths for the land, a Sabbath for YHVH.” (Lev. 25:2-4) If all the commandments were given at Sinai, the midrash wonders, why is Mt. Sinai only mentioned here?
And the answer that we can give today is deceptively simple: the whole purpose of the covenant at Sinai is to create a society that observed Shmita. It is in a land where Shmita is observed that human beings will learn to respect the Earth herself, by remembering that none of us can own her. “For the land is mine,” God declares, “and you are strangers and settlers with me.” (Lev. 25:23)
And if none of us can own the land, cannot sell it and buy it, then what we do own is ultimately not ours, then the difference between rich and poor is not “just the way things are,” then a person cannot be owned and the difference between slave and master is not real and not loved by God. In the Sabbatical year debts are canceled, and the land is ownerless. In the seventh sabbatical year, the Jubilee, all slaves are freed (including those who did not exercise their right to go free after the sixth year of their own service) and every family returns to its achuzato, its original landholding, becoming equal to every other family.
Only in such a society, where “property” does not designate the right to use up what one owns, but rather a kind of fleeting relationship to what one cares for, can people learn the true meaning of justice. Only in such a society can people learn to share their wealth, nurture the poor alongside everyone else, relieve debts, end hunger, and respect the fundamental human right to be free. The Sabbatical year was the guarantor and the ultimate fulfillment of the justice that Torah teaches us to practice in everyday life, and it was a justice that embraced not just fellow human beings, but the land and all life. The Sabbatical year was the ultimate meaning of rest, which we practice every week in the observance of shabbat. It was the Sabbath of sabbaths, Shabbat shabbaton.
After telling us outright that Sinai is about Shmita, the Torah also gives us other pointers to Shmita’s ultimate significance.
Failure to let the land rest is one of only two mitzvot that are described as being the cause of exile from the land (the other being idolatry), while the purpose of exile itself is described as a way to force human beings to let the Earth rest. If we do not observe Shmita, still “the land will enjoy her Sabbaths…All the days of her being emptied she will rest what she didn’t rest during your Sabbaths, when you were dwelling on her.” (Lev. 26:34) The Torah is clear: It is possible for us to have shabbat without giving the land rest, but doing shabbat just for ourselves, even just for God, is not enough. Exile happens because the land’s right to rest comes before our rest.
There’s another clue to the importance of Shmita, a more subtle one. During the Shmita year, we are commanded to let the wild animals eat freely from our fields. “The shabbat of the land (what the land grows while it is resting) will be for you for eating: for you and for your servants and hired-workers and for your settler living as a stranger with you, and for your beast, and for the wild animal which is in your land, all of her produce will be for eating.” (Lev. 25:6-7) The rabbis further expanded the meaning of this law, so that everyone was required to leave any gates to their fields open, so that one could not even eat in one’s house food that was not also growing in the fields—so that human beings and wild (and domestic) animals were eating the same food.
Think about the only other time when humans and all the animals ate alongside each other in peace according to the Torah. When, and where, did it happen? It was in the Garden of Eden, before so many tragedies befell humanity. Before the flood. Before the relationship between humans and animals was torn asunder; before humans exiled themselves from the Earth. After the flood, the animals live in mortal terror of human beings. After the flood, God makes a covenant—not with the human beings, but with all the animals—a covenant to not destroy the Earth because of humanity.
It is the Sinai covenant which is meant to bring back into harmony a world twisted by human greed and violence. It is the Sinai covenant that is meant to restore the fellowship of human and animal, and to reorder our values, so that the well-being of the land and the community of life takes precedence over our own perceived needs. This is what it means to “choose life so you may live, you and your seed after you.” (Deut. 30:19) This is what it means to increase your days and your children’s days on the ground for as long as the skies are
over the land.” (Deut. 11:21)
In modern parlance we call it “sustainability,” but that’s just today’s buzzword. It’s called Shmita in the holy tongue, “release”—releasing each other from debts, releasing the land from work, releasing ourselves from our illusions of selfhood into the freedom of living with others and living for the sake of all life.
How is it, then, that our generation is the one that can answer the question, “Mah inyan Shmita etzel Har Sinai? How does Shmita emanate from Mt. Sinai?” It is because it is only now, when we see that human beings can really “ruin My world” and that there may be “no one who will come after you to repair it,” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13) only now can we understand what Shmita means. Only now can we see that the meaning of Mt. Sinai is Shmita. May it be Hashem’s will that we are seeing this in time to fulfill the vision, to “proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all her inhabitants,” (Lev. 25:10) to all those souls traveling together with us on this planet.
From Rav Kook
Behar: Shemitah – Window to the Future
Like the Garden of Eden
Ask any farmer — agricultural labor is hard work. Plowing, planting, weeding, pruning, harvesting, and so on. That, however, is not how it was supposed to be. The world was originally designed to be like life in the Garden of Eden. Agricultural labor was only cursed after Adam’s sin – “By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread” (Gen. 3:19).
As humanity advances morally, however, the earth responds in like measure with sublime blessing. The Talmud in Ketubot 111b foretells that, in the future, cakes and fine clothing will sprout directly from the ground. At that time, even physical labor will take on a nobler, more refined character.
We are granted a glimpse of this future world through the mitzvah of Shemitah, the Sabbatical year. During this year of cessation from all agricultural labor, we are content to partake of the land’s natural produce. Like the tranquil world of the Garden of Eden, we are able to enjoy the earth’s God-given bounty, without toil and labor.
Other aspects of the Garden of Eden are temporarily restored during the sabbatical year. With the prohibition of buying and selling Shemitah produce, economic competition is reduced. Even more: the heart is refined to recognize the common brotherhood of all creatures. We may eat of the earth’s produce only for as long as it is also available to the animals in the field. The Sabbatical and Jubilee years are a taste of a future utopia. They herald the coming of a sublime new world that is the result of a loftier spirituality.
Until then, it is our obligation to elevate agricultural labor from its lowly state. This is accomplished through the holy light found in technology and science. In the future, the Sages tell us, all artisans will leave their crafts and work the land (Yevamot 63a). This does not mean that they will no longer work in their respective professions, but that all crafts and sciences will be used to redeem the earth and its toil from its primordial curse.
This progress in agriculture, however, only redeems mankind. It is only a preparatory stage in the redemption of the entire world. In the final redemption, working the land will not be an obligation, but a privilege and a pleasure. We will pleasantly tour in the Garden of Eden (Eden meaning ‘pleasure’), working and guarding it.
There are future levels even beyond the Garden of Eden. Going past the garden to Eden itself, however, is beyond all prophetic vision; Eden is a realm that transcends all forms of labor and guarding.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 216-217. Adapted from Orot HaKodesh, vol. II, pp. 563-564.)
Torah Reading for Week of May 8-14, 2011
“We are Just Sojourners Here”
By Meredith Cahn, Fifth Year Rabbinic Student
When Hillel asked, “If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” he might have been reflecting on Behar, this week’s Torah portion. Its statements about our responsibilities to our community, to the land and to each other demand such questions. In Lev. 25:23, G-d tells Moses, But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but sojourners dwelling with Me.
Behar reminds us that we do not own the earth; it is not ours to desecrate. We are caretakers who must return it to the original Owner. Every seven years, we let it rest. Every 50 years, we abandon any pretense of ownership. We did not create it. Maybe we fertilized, built fences, irrigated. Whatever you believe about creation, that fact remains: the earth was not put here by us. We are at best partners in stewardship.
Rashi, the 11th century commentator, noted that the phrase ki li ha’aretz-that the land belongs to G-d, reminds us not to look on it with evil (think greed), but treat it well. This treatment is both for the land itself, making sure it can feed the world—and for our families, because Behar also identifies our responsibility to care for family members in need, and our community.
The 20th century commentator Nehama Leibowitz explained that laws of the Jubilee—the 50 year return of ownership—flow from this concept that the land belongs to G-d, to counter our natural acquisitive instincts. She noted that, in Torah, we read “the land that G-d has given us,” not “the land that you have acquired for yourself.”
The realization that we do not own the land heightens the reality that faces many people today: we thought we owned our homes, we thought we could rely on our employers, or our pensions, and what we thought was not so.
Even deeper is the spiritual recognition that we may be sojourners in our own lives. Oftentimes, we try to attain control in our lives, only to watch it crumble. How many of us have relied on our bodies—hearing, backs, kidneys—only to have them fail us? How many of us are watching our loved ones—or ourselves—as memories fail?
Sometimes we laugh: why did I walk into this room? But, too often, we cry, as we watch people lose more of themselves. A congregant I visit has advancing dementia, and I see flashes of frustration when she cannot remember something. Yet she is surrounded by beauty that she appreciates at almost every moment: the vase of cut tulips her son brings her, the tree in full bloom outside her window, the art work she had chosen over the years. And sometimes that is enough.
Another congregant, z”l, had Parkinson’s. On Valentine’s Day, only weeks before his death, he dragged himself from the skilled nursing facility in the retirement community he and his wife lived, and appeared at her door, because he knew where he was supposed to spend Valentine’s Day night: with the love of his life. It broke her heart to send him back, because she could not care for him.
