Parshat Behar

Torah Reading for the Week of May 6-10, 2014


“The Sanctification of Agriculture, Commerce and Tzedakah”
By Dr. Marvin A. Sweeney, Professor of Tanak at AJRCA



The contention that Shabbat is embedded in creation is a foundational premise of the Torah.  Not only does Genesis 1:1-2:3 maintain that Shabbat marks the culmination of the seven days of creation, Exodus 31:12-17 announces that the Shabbat is a Berit Olam, or eternal covenant, between G-d and the people of Israel forever.  Exodus 23:10-12 stipulates that we are to allow the poor to glean from our fallow fields during the seventh year.  Other texts also enter the Torah’s discussion concerning the foundational character of Shabbat, such as our present Parashah, BeHar.

Parashat BeHar presents the Torah’s teachings concerning the observance of the Jubilee year.  According to Lev 25:1-26:2, we may sow seed and harvest our crops for six years, but the seventh year is a Shabbaton, and the land therefore lies fallow during the seventh year.  We may eat what grows freely during the Shabbaton year, but we may not plant crops or harvest the produce.  Any produce that grows is freely available as an act of divine Tzedakah to those who might come to eat.

After seven cycles of Sabbatical years, a Jubilee is declared for the fiftieth year.  Again, we do not plant seed or harvest produce, but what grows freely from the land is available for food to all as an act of divine Tzedakah.  Farmers in my native Central Illinois would recognize the wisdom of such a system as they typically let their fields lie fallow every seventh year so that the land might be able to replenish itself.  But the Illinois farmer’s practice presupposes a very secular and practical worldview.  The Torah, on the other hand, deliberately sanctifies the practice of agriculture as a means for human beings to sanctify and redeem their own lives.

But our parashah does not stop there.  It takes the principle of sanctified Tzedakah and extends it to the commercial realm as well, including the sale of land and the redemption of the property of the poor or indebted.  Indebted persons who sold their tribal allotment of land to creditors because they could not produce enough to meet their needs were entitled to redeem their land during the Jubilee year.  And if they were unable to redeem the land themselves, a kinsman might step in to redeem the land for them.  Such a practice helped to ensure that land remained within the family, and thereby aided in maintaining economic stability of a family in times of economic need as well as the social stability of the people of Israel.

Such a law was analogous to the slave laws of Exodus 21:2-11, which defined the terms by which an Israelite man or woman might serve as a slave, i.e., a man would serve for only six years and be released in the seventh, but a woman would be married into the creditor’s family.  Deuteronomy took the principle a few steps further by declaring that debts would be forgiven in the seventh year and by stipulating that Israelite women would be released from slavery on the same basis as men.  In addition, it stipulated that the creditor must give the former slaves something of the flock and crops that the now former slaves had helped to produce—and thereby aided in preventing the problem of recidivism in which a person might fall back into debt slavery following the release for lack of funds with which to start anew.  Indeed, the Torah sanctifies commercial practice and debt by basing such practices on the notion of the Shabbat as the foundation of creation.

Given the hard economic times that our own American society has suffered over the past six years, it seems that the Torah might have something to teach our secular world as well.  Many have given up looking for work after losing their jobs in their 50’s and 60’s as skills become obsolete and minimum wage jobs replace more lucrative positions that have been shipped overseas by profit-hungry companies.  A promising sign is the current debate about raising the minimum wage so that working people can earn sufficient money to support themselves and their families.  At the same time, we must recognize that the Torah teaches us to show compassion to the poor, not by giving them simple handouts, but by providing them with the time and means they need to rebuild their own finances and redeem their land and lives.

We live in a competitive world, and we must learn to compete, survive, and prosper in that world.  Providing the poor with the means to rebuild their lives is an act of Tzedakah, rooted in the principle of Shabbat observance as an act that recognizes the sanctity of the world of creation.

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