Archive for the '3.07 Behar / Behukotai' Category

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.

Mountains Beyond Mountain

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?  I think there is yet another even simpler question that can be asked. What is the significance of this happening at a mountain.

This question reminds me of a classic story of the mythic town of Chelm. There we read:

Once upon a time, in the little village of Chelm, the people decided that they needed a new cemetery.  The population of the city had expanded, people had begun to build larger homes, and the need to find a new location for the townspeople’s eternal resting place.  They looked, and looked, and could not find a suitable location.  They called a meeting of the wise people of the town and for seven days, debated the issue.

At the end of the seven days, the people reached a conclusion: they would move them out and that was on the southern side of the city and utilize the space created by moving the mountain as the new cemetery. This of course, raised a new question for the people: how does one move a mountain?  They debated the issue for another seven days.  Finally, the wise man of Chelm came up with an idea. “we will all rise, all men of the town as one – united in spirit and body – and together we will move the mountain.” The townspeople quickly accepted this “wise” advice. Quickly, all able bodied men – young and old, rushed to the mountain on the southern side of the city.

A crowd quickly gathered and surrounded the mountain.  The men pushed and shoved and leaned and tried as hard as they could, but they could not move the mountain. 10 minutes went by, allowing the participants to catch their breath before they strenuously tried again.  Again, they pushed and strained and shoved but could not move the mountain.  At this point, the menfolk of Chelm were drenched in sweat and beginning to get uncomfortable.  The men removed their shirts, depositing them on the side, in preparation for their next try. As all the men struggled, a group of petty thieves watched the men in earnest.  They quickly came with small carts and as the men of Chelm  strained to move the mountain, the thieves stole all the shirts and quickly disappeared from the town.

After an hour of straining, one of the wise men discovered that his shirt was missing.  Soon, all the men discovered that their shirts were missing.  They began to wonder what was going on.  The wise man of Chelm surmised the answer. “We must have been successful” he told them. “We must have moved the mountain so far that we cannot even see the place where we left our shirts.” Upon hearing the explanation, the people began to applaud, cheer and even break out into dance over their success.( As retold by Rabbi Shabsi HaKohein Yudelovitch)

They were foolish to think that losing their jackets were a sign of their success, but they were not foolish in looking for a metric for success.  Where in Chelm they were looking for room for their cemetery in Behar through the institution of shmittah we are looking to create room for the underprivileged and economically marginalized parts of our society. But still I ask, why is this message delivered at a mountain?

When I think about the unending issue of addressing the needs of the poor I think about the heroic effort of Dr Paul Farmer in bringing health care to rural Haiti. In is the award-winning book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Tracy Kidder he described Farmer as “the man who would cure the world”. There he writes:

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow their example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.( Mountains Beyond Mountains)

The book’s title comes from a Haitian proverb, which is usually translated as: “Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” According to Farmer, a better translation is: “Beyond mountains there are mountains.” The phrase expresses something fundamental about the spirit and the scale and the difficulty of Farmer’s work. The Haitian proverb, by the way, is also a pretty accurate description of the topography of a lot of Haiti.

To return to Rashi’s  question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” What we learn from Farmer in terms of health care is the same as in terms of access to food and other issues of poverty, beyond this mountain there are more mountains. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, ” It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” ( Avot 2:16) Shmitah is an approach to dealing with poverty. The revelation of need in society is an opportunity to enact Torah in this world and therefore its own revelation like that at Mount Sinai. This is similar to Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Levi when he said “ Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horev (Sinai)” ( Avot 6:2) This is to say that beyond this mountain ( Sinai) there are more mountains.



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