Archive for the '3.07 Behar / Behukotai' Category

A Different Kind of Shmitah

With the advent of COVID-19 and the shelter in place regulations we have not driven our family van. At the start I realized that we had a flat tire and eventually switched it out for a doughnut, but still the car has not moved in 9 weeks.

This whole existence has caused a forced Shmitah of sorts. As we read in this week’s Torah portion, Behar Bechukotai:

God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

On one hand I have never worked this hard in my life, on the other hand this unique 9 week period has been a prolonged period of “complete rest”. Our car’s idle state represents our staying in one place. This has been a blessing of a prolonged family Shabbat.

On our Torah portion Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Why is this Mitzvah getting top billing at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai?  What is so special about a “complete rest”?

While on Passover we were slaves, by the time we reach Shavuot we ascended to the level to receive the Torah at Har Sinai. When we were slaves were bound by our masters to work in their land and not move. While we were traveling around in the desert as refugees it was hard to forget that we were a band of lowly liberated slaves. It is Gods world and we were just drifting through it.  Eventually we will be in the Land of Israel and again sedentary working our own land. Even if we are unsettled at this moment, the laws of Shmitah are here by Har Sinai to remind us of our humble beginnings as slaves and to point us to a wonderful autonomous future. In many ways this flat tire is doing a similar thing. It reminds me that even if everything is crazy now, I am safe, with the people I love, and there is a future when everything will settle down.

The End of Purity

In BeChukotai, this week’s Torah portion, we read about reward and punishment. If we follow the laws we get rain and if not no rain. This week also marks the end of the book of Leviticus. 

As we come to the end of the book I think back to the start of it. On the start of Leviticus there is a fascinating midrash that says, “Rav Assi said that young children began their Torah studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure studied the pure.”(Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.)

I understand why people might think that the story of Genesis is too nuanced to be a young child’s initiation to learning. But, just because we are not starting off with the Garden of Eden does not mean that we should start off with all of the blood and gore and guts of the sacrifices of Leviticus.

The word “korban” (sacrifice) derives from the word that means “that which is brought close.” Bringing a korban was not just the process of giving something up to the Tabernacle or Temple, but the process of becoming closer. Maybe this is what we need to be teaching our children.

What is the implications of coming to the end of Leviticus? There is a certain purity in the belief that everything should be fair. I would suggest that belief in reward and punishment is itself part of, but also maybe the end childhood. As we mature we realize that the world is not so simple. 

Hazak Hazak V’Nithazek– From strength to strength we move on to the book of Numbers and the next phase of education. 

Non Sequitur : Behar and a Memory of My Father

In this year since my father James Joseph Orlow z”l passed away I have tried to take some extra time to ponder his impact ( both big and small) on me and the world.  I have found myself often quoting his maxims. One of his go-to-phrases was ” Do you walk to work or do you like the color blue?” He really loved a good non sequitur. Much humor can be found in the juxtaposition of two things that do not go together.

I was thinking about this when reading  Behar, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Or in other words, mentioning this Mitzvah at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai seems like a non sequitur.  While I have explored different answers to this question in the past, for today I am happy leaving it as a question and thinking about my father and the color blue.

Check out some answers to this question:

What If God Was One of Us

In 1995 Joan Osborn released her one hit song ” What If God Was One of Us.” The song received Grammy nominations in 1996 for Best Female Pop Vocal PerformanceRecord of the Year, and Song of the Year. Written by Eric Bazilian (of The Hooters), the song deals with various aspects of belief in God by asking questions inviting the listener to consider how they might relate to God.  Here is her original vide:

 

All of these years later I have to admit that I still cannot forget the lyrics. The song goes:

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?

How would we experience the corporeality of God?

I was thinking about it while reading Behar Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion. There we read God saying, ” I will walk among you: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.” ( Leviticus 26:12) About this Rashi write:

 

I will walk among you— I will, as it were, walk with you in the Garden of Eden as though I were one of yourselves and you will not be frightened of Me. One might think that this implies: you will not fear (reverence) Me! Scripture however states, “but I will be your God” (Sifra, Bechukotai, Chapter 3 3-4).

I think it is interesting to think about the idea of reverence without being frightened.  Personally, I cannot even imagine the experience of the presence of God in my life. Thinking about these ideas open me to the divine potential of  the “stranger on the bus”.  It does not change my faith or struggle with the idea of God in my life, but it does improve my commute through life.

 

Hard Work: Some Thoughts on Uncle Ernie z”l

With the recent passing of my Oma’s brother I have been thinking about the importance of my German ancestry. For as long as I can recall Uncle Ernie z”l exuded a certain nobility, honor, impeccable style, and German accent. In his 98 years of life he saw the worst and best of humanity. His Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story was exemplified by the joy he took in driving his Jaguar. For the longest time Ernie served was a link to the long gone mythic European world of my family. This was not just a romantic notion of the alte heim, but also connection to a greater generation. Much has been written about the shift from the generation that lived through the horrors of World War II to the world we live in today, in reflection I am interesting in a shift in work ethic.

