Parshat Behar

Torah Reading for Week of May 8-14, 2011

“We are Just Sojourners Here”
By Meredith Cahn, Fifth Year Rabbinic Student

When Hillel asked, “If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” he might have been reflecting on Behar, this week’s Torah portion. Its statements about our responsibilities to our community, to the land and to each other demand such questions. In Lev. 25:23, G-d tells Moses, But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but sojourners dwelling with Me.

Behar reminds us that we do not own the earth; it is not ours to desecrate. We are caretakers who must return it to the original Owner.  Every seven years, we let it rest. Every 50 years, we abandon any pretense of ownership. We did not create it. Maybe we fertilized, built fences, irrigated. Whatever you believe about creation, that fact remains: the earth was not put here by us. We are at best partners in stewardship.

Rashi, the 11th century commentator, noted that the phrase ki li ha’aretz-that the land belongs to G-d, reminds us not to look on it with evil (think greed), but treat it well. This treatment is both for the land itself, making sure it can feed the world—and for our families, because Behar also identifies our responsibility to care for family members in need, and our community.

The 20th century commentator Nehama Leibowitz explained that laws of the Jubilee—the 50 year return of ownership—flow from this concept that the land belongs to G-d, to counter our natural acquisitive instincts. She noted that, in Torah, we read “the land that G-d has given us,” not “the land that you have acquired for yourself.”

The realization that we do not own the land heightens the reality that faces many people today: we thought we owned our homes, we thought we could rely on our employers, or our pensions, and what we thought was not so.

Even deeper is the spiritual recognition that we may be sojourners in our own lives. Oftentimes, we try to attain control in our lives, only to watch it crumble. How many of us have relied on our bodies—hearing, backs, kidneys—only to have them fail us? How many of us are watching our loved ones—or ourselves—as memories fail?

Sometimes we laugh: why did I walk into this room? But, too often, we cry, as we watch people lose more of themselves. A congregant I visit has advancing dementia, and I see flashes of frustration when she cannot remember something. Yet she is surrounded by beauty that she appreciates at almost every moment: the vase of cut tulips her son brings her, the tree in full bloom outside her window, the art work she had chosen over the years. And sometimes that is enough.

Another congregant, z”l, had Parkinson’s. On Valentine’s Day, only weeks before his death, he dragged himself from the skilled nursing facility in the retirement community he and his wife lived, and appeared at her door, because he knew where he was supposed to spend Valentine’s Day night: with the love of his life. It broke her heart to send him back, because she could not care for him.

If we do not really own anything, why bother doing anything? What can we do?

We focus on the beauty in our lives. We stand in radical amazement.

We partner with the Divine to do the repair of the world that is our own task.

If we are lucky enough, we show up on Valentine’s Day.

And we recognize the gift that we are allowed to sojourn here at all.

Shabbat shalom.

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