Parashat Behar-Behukotai
May 8, 2021 | 26 Iyar 5781
Torah: Leviticus 25:1-27:34; Triennial 25:39-26:46
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14
In this week's Torah Sparks, you'll find a D'var Torah on the Parashah by Ilana Kurshan called "The Wheel of Fortune". Vered Hollander-Goldfarb poses questions titled "A Shabbat of The Land, a Shabbat to The LORD." And Bex Stern Rosenblatt writes about "Blessings in Curses" in the Haftarah.
The Wheel of Fortune
Ilana Kurshan

Parashat Behar begins by juxtaposing the laws of the sabbatical and Jubilee years with the laws governing the way we treat the poor in our society. First the Torah teaches that every seven years, during the Shemitah year, the land must be allowed to lie fallow as a “Sabbath to the Lord” (25:4). Next we are told that every fifty years, during the Jubilee, all land must be returned to its original owners. The parashah then moves on to teach that if a “kinsman” or “brother” is in dire financial straits, we are obligated to let that individual live by our side without charging interest or taking advantage of that person’s penury. Taken together, these verses have much to teach us about how the cyclical nature of life impacts the way we relate to those less fortunate.
Why do the laws governing the treatment of the poor follow on the heels of the laws governing the cycle of the years? Perhaps an answer can be found in the Torah’s justification for the Jubilee. God tells Moses that the land may not be sold in perpetuity “for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (25:23). That is, all land belongs ultimately to God, and we are merely temporary custodians. But what is true of land is true of all other property as well. Nothing that is ours is guaranteed to be ours in perpetuity. When we find ourselves comfortable and well-off, we need to remember that no one stays in the same place forever. The only constant in life is change, and we who are blessed with success and good fortune may find, in time, that the tables are turned. We are commanded to reach out to help our fellow individuals in need because, as the cycle of the sabbatical and Jubilee years reminds us, what goes around comes around. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Torah uses the term “aḣicha”—your brother—to refer to individuals down on their luck and in need of assistance. They are related to us because we are closer than we might like to think – as the wheel of fortune turns, they could just as easily be in our situation, and we in theirs. 
The Talmud captures this notion of the mutability of fortune in a series of stories about charity that appear in the opening chapter of tractate Bava Batra (11a). In one such tale we are introduced to Binyamin the righteous, as he is known, who was responsible for dispensing charity funds to the needy. Once, during a time of drought and privation, a woman came before him and asked him to support her. He told her that there was no money left in the charity fund, but she would not relent. She said to him, “My master, if you do not support me, a woman and her seven sons will die.” Binyamin the righteous—true to his name—arose and supported her from his own private funds. With time, the Talmud goes on to relate, Binyamin the righteous fell gravely ill. Just when he was on the verge of death, the ministering angels pleaded with God to sustain him by the merit of his generosity to the woman and her seven sons, and indeed, he was rewarded with an extra twenty-two years. In this story, he who was in a position to act graciously to others later found himself in dire need. By the merit of his munificence, his own life was sustained.
Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 29 of a man “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” who later declares that he would “scorn to change my state with kings.” In a world governed by a God who “lifts the needy from the ash heap” and “seats them with princes” (Psalms 113:7-8), we who have been brought low can just as easily be lifted up, and vice versa. It is a humbling lesson, as it reminds us that we ought not to relate to those less fortunate with pity but with empathy.
We all know people who seem worthy of our pity – a kid who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the class, a single mother struggling to raise a difficult child, a widow pained by loneliness. The challenge is to relate to these people with the cognizance that all of us, at some point in life, may find ourselves in a similar situation. We ought not to feel sorry for those who are struggling and suffering, but rather to remind ourselves of what it felt like when we were in their position. We must be kind to the stranger because, as the Torah reminds us, we were strangers ourselves.
The juxtaposition of the laws of the Shemitah cycle and the laws about the impoverished kinsman remind us that at some point or another, we will all need someone else to reach out a kind hand and help us up – whether financially, emotionally, or socially. For as long as our field is flourishing, may we learn, in this spirit, to share our fruit and our fortune.
A Shabbat of The Land, a Shabbat to The LORD
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

Text: Vayikra 25:1-7

2Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Shabbat to the LORD. 3For six years you shall sow your field, and… prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, 4but in the seventh year there shall be an absolute Shabbat of the land, a Shabbat to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5You shall not reap what grows …. It shall be a year of absolute Shabbat for the land…. 6The Shabbat of the land shall provide food for you: for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, 7and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.

  • Reading carefully, how is this Shabbat observed? In what ways does it parallel the day of Shabbat?
  • This year is referred to as the “Shemitah” year in another passage of Torah. The term “Shemitah” literally means “release,” or “letting go.” How does that term help us understand the year? Why do you think that it is not the term used in this passage?
  • What do you think is the purpose of the Shemitah (Shabbat) year? Try to think of everyone affected by its laws.
  • While many are affected by Shemitah, who is the Torah addressing? Why?
  • Note the actions forbidden to perform during the Shabbat year: no working of the land, yet everyone may eat what grows. How does this stress the message of the year?
Commentary: Shadal Vayikra 25:7

The year of Shemitah is to remind that the land belongs to Him who is Blessed, and it is from His hand that it is [given] to us, and we are sojourners … and [therefore] we will not boast of our wealth, for all is from His hand. And behold, every seven years the land returns to is owner, the LORD, therefore it is called “a Shabbat to the LORD”, and its harvest is to the rich and to the poor alike, to the sojourner and to the native… and also to the domestic animals and the beasts, for all are equal before Him.

  • How do you think that Shemitah teaches the message that Shadal finds in it?
  • The upcoming Jewish year will be a Shemitah year. While the detailed laws do not affect most of us, how would you propose marking the year in light of the Vayikra and Shadal sources?
Blessings in Curses
Bex Stern Rosenblatt

Prophetic texts aren’t usually proponents of moral ambiguity. There is a right way and it is God’s. There is a wrong way and it’s not following God’s way. Following God leads to life. Not following God leads to death. It seems like an easy choice - pick God and pick life. And yet over and over again throughout the history of the Tanakh we make the wrong choice. Often, the rationale given for our faulty decisions is our faulty decision-making process, coming from our defective natures. Sometimes it seems we don’t understand the choice in front of us, we confuse the path of goodness with something other than the path of God. Sometimes we are just written off as ‘a stiff-necked people’ who have been ‘evil since our youth.’ But there’s something deeply inadequate about both of these explanations. They don’t seem to provide any hope that today I am equipped to make better decisions, to choose life and to choose God.
Our haftarah portion, Jeremiah 16-17 seems to lay out the difference between the good, godly way of life and the evil godless way of life fairly starkly:
“Cursed be the man who trusts in humans, and makes mortal flesh his strong arm, and turns his heart from the LORD. And he shall be like an arid shrub in the desert, and he shall not see when good things come. And he shall dwell in scorched places in the wilderness, a barren land that cannot be settled.
Blessed be the man who trusts in the LORD, and the LORD becomes his trust. And he shall be like a tree planted by waters, and by a stream it sends forth its roots, and it shall not see when the heat wave comes, and its leaves shall be lush, and in a drought year it shall have no care and never cease from yielding fruit.” (Translation adapted from Robert Alter’s The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary.)
The simple meaning of the text seems to be that relying on humankind is bad and will lead to lack of life while relying on God is good and will lead to an abundance of life. It’s a message that makes sense in the large context of Jeremiah’s prophecies - Jeremiah warned against the dangers of relying on other nations, particularly Egypt, instead of relying on God to save the nation. Nonetheless, it seems rather drastic to insist that trusting humans is the opposite of trusting God and will lead to death and desolation.
The medieval commentator R. David Kimhi (Radak) finds middle ground here. He reads the blessing and the curse not as a total dichotomy, a choice between trusting man or God. Rather, he reads the blessing back into the curse. Radak writes, “If he does not ‘turn his heart from God,’ he is not wrong if he trusts that humans will help him, if his intention is that with God’s help humans can help him.” Radak redeems humanity, giving us a chance to trust in ourselves so long as we know that God underlies it all. Choosing good and life in Radak’s world is still choosing God. However, we no longer need to read choosing anything else as totally evil.

Of course, this is a slippery slope. Once we don’t see the world as binary, it may become much easier to make the wrong choice. What was once clear has become more real and we can’t always tell the difference between right and wrong. But like Radak, we can choose to read blessing back even into our cursed moments, our wrong choices. Even when we fail, we can see it as part of a larger journey in the pursuit of goodness, so long as we keep goodness as the goal.
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