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 parashawe 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.
In addition, God commanded the Israelites to count seven times seven years - a total of 49 years or seven full Sabbatical cycles - and to announce the arrival of the 50th year, the Yovel with a blast of the shofar on Yom Kippur. In a Jubilee year the land would not be cultivated, land and houses which were not in walled cities would be returned to the original owners, and all Hebrew slaves would be set free. The Torah says, "You will proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants." This was mistranslated as "Proclaim LIBERTY through all the land to all the inhabitants thereof," and was engraved on the Liberty Bell, now in Philadelphia. In addition, the parasha prohibits lending money with interest to Jews as well as forbidding all forms of usury. Behar ends with a prohibition against a variety of idolatrous practices: setting up idols, carved images, pillars, or standing stones.
Bechukotai, meaning "my laws," constitutes the second half of this double portion. Bechukotai includes both promises and curses. If the Israelites follow God's laws and commandments, then God will bless them with prosperity and peace. But if the people disobey and break the laws and commandments, then God will punish them: they would be dominated by their enemies, the land would not produce and they would be scattered among the nations. The land would become desolate and the cities ruined.
There was a time when no one wanted the dubious honor of being called to the Torah to recite the blessings before and after this portion. In the 1920's it was a custom to have a pre-Bar Mitzvah actually read this chapter. Today the minhag is to call the Rabbi, Gabbai, or the Torah reader himself for this portion. The tochechah - rebuke - is always contained within one aliya which begins and ends on "cheerier" notes. This is the reason for the wildly disparate distribution of verses among the aliyot of this sedra.
The parasha (and the book of Leviticus) end with a description of the various kinds of gift that people might promise to the sanctuary.
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.
Some Thoughts and Questions
What year of the Shmita cycle are we in?
What year of the Yovel cycle are we in? Why don't we know?
If all debts are annulled during the Yovel year (and, according to Deuteronomy 15:9 during the Shmita year as well), who might suffer a lot during the years closest to those times?
The observance of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years were specifically tied to the land of Israel. Once the majority of Jews no longer lived in the land these observances were no longer maintained. What laws, observances and celebrations have we as a Jewish people been able to take with us no matter where we have lived? Why do you think there are different rituals and observances for people who live in the land of Israel?
Even though the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years are no longer in force, how can we observe the spirit of these laws in terms of giving the poor and disadvantaged a fresh start?
How can Israel grow crops during the Shmita year today?
Some occupations provide for a sabbatical - a one-year leave from a person's job. If you were given a year to do whatever you wanted, what would you do with the time?
Consider the tochechah in Bechukotai. Do you believe that someone would be more likely to obey the commandments because she or he was frightened into doing so? Because he or she wanted the blessings and not the curses? Why do you follow rules and regulations? Think about some of the rules you follow in your own life. What are the consequences of not following consequences if you don't follow the rules? If you know the consequences in advance, does it prevent you from breaking the rules? Have you ever been able to break the rules and not suffer any consequences? What would life be like if our society did not have rules or consequences?