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Friday, May 7, 2010

Commentary on Parshat Behar-Behukotai

This week we finish reading from the book of Vayikra/Leviticus with the double parashah/portion Behar-Behukotai (Leviticus 25:1- 27:34). Parshat Behar begins with the laws regulating the sabbatical year and the jubilee year. 

After six years of growing crops and living off the land, the people are instructed that the seventh year is to be a Sabbath for the land, during which it is to be given a complete rest. They may eat whatever the uncultivated land happens to produce during that year, but they may not  plant, sow or harvest crops. In addition to the Sabbatical/Shemitah year, they are to count seven cycles of seven years and then in the fiftieth year they are to proclaim a yovel/jubilee year. This year is to begin on Yom Kippur with the sounding of the Shofar. In this year of release all Israelites were to take possession of the original lands given to their ancestors at the time of Joshua. Laws are also given concerning the freeing of Israelite slaves  during the yovel.  These were mostly Israelites who had indentured themselves in order to pay off debts or because of poverty .

In Parshat Behukotai, God promises that the Israelites will flourish in the land if they obey God's mitzvot/commandments. However, if they do not, they will suffer terribly, as will their children. Repeatedly, God tells them "if you still do not obey me" they will suffer seven-fold punishments for their sins. The ultimate punishment, if the people continue to disobey God's commands, is that they will lose everything they have and "the land shall be forsaken of them, making up for its Sabbath years by being desolate of them, while they atone for their iniquity; for the abundant reason that they rejected My rules and spurned My laws …" (26:43).  In spite of this, God still proclaims that in the end "I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God, the Eternal" (26:45).
When reading these texts, I would find this series of curses to be theologically problematic if I literally believed them to be the word of God. However, since I view them as our ancestors' attempt to portray their understanding of God I must instead try to find the lesson to be learned, even though I still find them to be troublesome.

In viewing
Behar and Behukotai as one unit, there are two clear links that I see. The first is the connection between the laws of the sabbatical for the land in Behar and God's promise that the land
will make up for it's neglected sabbaticals in Behukotai. The second is that God states numerous times in Behar that the reason Israelites are not to be enslaved eternally, nor treated as slaves, is that God brought them out of Egypt to serve God – and no one else. This connects with the verse in Behukotai in which God proclaims that, even after all punishments and curses have been meted out, God will not forget the people because God freed them from the land of Egypt.

In examining the first connection, one must first realize the importance of the concept of a Sabbath. The idea that both we and the land are meant to rest in the last phase of each cycle of seven

(whether seven days or seven years) points to the importance of letting go. As "God's people" we are commanded to let go of any notion that we are in control of the world around us or that the creative forces in the world are in any way our domain. We do this by resting from all forms of seemingly creative activity each Shabbat day. On that day our inaction allows us to be mindful of the fact that the world continues to exist and creation continues without any action on our part. Beyond that, every
seventh year, refraining from working the land reminds us that even if we cease to work for an entire year (at least on the land)  creation  continues and food will be provided. We are not in control. We are merely the caretakers of God's earth. Of this we must be mindful from year to year, month to month, week to week, day to day and moment to moment.

When we neglect to remember that we are not in control, then we are in fact neglecting the reality of the Divine Presence that is the source of all. In doing so we place our personal selves, our egos and our sense of importance, above the Self of the Universe, which we call God. This is one way of understanding the concept of disobeying God's
mitzvot. Though translated most commonly as commandments, I choose instead to understand mitzvot as behaviors that serve to remind us that the Divine Presence is within all creation. Whether we are literally observing the 613 mitzvot that tradition claims exist within the Torah or not, if we live a life based on mitzvot we treat each human being and everything within creation as part of the Divine. As Jews, we do this using a uniquely Jewish language and tradition as our basis, but living a life of mitzvot is simply the way our Jewish language describes a universal process.

Behukotai we read that each time we ignore the mitzvot we will be punished. Each time we ignore the mitzvot concerning the treatment of our earth, the animals upon it and/or our fellow human beings we are to be punished seven-fold. Though this number is meant to represent an excessive punishment, I believe the use of the term seven-fold was quite deliberate. As seven represents the cycle of creation and of rest, it is as if the Torah is saying: "ignore the wisdom that teaches you to rest and acknowledge your powerlessness at the end of each cycle of seven, and that cycle of seven will wreak havoc on you." In a way this is the Torah's version of a karmic response. Or, in the vernacular, what goes
around will inevitably come around!

The final warning in the
parashah brings all of this to a conclusion: If we continually neglect humanity and all of God's world we are doomed. If we continually ignore the divinity within all creation and act as if I am master of all that I see, then all of God's created world will teach us a lesson. For all the
times we ignored the Truth and simply kept working the land …or human beings … or ourselves … without taking rest … we will be forced to rest. The land will not yield its fruits, we will not yield our fruits, God will not sustain us and we will be left alone and destitute. When this happens we will be forced to face the reality that all is God and God is all. We will be forced to stop our striving after wind. We will be forced to realize that ultimately we are not in control. How will this occur? It would be best if by a simple realization on our part. However, in many cases it is fear that ultimately forces us to wake up to these realities.

Behukotai we read that during that time of ultimate punishment, human beings will be afraid of "the sound of a driven leaf." In other words, ultimately we will reach the point where we are afraid of even the slightest sound. As individuals, we all have probably experienced this kind of fear. It is the sense that the world around us is such a dangerous and frightening place, that the slightest movement – or the slightest thought within our minds – will cause fear to arise. This is a fear that we cannot easily escape, for it comes from within us. 

When we reach this place, our urge is to run. But how can we run from something that is inside us? Rather than try to do this, we must instead recognize and acknowledge the fear for what it is. For only by acknowledging it can we then let it go. And when we let it go we can then see the reality that we have been avoiding all along, that we are not in control. This realization may well cause the fear to arise yet again, but if we keep acknowledging it each time it arises, and then acknowledge that it is based on a reality of powerlessness, then our fear will decrease seven-fold. Once we have acknowledged our fear and  allowed it to run its course, we can then see clearly again the reality of our world. Only then can we see that  all things and all people are part of God and that it is our obligation/mitzvah to behave in  a manner that acknowledges this.

When we do this, we have learned the lesson of
Shabbat and our period of punishment and fear will have ended. When we do this, we bring ourselves to the acknowledgement of what is stated in both
Behar and Behukotai: that we have been freed from enslavement in order to serve God and no one or nothing else.

This means something different to each of us. However, ultimately it means that we are to act in each moment in a way that acknowledges our interconnection and our responsibility to the world and all that is in it - whether human, animal, vegetable or mineral. When we act from this place of knowledge then we are no longer enslaved to any other person, nor are we enslaved to the self, which is what happens when we believe that we really are in control!

When we come to this place, then we can truly experience a
Shabbat for our soul and for our world. If only we could learn these lessons without causing ourselves so much suffering we could unite our world in the oneness of God soon and in our time.  But, after all, we are only human!

Shabbat Shalom.

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