If we do not really own anything, why bother doing anything? What can we do?
We focus on the beauty in our lives. We stand in radical amazement.
We partner with the Divine to do the repair of the world that is our own task.
If we are lucky enough, we show up on Valentine’s Day.
And we recognize the gift that we are allowed to sojourn here at all.
From the American Jewish World Service
Dvar Tzedek > 5771 >
Parshat Behar begins with a bold and challenging mitzvah: “For six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and you may gather in its crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God.”1 Behar describes this sabbatical—or Shmita—as a year when nothing may be planted and any food that grows naturally on the land must be free for all to take.
Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz, an 18th-century Polish-German Talmudist, explains Shmita as a direct challenge to our materialistic tendencies:
How great is this commandment and the idea behind it, that the Israelites know that our days are like a passing shadow over the land, transient like our ancestors… and know that it does not lead to human perfection to occupy oneself acquiring possessions and amassing material things.2
This understanding of Shmita as a guard against materialism, and Shmita’s cycle of six units of work followed by one of rest, reminds us of another “Sabbath”—the one that we observe weekly today. Indeed, Shmita can be viewed as a prolonged Shabbat—and in both cases, the “rest” prescribed by the Torah is not only about taking a break, but about restoring a more just order to society.
Parallel to the Shmita obligations of granting rest to farm workers and allowing the poor to glean freely, with regards to Shabbat the Torah also discusses labor rights, dictating that one’s workers are to be given time off: “The seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God, in it you shall not do any manner of work, neither you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant…”3 In fact, Shabbat and Shmita are so similar in their core values that a midrash discusses whether or not one would even need to observe Shabbat during a Shmita year,4 suggesting that doing so might be redundant.
Several commentators make it clear that these values supersede even the legal prohibitions of the mitzvot. According to the Ramban, business-like behavior violates the Torah’s ideal for Shabbat even if it doesn’t technically violate any melachot, or Shabbat prohibitions. He writes:
We are commanded by Torah to have rest on the holidays, even from matters that are not specifically prohibited forms of work…[If certain technical circumstances were in place, it would be possible] for the marketplace to be full of business transactions, stores open [etc.]… All this would be possible on the holidays and even Shabbat itself, without violation of a single prohibition.5
In other words, even though loopholes would make it technically possible to conduct business on Shabbat, the Ramban understands the Torah to dictate that Shabbat should remain a commerce-free day. Abraham Joshua Heschel offers an explanation for why this pause is so crucial:
Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in our soul… Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.6
According to Heschel, Shabbat provides us with the opportunity to take a break from our materialist selves, from focusing on profit and exploitation of resources—both human and earthly. Outside the Land of Israel, Shabbat can stand in for Shmita as a weekly reminder to focus inward, dwelling on improving ourselves and the world.
The need for such a countermeasure against rampant pursuit of profit is particularly relevant today. Our materialist behavior has had broad and far-reaching consequences. Few of the products we buy are meant to last for any great length of time, filling landfills and increasing pollution levels across the planet. Additionally, in a globalized world, many hands produce the items we purchase, often under slave-like labor conditions. These practices are sustained by our consumer dollars, but often remain hidden from us. In this sense, Shabbat offers a pause from such engagement. For one day a week, at least, we vow not to spend, earn, waste or exploit others or the earth we depend on.
Many Hassidic thinkers understood Shabbat to be a concept whose values can and should infuse the rest of the week.7 In this vein, each day is an opportunity to consider the impact of our purchases in light of the lessons of Shabbat. We can research the labor practices of manufacturers, support companies that are careful about their environmental impact and treat their workers well, and, perhaps most importantly, limit how much we buy altogether. One day a week we are given the gift of Shabbat; let us reciprocate during the other six days by giving the values of Shabbat to the world.
1 Vayikra 25:3-4.
2 Yonatan Eybeschutz, Urim Ve-tumim, Choshen Mishpat 67:1.
3 Shemot 20:9.
4 Mechilta D’Rebbe Yishmael, Mishpatim Masechta D’Kaspa 20.
5 Ramban on Shemot 23:24.
6 Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951. p. 13. I’d like to thank my student, Solomon Wise, for pointing out this source to me.
