This week we conclude the book of Leviticus with the double portion of Behar and Bechukotai. Behar, meaning “on the mountain,” refers to Mount Sinai, the place where the Torah was given to Moses. In this parasha we learn about the laws of the Sabbatical (Shmita) and Jubilee (Yovel) years. According to the law of Shmita, every seventh year is to be a Shabbat of complete rest for the land. Although the people were allowed to gather and eat whatever the land produced on its own, they were forbidden to plow, plant, or harvest the land. God guaranteed that in the sixth year of the seven-year cycle the harvest would be so bountiful that the people would have enough to eat until the harvest of the eighth year. (During the first year of the new cycle, they would have planted but not yet been able to reap.) The Torah notes that the land is God’s; we are merely tenants on it, and the land has rights.
Rabbi Jonathan Cohen of Maryland relates some interesting ideas in this parshah:
The primary characteristic of the Sabbatical year was leaving the fields and vineyards uncultivated. Some scholars have suggested that the Israelites were practicing an early form of soil conservation; modern farmers often leave fields uncultivated or practice crop rotation in order to restore nutrients to the soil. A second lesson of the Sabbatical year is derived from the fact that during this time all people, whether rich or poor, had to collect and gather food in the same manner; all were dependent upon what the land would produce naturally. This experience would sensitize the well-to-do to the conditions the poor always faced and motivate them to help support the needy.
The Jubilee year began on Yom Kippur rather than on Rosh Hashanah. The Rabbis explained that just as Yom Kippur gives an individual a fresh start, the Jubilee year allowed society a fresh start. Israelites who had to sell either their property or themselves into slavery due to economic circumstances would regain their property and their freedom and be able to start over and remake their lives. It is still customary for many Jews to pay off their debts before Yom Kippur.
Bechukotai specifies a number of blessings that will be bestowed upon the Israelites if they obey God’s laws. The Rabbis were puzzled, however, by the fact that the Torah does not mention the spiritual rewards of living a holy life. One explanation for this is that people cannot attain happiness and peace if they are sick or hungry or in the midst of war or other trying times. Therefore, the Torah speaks about material blessings not as the ultimate goal, but rather as a means of achieving these rewards of the spirit.
If you walk in My statutes (Leviticus 26:3) The word chok (“statute” or “decree”), which gives the Parshah of Bechukotai its name, literally means “engraved.” Rabbi Shneur Zalman Of Liadi comments: “The Torah comes in two forms: written and engraved. On the last day of his life, Moses inscribed the Torah on parchment scrolls. But this written Torah was preceded by an engraved Torah: the divine law was first given to us encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, which were etched by the hand of G‑d in two tablets of stone. When something is written, the substance of the letters that express it—the ink—remains a separate entity from the substance upon which they have been set—the parchment. On the other hand, letters engraved in stone are forged in it: the words are stone and the stone is words. By the same token, there is an aspect of Torah that is “inked” on our soul: we understand it, our emotions are roused by it; it becomes our “lifestyle” or even our “personality”; but it remains something additional to ourselves. But there is a dimension of Torah that is chok, engraved in our being. There is a dimension of Torah which expresses a bond with G‑d that is of the very essence of the Jewish soul.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim