Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

Torah Reading for Week of May 10 – May 16, 2009

“The Land Which G-d Has Given Us”

by Debbie Israel,
AJRCA Rabbinical Student/Ordinee, ’09

Often when we read our weekly parshiot, we look for the messages that transcend the generations and bring us to new, contemporary understandings. Someparshiot speak to us clearly and teach us applicable lessons for all time. Certainly the familial relationships that we study in Bereshit present psychological dramas which offer coaching on how to interact with our parents, children, and siblings.Shemot calls us to search for and reflect on modern miracles, social justice, and our timeless relationship with the Eternal One. Vayikra is more difficult, because this book is, simply put, a Users’ Manual for the Levites.

However, this week’s parsha is different; it is not difficult to relate it to these difficult economic times that we are all experiencing. Behar is concerned with the laws governing ownership of the land and indebtedness, as expressed through the laws of the Sabbatical year (occurring every seven years) which lead to the Jubilee year (in the 50th year).

The heart of these principles is the understanding that we may work the land and claim to own it, however we are only tenants. The true Landowner is the Holy One, whose claim on the land prohibits us from any notion of permanently possessing it.Sefer haHinnuch, the legal and philosophical study of the mitzvot and their meanings in our lives, teaches that if these laws were observed by all of us, one’s inclination to rob or even covet another’s belongings would be restrained. Our motivations to steal would be curbed because of the knowledge that “all returns to the one whom G-d wishes to have it.” Sefer haHinnuch further explains that the regulation to return the land to its true Owner was instituted “to promote the welfare of and increase the merit of (G-d’s) people.”

The contemporary Israeli commentator Nehama Leibowitz z”l further explains that the Jubilee was designed to counter one’s natural acquisitive instincts. She reminds us that, in Torah, we always read “the land which G-d has given us” and never read “the land which you have acquired for yourself.”

There is a story about two people who were fighting over land rights. They went to their Rabbi to settle their dispute. “The land belongs to me!” said one. “No! The land belongs to me!” said the other. The Rabbi put her ear to the ground and listened. The earth said, “G-d’s answer is that the land belongs to Me!”

But this is not how most of us view our belongings. We buy our homes; we claim ownership of them. Everything within the walls of our homes are also our possessions: our cars, our clothes, our knick knacks, our stuff. We purchase these things with our own money and therefore we believe that the ownership is beyond dispute. We live with an illusion that we have possessions, when more often our possessions have us. We become so attached to our possessions that we begin to think there will never be enough. We need more! And then that’s not enough! More!

These times of financial stress call this mindset into question. As we experience the consequences of overspending, individually and as a nation, the notion of possessions takes on a different quality. A recent Time Magazine article stated, “No one wishes for hardship. But as we pick through the economic rubble, we may find that our riches have buried our treasures. Money does not buy happiness…A third of people polled say they are spending more time with family and friends, and nearly four times as many people say their relations with their kids have gotten better during this crisis than say they have gotten worse. A consumer culture invites us to want more than we can ever have; a culture of thrift invites us to be grateful for whatever we can get…”

Our ancient sages taught us: “Who is happy? The one who is satisfied with his or her lot.” May this week’s Torah reading inspire us to lessen our hold on our material possessions and instead reach for a spiritual relationship with the land, our loved ones, and our Redeemer. Shabbat Shalom.

Leave a Reply