7 For a discussion of one particular Hassidic master’s thinking on this issue, see: Fishbane, Michael. “Transcendental Consciousness and Stillness in the Mystical Theology of R. Yehuda Arieh Leib of Gur.” Sabbath: Idea, History, Reality. Ed. Gerald L. Blidstein. Beer Sheva: Ben Gurion University of the Negev Press, 2004. pp. 119-129. Available at http://hsf.bgu.ac.il/cjt/files/Shabbat-Book/Shabbath-English-119-130-Fishbane.pdf.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Be’Har
May 14, 2011 – 10 Iyar 5771
By: Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, DHL,
Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Invisible in Our Midst
REPRINT FROM 2005/5765
Torah Reading: Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2
Haftarah Reading: Jeremiah 32:6-27
Toward the end of Parashat Behar, the section of the Torah that we read this coming Shabbat, the Torah speaks of our need to redeem Israelites who, due to their poverty, put themselves into slavery. And these specific commands are quite consistent with the Torah’s commandments elsewhere. God says, “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants. They are My servants, whom I freed from the Land of Egypt, I, the Holy One, your God (Lv 25:55).”
Nothing shocking there: The Torah once again proclaims a teaching noble and uplifting, and consistent with its message of human dignity and freedom for all. What strikes me this year in looking at that passage (found at the very end of the Parashah), is it that it precedes another paragraph that condemns idolatry, a topic that appears to have nothing to do with the topic at hand. If you see an Israelite enslaved, it is your obligation to free that person. Then, without transition, the Torah launches an attack against idolatry, and an insistence on observing the Sabbath: “You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I, the Holy One, am your God. You shall keep my Sabbath, and venerate my Sanctuary. Mine, the Holy One (Lv 26:1-2).”
By itself, the second passage is no more surprising than the first. It is not exactly news that the Torah condemns idolatry, nor that the Torah commands us that we should set aside a sacred time – the Sabbath and the festivals – or that we should create space in which to encounter The Holy One. It is not unique to hear Leviticus tell us those things. But I would like to tweak a Talmudic question: mah etzel herut l’avodah zarah? What is the connection between freedom and idolatry? Why would the Torah place those two concerns adjacent to one another? What’s the link between liberty and false worship? Between freedom and holy spacetime?
Here I believe the Torah is making three points through the juxtaposition, and they are points that I commend to all of us.
The first point the Torah elicits from this juxtaposition, is that if a religious life does not stand on a base of human concern – specifically a concern for other people – then it has no base whatsoever. Notice that the pasuk does not speak about our obligation to liberate ourselves. It is human nature, naturally, to focus on oneself and to make one’s concerns the central and primary object of our own attention. Precisely for that reason, I believe, the Torah insists that the liberation of other people must be our own most pressing concern. Indeed, that concern is the very consequence of God’s having liberated us from slavery. We are summoned as Jews and as human beings to work for the redemption of those who are enslaved, those whose suffering is in our midst; this, both as a reflection of God’s Nature – ani HaShem – and as a consequence of having been brought to freedom, asher hotzeiti otam me-eretz Mitzrayim.
Second Insight: Idolatry is not a matter of simply putting the wrong name to, or associating the wrong image, with the Divine. Idolatry is a matter of missing the Divine entirely, of elevating to worship what is unworthy of our devotion. God’s very nature is radical freedom; a freedom that explodes into space and time; a freedom that liberates slaves, and a freedom that brings people to their promised home. It is easy in Western culture to confuse idolatry with an intellectual or a theological error. You built the wrong structure. You bow to the wrong divinity. You attribute to that divinity the wrong shape or the wrong name. But the God of Israel is not simply a different shape or a different structure. One cannot erect a visual image of God. One cannot, in our tradition, lightly and casually utter God’s name. Instead, our Torah creates a link to remind us that God is beyond all visualization, beyond all representation. Judaism, as a religion, trains us to focus on the invisible, beginning precisely with the person who is invisible in our midst.
In the Talmud, in Tractate Haggigah, we are told a wonderful story. Rebbi and Rabbi Hiyya are journeying, and arrive a certain town and they ask the people in the town, “If there is a rabbinical scholar here, we would pay him a visit to do him and his Torah honor.” The inhabitants of the town say, “There is indeed such a scholar here, but he is blind.” Rabbi Hiyya, always concerned for the dignity of Rebbi’s high office, says, “You stay here. I will go and I will visit that person and I will pay respects on your behalf.” Rebbi refuses to listen, and the Talmud tells us “he bests Rebbe Hiyya” and goes along. When they are finished with their meeting with this blind, anonymous scholar, the unnamed sage gives them a blessing: “You came to pay your respects to one who is seen, but does not see. May you merit to pay your respects to the One who sees, but is not seen.” And Rebbi then turns to Rabbi Hiyya and he says, “Had I listened to you, you would have prevented me from receiving this blessing.”
Attending to the invisible is precisely the job of each of us. An invisible God, invisible people, invisible causes; people whom we choose to make invisible, or we simply overlook. It is precisely from those invisible ones that our blessings are to be derived.