My mother’s first language was German, but sadly not that much was passed on to me of the language.  In writing this piece I had to call my mother to get clarity on as expression I recalled from my youth. When referring to a worker engaged in heavy physical labor she would say Schwerarbeiter- heavy worker. From a young age it was burned into my consciousness that there was a value of working hard. I have internalized this as cultural  devotion to the idea and value of working hard.

I was thinking about this when reading Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion.  There we read:

I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt from being slaves to them; and I broke the pegs of your yoke and led you upright. Leviticus 26:13

On this idea of breaking the pegs Rashi says:

A plowing yoke consists of a bar that is placed over the animal’s neck and reins that are placed under its neck and threaded through two holes at each end of the bar. This term מוֹט refers to a type of peg, which is inserted into the two [holes at the] ends of the yoke. [These pegs therefore jam the reins tightly through the holes,] preventing the reins from coming off the ox’s head and [preventing the] undoing of the knot. ( Rashi on Leviticus 26:13)

So when the peg that tethered the yoke to load is removed the animal is free. But just removing the peg does not make you stand “upright”. As Prof. Dan Dennett said, “The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” We were redeemed from slavery in Egypt to serve a higher cause. Yes we were free from Egypt, but more importantly we were free to go to Sinai. The issue with slavery was not the hard work, but rather the lack of connection to the cause of that labor.

Recently a dear friend Rabbi Dan Utley shared a meaningful poem with me. In her poem “To be of Use“,  Marge Piercy wrote:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.  (To be of Use)

No one wants to be a slave. We all want to be the ones to put in the peg and drive home the work that we want to get done. Even if it seems old worldly I want to work hard along side of others for a common and noble cause. So yes I am tired, but when my days come to an end, like Uncle Ernie, I too want to be known as a Schwerarbeiter.

Staying Grounded

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, starts,

God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Or in other words, why is this Mitzvah getting top billing at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai?  What is so special about a Sabbath for the land?

God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. We are instructed to imitate God. We are supported to work for six days and rest on the seventh. So, now I am sure that we are all Shomer Shabbas. How many of us have created a universe on Shabbat? In making the world, God made a place for us to live. In making the Mishkan, we made a place for God to live with us. We keep Shabbat by not doing the work involved in building the Mishkan. It would make sense that we would keep Shabbat when we get into the land of Israel in that we would have built God a permanent home there in the Temple. But this still does not answer why the land itself should have a rest? It seems at some level we are asked to think that the land is animate. People rest, how does the ground rest?

While on Passover we were slaves, by the time we reach Shavuot we ascended to the level to receive the Torah at Har Sinai. At this stage we might have thought that we could actually be like God. While we were traveling around in the desert as refugees it is hard to forget that we were a band of lowly liberated slaves. It is actually God’s world and we were just drifting through it. The challenge is how we would maintain the right balance when we enter into the land. We might actually mistakenly think we are truly gods in a home that we built for ourselves. I believe the laws of Shmitah are to remind us of our humble beginnings. This is not just as guests in the house that God made for us, but as dirt itself.  As we read at the start of the Torah, “Then the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”( Genesis 2:7) The laws of Shmitah personify dirt to remind us that we ourselves are just that, animated dirt. Adam and Adama are both God’s creation. The Voice from Sinai rings out that we have divine potential, but the law of Shmitah reminds us that we need to stay grounded.

Areivim Zeh B’Zeh – Jerusalem Unity Day

In Behar Behukotai,this week’s Torah portion we read:

They will stumble , each man over his brother as if from before a sword, but there is no pursuer; you will not have the power to withstand your foes (Leviticus 26:37)

The plain meaning of this is that they will live in fear unable to help each other. Rashi interprets it that they are living in religious and not existential fear. He writes that:

“they will stumble, each man over his brother” means one stumbles through the sin of another, for all of Israel are guarantors for one another. (Rashi on Leviticus 26:37)

The Gemara in Sanhedrin sites our Torah portion to prove that we are each others guarantors. There we read, “Kulan Areivim Zeh B’Zeh– All of Israel are each others guarantors.”(Sanhedrin 27b)

How will we go about trying to protect each other? It seems that the plain meaning speaks to Jewish peoplehood and our being bound up in each other in our very being. Rashi in quoting the Gemara transforms this bond into a conversation about faith, sin, and religion.

Last summer Eyal Ifrach, Gil-ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel were kidnapped by terrorists on their way home from school. Jews from around the world came together to support their families by searching, praying, and just reaching out. The sense of unity reached its peak 17 days later as the three boys were found and ultimately laid to rest side by side. Now, one year later, the families of the boys are asking the Jewish people to come together again.  Together with, Nir Barkat, the Mayor of Jerusalem and Gesher, we can honor the teens’ memory by joining in ‘Unity Day’ to bring back that sense of togetherness, hope, and being  Areivim for each other. Unity Day programs will be held across the globe on the 16th of Sivan 5775 – June 3rd, 2015. To get involved check out this link.  Being Areivim is not just an idea, it needs to be a practice.


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