Torah Reading for Week of May 19-25, 2019
“Holy Land and Holy Freedom”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA Professor of Comparative Religion
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
This parsha opens by telling us that it was on Mount Sinai that God gave the command of the shmitta (sabbatical, seventh) year, and the yovel, fiftieth year, mitzvot that have to do with the resting of the land and release of slaves.
The specification of Mount Sinai seems significant. Beyond the major revelations in the book of Shemot, Sinai is rarely mentioned. The book of Bamidbar points to the ‘wilderness (midbar) of Sinai’, but Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) is in that book connected only with the origin of the regular burnt offering (Num 28.6). In Vayikra, the mountain appears by name only a couple of other place, when summing up the sin and guilt offerings (Lev 7.38) and the covenant overall (Lev 26:46). For “Mount Sinai” to appear in connection to Behar, at the outset of the parsha, highlights this set of commandments.
What is the unique significance of the sabbatical years, such that their origin on Mount Sinai should be emphasized? On one level, the Torah may be emphasizing that even though these commandments may be difficult, they are very important. The parsha addresses at length the anxiety that the people might have if they cannot plow and harvest for an entire year, by emphatically reassuring them of God’s blessing. Still, you must still keep these commandments, as they are from Sinai.
But in addition, as we saw in Parshat Kedoshim, God’s “Sabbaths” are mentioned at the beginning of those key instructions on how to be holy. Not just the seventh day but the seventh and fiftieth years are part of a life of holiness. The foundation of our distinctive freedom is the celebration of human dignity and equality associated with our weekly day of rest; and that same dignity and equality before God is embodied in the ways we live on the land that God gave us.
For example, the Jewish people are warned not to sell the land permanently (as it will have to be returned to its original tribal owners in the 50th year), for “the land belongs to Me.” The Jewish people are “strangers and residents with Me.” The land is not part of your personal wealth, but a vehicle for holiness in God’s eyes.
Details are specified as to how the land can be sold and redeemed, with differences between walled cities and open ones – the latter belong to “the land” – and the property of Levites. Clearly, these differences could favor some over others, so the commandment follows: “if your brother falls into poverty, and his hand falters before you, you shall support him, whether he is a stranger or a resident, to live with you.” Here too occurs the prohibition on taking interest from a loan. The demand for holiness is expressed in relationships among the people: each Jew has the responsibility for the life and dignity of every other.
Further, although slavery is permitted, we are forbidden from working a fellow Jew with “slave labor.” We are also instructed to redeem other Jews from slavery to a non-Jew. In this land, one must not countenance slavery as was practiced in Egypt or other ancient nations.
Parshat Behar is saying that, like Shabbat in the realm of time, the Land is a place of freedom in the realm of space: “I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be a God to you.”
Like Shabbat in the realm of time, our relationships must preserve human dignity and equality before God, even when servitude exists: “For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt they shall not be sold as a slave is sold. . . . For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.”
These themes are emphasized by two verses that end the parsha, included even though they come from a new chapter of Vayikra, chapter 26 (which as Parshat Bechukotai goes on to discuss rewards and punishments). This coda forbids idol worship, and then reminds us:
“My Sabbaths you shall keep, and My Holy Place you shall revere. I am the Lord.”
Time and space once again: Times where we embody freedom and dignity. Places where we are all present with God and equal before God. The Mishkan, here referred to as mikdash or sanctified place, is a reminder of our encounter with God on Mount Sinai. And, in the context of Parshat Behar, we understand that the entire land, God’s land, is to be made holy by these commandments from Sinai.