Archive for the '3.07 Behar / Behukotai' Category

Revelation and Sustaining Our Community

When I was a Hillel Rabbi I had the fortune of helping a bunch of students apply to Rabbinical school. In my time on campus students went to almost all of the major schools. It is interesting to reflect that in one way or another each school’s application asked the potential student his/her perspective on Shavuot. OK, not the holiday, but his/her perspective on Revelation. This seemed to be based on an assumption that asking the applicant this epistemological question would clarify if the school was a good match.  With maybe one exception I would say that all of these students did not approach their interest in the Rabbinate in these terms. Rather, each one was drawn to the Rabbinate because s/he believed that becoming a Rabbi would help him/her make change in the Jewish community and contribute to the larger world. The idea of religious movement really came in as an afterthought to this broader vision. It seemed in almost all of the cases that this narrow idea of a specific movement was solely the trappings of the schools and not particularly relevant the student.

I was thinking about this when I started to read the beginning of  Behar Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Lord. Six years thou shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the Lord; you shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. ( Leviticus 25: 1-4)

In this portion we learn about the laws of Shmita. In this cycle the land is left to lie fallow on the 7th year and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, is forbidden. Rashi asks an insightful question, ” Why are we talking about the matter of Shmita at Sinai?” Which is to say that the entire Torah is given at Sinai, why is this Torah portion outlining an ancient technique of creating a sustainable agriculture introduced as the laws that God “spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai”? It seems strange to single this law out. And maybe even more strange in that the Torah was given in Diaspora and this law was only going to be applicable in the Land of Israel.

When I think about these students I realize that many of them have already becomes or are about to become my peers. We were all drawn to the Rabbinate to create a more meaningful and sustainable Jewish community. I hope that all of us are contributing to the world in meaningful ways. But I am still worried. In the name of sharpening our skills, how has Rabbinical education dulled our initial visions to help the world? Has the lens of movement clouded our capacity to see the larger Jewish community and larger world?

In this sense I want to ask Rashi’s question in reverse. Why are we talking about the matter of Sinai when we are learning about Shmita? Do our understanding of what did or did not happen at Sinai really matter when it comes to making this world a better place? To what degree are the different understandings of Revelation or different movements of Jewish life still  relevant? So yes, I have fallen into the same trap of movement.  I call myself an Orthodox Rabbi.  But when asked what I am I will say that I am an Open Orthodox Rabbi.  And to a great degree I am still waiting to meet more Open Reform, Open Conservative, Open Reconstuctionist, Open Haredi, and Open Humanist colleagues. Repairing our fractured community scarred by a history of fighting movements might feel like moving mountains, but I hope it will make our community more sustainable.

Commitment Zeh B’Zeh

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 parsha 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. But at the core of the Gemara is the language of Areivut, itself is a monetary term. 

I think these different approaches are interesting given some current discussions of the accessibility of Jewish Day School Education. No matter how we cut it we are stumbling all over each other trying to figure out how to make Jewish Life sustainable. This was brought into focus this week by a great article by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper. In his article The Moral Costs of Jewish Day School he wrote :

 …parents receiving day school financial aid have no guarantee, and often no idea, of how they will be affected by tuition hikes or whether the school will take account of a job loss, a new baby, a car’s breakdown—or, on the other hand, a gift from a parent or extra income from a second job.  They cannot make future plans; they are chronically dependent on other people’s decisions.  They are deprived of economic dignity. 

For some day school education represents their commitment to our people and others it is a religious rite, but for all but the very wealthy it is a crushing burden of expense. Rabbi Klapper shares a model in which there is a restoration of dignity by creating a flat 15% cap to the amount that any one family would pay. He noted that this did not take into account other schools. And it does not take into account all of the other positive Jewish life choices that cost money like trips to Israel, camp, synagogue membership, JCC membership, and of course the smachot. I am curious to see it work, but I am concerned about who will pick up the tab. 

In light of the Gemara I want to put forward another option. What about a guarantor? I like the predictability and transparency of a cap, but what if we offered a free loan for the remainder. This would eliminate the scholarship culture for the middle class. Hopefully this would remove the stigma of the mandated handout and encourage more families opt into Jewish life. We would need to amortize a loan sensibly and sensitively over the course of their lives with their other expenses in mind. Eventually they would deal with this debt and eventually we would recoup the money. The question comes down to who will step up to be the guarantor. And if we are afraid that people will not be committed to pay back their loans, then this is just a bad investment. If nothing else our schools should be teaching commitment Zeh B’Zeh.

In the Details

From reading the Torah it seems that the foundation of Jewish living is the fact that God freed us from slavery in Egypt. It is clear that Egypt was not the end of our slavery. While it is clear that there is still slavery, the end of it is never the goal. And this is not just for the poor. All of us transition from being the slaves of Pharoah to the slaves of God. What kind of freedom is that?

In Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion, we read;

I am the Lord your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their bondmen; and I have broken the pegs of your yoke, and made you go upright. ( Leviticus 26:13)

The image of this yoke is compelling. The slave like the ox is just schlepping along carrying the weight of his owner’s burden. While God removes that yoke, it seems like a temporary respite from God’s yoke which we are still schlepping along. But when you go back to this passage we read that God just removed the peg that held it all together. The yoke did not change from, God just removed the lynch pins. The divine is truly in the details. There is a world of difference between having to do something and wanting to do something.

The lynch pin of religion is belief. Without it we are  still just schlepping along. We have to acknowledge that religion cannot claim credit for transforming the world. God did not destroy the yoke, just make it lose enough to transfer masters. For better and for worse religion might just be holding it all together. In this sense maybe the ” devil” is in the details.


This week’s Torah portion, Behar Bechukotai, 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 personifying the land itself. 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 level 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 Gods 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 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.

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