Third Insight: The true worship of the Divine is the institutionalization of freedom, placing our concern for each other at the center of our spiritual life and of rising to a life of service and gratitude. We know that we are worshipping the true source of holiness when there is no wall of separation between the redemption of our brothers and sisters and the marking of sacred time et Shabbtotai tishmeru, and the reverence of sacred space, mikdashai tira’u. The prophets of Israel, I remind you, do not condemn ritual. They condemn any ritual that is divorced from morality; quarantined from inclusion, severed from service.
And they condemn it in the strongest language, as an offense to God.
The Torah and its traditions are tools designed to render the invisible visible in our midst. The God of Israel bids us to see those who are unseen and ignored in our presence so that we may all feast together at God’s table.
Then, and only then, will we fulfill the Torah’s mandate of redeeming the captive.
Then, and only then, will we refrain from making ourselves into idols of stone.
Then, and only then, will we truly observe Sabbath, of rest and wholeness.
Only then, will God’s sanctuary be rebuilt.
“Ani Adonai – I God.” We will find God only when we are able to see each Ani – each individual – who stands before us as an eruption of God into the world.
That is our task. And this is my charge to you.
Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
The Earth belongs to God
by Avraham ben Yaakov
The two portions of BEHAR and BECHUKOSAI (which in many years are read on the same Sabbath), put the seal on the book of Leviticus, which together with the latter part of Exodus covers all the laws given to the people of Israel in the Covenant at Mount Sinai. The book of Numbers then tells the story of the people’s journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land of Israel, while in Deuteronomy, as they stood poised to enter the Land, Moses reviewed all the laws of the Covenant.
The Earth belongs to God
The theme of the portion of BEHAR is property and ownership, particularly the ownership of land, which provides us not only with our living space but with all the food and other resources we consume.
Today well over half of humanity are crammed into great urban agglomerations, and the majority have little or no connection with the farmlands that produce their food. BEHAR invites us to consider a very different world of Israelite small farm-owners, who are at perfect liberty to plant, tend and harvest their crops for six years, but are commanded to cease all agricultural labor in the seventh “Sabbatical” year, forcing them to trust in God to bless their endeavors and provide their needs. To a person who may feel he can barely survive when he does till his land, it is no mean challenge to be told that for one year out of every seven he may not even do this!
The law of the Sabbatical year comes to teach the farmer that even if sees himself as the “owner” of the land he farms, ultimately the land does not really belong to him but to the One who is the Owner of Everything. God gives the Israelite farmer license to work the land for six years, but revokes this license every seventh year to impress upon us that even with all the efforts we have to make to feed and sustain ourselves, we are always dependent on God to bless these efforts and provide us with our needs.
Humans have a natural tendency to believe that “it is my power and the strength of my hand that provides me with this prosperity” (Deuteronomy 8:17), and this belief is usually coupled with the urge to acquire ever more material wealth, as if this can give security. But the lesson of the Sabbatical year is that security comes not from human efforts alone but through God’s blessing. For: “The earth and its fullness belong to God; the world, and those who dwell in it” (Psalms 24:1).
“Hear this, all you peoples; give ear, all you inhabitants of the world… rich and poor together… As to those who trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches: no man can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him… Even wise men die, the foolish and brutish perish together, and leave their wealth to others. Their inward thought is that their houses shall continue for ever and their dwelling-places to all generations; they call their lands after their own names . But man does not remain in honor; he is like the beasts that perish” (Psalms 49:2-3; 7-8; 11-13).
Humans “call their lands after their own names”, but the Sabbatical year comes to remind us that we are not the real owners, and in the end the land reverts to its true Owner.
The laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years contained in BEHAR apply only to Israelites in the Land of Israel. They are not part of the Noahide code of Torah law, and gentiles are under no obligation to cease agricultural work on their own land in these years. However, just as the annual cycle of the festivals of Israel have significance not only for the people of Israel but for all the nations (as discussed in the Torah for the Nations commentary on EMOR ), so too Israel’s observance of the Sabbatical cycles carries a message for all humanity.
The futile race for wealth
Most of the world today is caught up in a race for ever greater prosperity, and thus the worst possible “illness” is thought to be economic recession, when the gross domestic product of countries enters into decline, with the result that people literally become poorer. Yet the greater humanity’s efforts to get wealthier, the more they seem to be frustrated by a succession of natural and other calamities that belie the assumption that “it is my power and the strength of my hand that provides me with this prosperity”.
Approximately 40% of the world’s agricultural land is now seriously degraded. Between 1950 and 1984, the so-called “Green Revolution” lead to a 250% increase in world grain production, but much of this gain is non-sustainable, and there are signs that not only are new technologies reaching their peak of assistance but they may now be contributing to soil contamination and the decline of arable land. Severe drought is plaguing countries in the Horn of Africa, Middle East, Central Asia, Central America and Australia. With the steady exhaustion of food resources, over-drafting of groundwater, wars, internal struggles and economic failure, famine is a worldwide problem causing widespread destitution, malnutrition and heightened mortality. Leading experts on agricultural commodities foresee “mass starvation” in the event of a major North American crop failure.
One of the most startling signs that the earth itself is “rebelling” against humanity’s unceasing and unthinking quest for ever greater prosperity is the mysterious collapse in the global population of the humble honeybees, which are required for the pollination of flowering plants and which pollinate 90% of commercial crops worldwide, including most fruits and vegetables, nuts, sunflowers, coffee, soy beans, cattle feed and even cotton. The last four years have seen the death of billions of honeybees world wide, and scientists are no nearer to knowing what is causing the catastrophic fall in numbers.
Reb Sholom Brodt
LIBERATION and FREEDOM
Shabbat, Shmittah, Eretz Yisrael, Torah and The People of Israel
One can say that there is a very deep common thread that runs through the various mitzvot and concepts that we find in this week’s double parsha: Behar and Bechukotai. Immediately in the opening verses of parshat Behar we see that Mount Sinai, Shabbat and Shmittah [the Sabbatical year] are all mentionned together. How are they all connected?
Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, when you come to the land that I am giving to you, the land shall rest a Shabbos for Hashem. For six years you shall plant your field and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and you shall harvest its produce. But the seventh year shall be a Shabbos of rest for the land, a Shabbos for Hashem, you shall not plant your field and you shall not prune your vineyard… It shall be a year of complete rest for the land.” (Lev. 25:1-5)
The human being is always in some kind of state of servitude. Yet it is possible to be truly ‘free’. To be truly free we must be connected the only One who is completely free- Hashem blessed be He. Paradoxically, we have to accept upon ourselves the “yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven” to be free. The holy Zohar teaches that so long as we are ‘enslaved’ to another or to anything else, Hashem’s liberating yoke cannot rest upon us. The Sfas Emes adds that in order to experience Hashem’s liberating yoke, we first have to enslaved to something else. Before becoming a free people we were first enslaved in Egypt-Mitzrayim. Before bonding with Hashem we are subjugated under the ‘nefesh habahamis’ and the ‘yetzer hara’ – the animal soul and the evil inclination. Before receiving the holy and blessed Shabbos we work for six days. Before the year of rest for the land- before the Shabbos of the land, it is worked and forced to produce for six years.
Initially at the beginning of Creation, the earth willingly provided all of man’s needs for sustenance. After the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the earth would no longer give forth its produce without man’s sweat and toil. Rav Sholom Schwadran zt”l explains that the mitzvah of the Sabbatical year is an opportunity to live an entire year and be provided for without toil, just as it was in the Garden of Eden.
You shall fulfill My statutes and keep My laws and fulfill them, and you will then live in the land in security. The land will give forth its fruit and you will eat your fill, and you will live securely on it. If you shall say (ask) “What will we eat in the seventh year, for lo! we have not planted nor gathered our produce?” I shall command (direct) My blessing to you in the sixth year and it will produce [enough] for three years. You shall plant in the eighth year but you will still be eating from the old produce until the ninth year; until the [new] produce arrives (ripens) you shall eat [from] the old. (Vayikra 25:18-22)
It is true that to survive in this world we must work. Without a doubt, to work and earn an honest living is a virtuous honor. However as we all know we are easily and all too often enslaved by our work, to the point that we begin to think that our livelihood is completely dependent on our work and prowess, and we forget about Hashem. We forget that our very existence at each moment is coming from Hashem. Yes we plough and we plant and we harvest, but it is Hashem who is making it happen at each moment.
Clearly, this mitzvah allows us to be liberated from our enslavement to our mundane perceptions of reality. This mitzvah educates us to get back in touch with the true and only Source of Life, just as Shabbos does. Shabbos for an entire year, free to spend all our time serving Hashem, uninterrupted by the physical realities of this world. An entire year back in Gan Eden. Amen keyn yehi ratzon.
When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall rest a sabbath unto G-d (25:2)
Taken on its own, this verse seems to imply that “a sabbath unto G-d” is to be observed immediately upon entering the Land. But in practice, when the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel they first worked the land for six years, and only then observed the seventh year as the shmittah (sabbatical year)–as, indeed, the Torah clearly instructs in following verses.
The Torah is telling us that a shmittah is to both precede and follow our six years of labor: to follow it on the calendar, but to also precede it—if not in actuality, then conceptually.
We find a similar duality in regard to the weekly seven-day cycle. The weekly Shabbat has a twofold role: a) It is the day “from which all successive days are blessed”–the source of material and spiritual sustenance for the week to follow. b) It is the “culmination” of the week–the day on which the week’s labors efforts are harvested and sublimated, and their inner, spiritual significance is realized and brought to light.
But if every week must have a Shabbat to “bless” it, what about the week of creation itself? In actuality, G-d began His creation of existence–including the creation of time–on Sunday, which is therefore called the “First Day.” But our sages tell us that there was a primordial Shabbat which preceded creation–a Shabbat existing not in time but in the mind of G-d as a vision of a completed and perfected world.
Therein lies an important lesson in how we are to approach the mundane involvements of life. True, we begin with the material, for in a world governed by cause and effect, the means inevitably precede the end. But what is first in actuality need not be first in mind. In mind and consciousness, the end must precede the means, for without a clear vision of their purpose to guide them, the means may begin to see themselves as the end.
The spiritual harvest of a Shabbat or shmittah can be only achieved after a “work-week” of dealing with the material world and developing its resources. But it must be preceded and predicated upon “a sabbath unto G-d” that occupies the fore of our consciousness and pervades our every deed.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
You shall not defraud one another (25:14)
Legally, it is only forbidden to defraud one’s fellow. But a Chassid must go beyond the letter of the law, and take care not to delude himself, either.
(Rabbi Bunim of Peshischah)
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(In the Mountain)
LEVITICUS 25:1 – 26:2
Behar extends the meaning of Shabbat by legislating the Shemitah, a resting year for the Land every seventh year. The land is to lie fallow, released from cultivation. After seven times seven years, a Jubilee Year is proclaimed in the fiftieth year. At the time of the Jubilee, slaves are freed and property reverts to its original owner. The laws of Jubilee are instituted to correct the drastic inequality of rich and poor.
AFTER EVERY SEVEN YEARS, Behar tells us, the earth itself shall celebrate Shabbat. The land remembers its freedom. And the year after seven times seven years there shall be a proclamation of Freedom. Everyone goes home. Slaves go free. The rigid separations of class and wealth are softened and dissolved. The rich and the poor meet again and remember that they are equal.
The blessing of Behar is the lesson that the process of accumulating wealth and of owning property is all an elaborate game. God reminds us, “The land is Mine; it always has been and always will be. You are just passing through.” The Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee are God’s way of insuring that this game doesn’t get out of hand, that we play fair, that no one suffers too much for our ambition, that we remember that it is supposed to be fun.
WHEN THE LAND RESTS, we get to hear its voice. We get to experience its wild restless beauty beneath the surface of our cultivation. When we stop looking at the earth asking what-can-it-do-for-me-how-can-I-use-it? and instead open ourselves to its essential nature, we can begin to know the land and hear its voice. When we hear its voice, we can respond and become responsible stewards. As we respond, the earth becomes responsive to us in return, pouring forth its mystery and abundance.
The blessing of Behar is the promise that when we keep these sacred rhythms, we are granted safety, security, a sense of being at home.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
THE SECURITY THAT WE ARE PROMISED contains a spiritual challenge. The word in Hebrew is la-betach, which means “security,” “safety,” or “trust.”
So often we try to build a sense of security by acquiring possessions. Our search for security often becomes an impossible drama of “never enough.” As we acquire more wealth, nicer clothes, better computers, bigger homes, more knowledge – security continues to elude us. We are conditioned to become consumers as insecurity pushes us to acquire MORE.
Behar teaches us about a different kind of security that comes not from having, but from forging a deep relationship. During the seventh year when we let the land lie fallow and the earth experiences Shabbat, it celebrates its freedom. When the earth is no longer enslaved by our obsession for MORE, then we can truly come into relationship with her. We step into mutuality and trust is born.
ONCE WE HAVE HEARD THE VOICE OF THE LAND we will never be the same, even when we begin to play the game of possessions again. Once there is that flash of self-awareness that this is a game and all that we see is really God-in-disguise, our playing will be transformed.
And perhaps once, maybe twice in a lifetime, at the time of the Jubilee, all masks, all roles will for a time, fall away. Then we will know that we are loved by God not for the role we play or the work we do, or the knowledge or things we have acquired, but for our true essence alone. Knowing this allows us to see and love each other in the same essential way.
The Jubilee strips us down and teaches us the pure joy of existence. Behar challenges us and asks, “Are you ready to sound the shofar and call forth the consciousness of Jubilee? Are you ready to let go of everything and return to your true home in God?”
For Guideline for Practice please click link to website.
From Melissa Carpenter
Owners and Gleaners
You shall not sell the land permanently, because the land belongs to Me; for you are sojourners and resident aliens with Me. (Leviticus 25:23, Behar)
geirim = strangers, newcomers, immigrants, or converts to Judaism
toshavim = temporary settlers, resident aliens
When you buy or inherit a piece of land, does it become yours forever? Not necessarily. In most nations today, the government can condemn your land and seize it by the process of eminent domain. Yet many families succeed in hanging onto their property for generations, doing whatever they please with it.
The Torah has a different take on land ownership. Last week’s Torah portion, Emor, was concerned mostly with priests and holy days, but in 23:22 it repeated the ethical law given in 19:9: Don’t harvest the corners of your fields, and don’t gather the gleanings of your harvest; leave them for the poor and the geir (the new immigrant).
This week’s Torah portion, Behar, hands down more rules from God about owning land in Canaan, primarily farmland. Every seven years, landowners must leave their land fallow for a year. During that time, anyone can eat what grows on it naturally. The owners may not bar access to any human or beast. Also, landowners may not sell nor hoard the produce during that year; like everyone else, they may take only what they can eat.
Every 50th year is the yovel or jubilee year, when any land that was purchased during the last 49 years reverts to the family that owned it originally. Since land cannot be sold permanently, the purchaser is really leasing the land for a certain number of years of crops—however many years are left until the next yovel year.
Does that mean that the only true owners are the “original” families that were given land when the Israelites conquered Canaan, and get the same lands back every 50 years? No. The Torah says that all land belongs to God.
If everyone who “owns” land is actually borrowing it from God, landowners cannot do whatever they please. Every year they have to follow the divine rule about leaving some of the harvest in the field for poor people and newcomers to glean. Today we might say that developers should set aside some land for public parks and buildings, and farm owners should participate food bank programs.
And every seven years the people who “own” land must leave farmland fallow for everyone to eat from, instead of selling the produce. Today we might say that homeowners should plant native plants to support wild fauna, instead of lawns whose maintenance poisons the environment; and that agribusiness owners should switch to sustainable practices that will help keep the whole earth healthy.
And every fifty years all landowners must restore God’s original arrangements for the land. In Canaan, this meant reverting to the allocations handed down by Moses and Joshua to tribes and families. Today, we might restore more of nature’s arrangements for the land. We might remember that all human beings are merely newcomers on God’s land. We live here on sufferance. Even if we plant seeds, we can’t make them grow. Even if we genetically modify the seeds, we can’t bring them to life. We depend on nature, which we call God’s creation—because it certainly isn’t ours.
If only we could remember that we are all gleaners, harvesting our food from land that does not really belong to us! Then we might treat the earth and its vegetation with more respect.
CARETAKER (BEHAR) 2007
Six days you may visit
to pick sugar snap peas
to burnish your fingers
with basil and dill
to strip string beans
from their leggy bushes
and choose radishes
to stash in your bag.
But on the seventh
let the land rest:
the chattering chickens
and drowsy sunflowers
the garlic hanging
fragrant in the rafters
even the earthworms
Keep them in trust
and let them keep you.
From Rabbi Lawrence Kushner
From his Book, Five Cities of Refuge
What does the Sabbatical year have to do with Mount Sinai? The vast majority of the Torah’s other paragraphs simply commence, ” And God spoke to Moses…” but this one–which goes on to give the details of the sabbatical year–adds the obvious location, ” on Mount Sinai”. Everthing was told by God to Moses on Mount Sinai–why specify here the Sabbatical year?
According to the thirteenth-century Kabbalistic text Sefer ha Temunah, a sabbatical year refers not to a year of fallow, but to a seven-thousand- year aeon. Our present universe is but one in a sequence of such sabbatical aeons. And, at the conclusion of the seven-times-seven sequence, they will all culminate in a fifty-thousand- year jubilee, when the whole of Creation returns to the womb–named teshuva or , according to later Kabbalists, nothingness.
Each universe is constructed according to a different dimension of God. First there was an aeon built on unrestricted loving. Following our present universe, there will be one assembled from mercy and forgiveness. In each universe, the Torah itself only makes sense according to the mode of its present aeon. Now, alas, we are in a universe of strict judgment. Our world and our Torah are cluttered with prohibitions, restrictions, and punishments.
In other words,of all the things God gave Moses, on Mount Sinai, God gave the possibility of refracting Torah itself through one seven-thousand-year-long lens after another.
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