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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Parshat Behar-Behukotai - With liberty and justice for all!

This week we conclude the reading of the book of Leviticus/Va'yikra with the reading of the double parashah/portion Behar-Behukotai (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34).  I would like to focus primarily on a concept found in the first part, Parshat Behar.  For in Behar, God gives Moses the instructions concerning the Sabbatical/Shabbaton and the Jubilee/Yovel

Moses is told that, once they are settled in the land of Canaan, every seventh year the land must "rest" completely. One is not allowed to plant, sow or reap at all.  No real harvest may take place.   The people may gather whatever grows from plants seeding themselves the previous year, but that is all. They are not to sow or reap anything. Just as the people need a rest every seven days, so too the land needs a Shabbat in order to replenish itself.

After the conclusion of seven cycles of seven years,  in the 50th year the Jubilee/Yovel is to be announced with the blast of a shofar.  Just as this week we are nearing the end of the counting of the Omer, which counts the forty-nine days between Pesakh/Passover and Shavuot/the Festival of Weeks, the parashah commands us to commemorate the fiftieth year as well. 

Eventually, the rabbis will come to associate the 50th day festival of Shavuot, with the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah on Mt. Sinai. In Behar, we are told that in the fiftieth year we are to "proclaim dror/ liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof" (yes, this is where the verse on the Liberty Bell originated). In this special year all properties which may have changed hands during the previous forty-nine years are to be returned to the original owners. This is viewed by the Torah as a ge'ulah/redemption for all time. At the heart of this equality is a degree of equality between all people. 

When the people first enter then land, it is to be apportioned to the 12 tribes and then, within each tribe, to each family or clan.  Should anyone need to sell land for any reason, such as to pay a debt, it will revert to the original owner in the 50th year.  In modern parlance, no single person or family will be allowed to own all of the prime real estate. Just as the shabbaton/Sabbatical year (every seventh year) is meant to remind us that the land belongs to God and not to us, the yovel reminds us that, even when it may that we may "possess" the land, since it has been in the family for up to 49
years, it is still not ours. Each of us is merely a long term, but temporary, renter.

The one exception to the rule of the
yovel is that those owning homes in a city with a wall around it need not return the house to its original owner. They are not "redeemed." Rather, the "new" owner is allowed to keep the home. If the home is not in a walled city, it is treated in the same manner as the fields of the earth and the property is redeemed.

Rabbi Shmuel Birnbaum, of Vancouver, BC, gave a beautiful interpretation of this passage at a retreat I attended a number of years ago. He spoke of how, in our quest for personal, spiritual redemption, we must try to free ourselves from whatever is keeping us chained to the past and  preventing us from being in the present.  Old habits, behaviors, and thoughts often hinder us from feeling free or"redeemed. We each build a wall around our heart that prevents redemption from
  occurring. It is these walls that prevent God, and others, from entering our lives.

However, Rabbi Birnham also reminded us of the fact that a
shofar (ram's horn) was to be blown to announce the start of the yovel year. Later, in the biblical book of Joshua, we read that Joshua and his men blew the shofar in order to knock down the walls of Jericho so they could conquer it as part of their conquest of the land of Canaan. We too must find a way to tear down the walls that we have built around our hearts in order to liberate and redeem ourselves from our self-imposed captivity. 

For each of us this means something different. However, we must remember that each has the sound of the shofar within us.  For within our souls, we possess the innate ability to tear down the walls our ego has built so we can let God and others in. Even when things might seems most hopeless, we can all find the divine energy that flows within us and with which we can redeem ourselves.

But this also has an important message for us as a community, a country, and a world in the year 2012.  For during the past year we have heard and red of the disparity between the "haves" and "have nots" in our society.  I doubt that there is anyone who has not encountered the "Occupy" movement or those chanting "we are the 99%" this past  year.  And though I do not usually enter the realm of politics in this blog, I believe that the spiritual truth in the Torah is also reflected in this movement.  The truth of which I speak is not that all the wealthy are evil, for to call them evil is simply to judge them and place a label on them, which is counter to the principles of mindfulness (and the values of Judaism, as I understand them).  For I am certain that there are people who do good things and people who do bad things within both the 1% and the 99%.   For the same reason, I do not believe that the message is that all in the 99% are good, righteous and just people.  Rather, the message that I believe is found in the parashah which is also at the core of these movements is that there must be equality in our world.  No one person or group of people should control everything.  That is not part of the Divine plan.  That is the work of the all-too-human ego!

The Torah does teach that there will always be poor on the earth (though we can certainly work towards transforming that in to a falsehood), but that doesn't mean we just sit idly by as more and more people fall beneath the poverty line.  We must fight for equity and equality as a reflection of the principle of equanimity that is at the heart of mindfulness and, I believe, of the Torah.

I am not saying that we need to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Nor am I saying that there should not be any wealthy, or that those who innovate, create and (hopefully) improve our world and our lives should not be rewarded for what they do.  I am enough of a realist to know that financial gain for the Steve Jobs of the world is part of the system.  However, the symbolic 1% should not be continually becoming richer at the expense of the rest of the society.  We are all responsible for one another and we all need to work towards a more just and fair world in terms of poverty and wealth. I firmly believe that this is what the Torah teaches and which the Prophets implored even more emphatically.  

In the second half of this week's parashah, called Behukotai, we read of the punishments that the people will incur if they disobey God's commandments, including those in Behar.  The text states that if we do not obey God's commandments our world will eventually be in such turmoil that we will run in fear from "the sound of a driven leaf."  

Putting aside the difficulties I have with the traditional theology of reward and punishment, I believe there is an important message in that verse.  For when we as a society ignore the greater good (which is how I am choosing to define "God's commandments") we allow society to run amok and spiral downwards. We then find ourselves living in constant fear.  We fear losing all we have. We fear  not being able to pay our mortgages.  We fear not having medical care.  We fear that we won't be able to afford groceries this week.  The simple basics of life have the potential to instill fear within us when the world is not in balance.  

And so, this week's parashah as a spiritual lesson that also instructs us in how to handle seemingly mundane or secular parts of life (the best spiritual lessons tend to do that).  It does not tell us what political approach to use, what laws to pass, what taxes to raise or lower.  But what it does tell us is that we must make the good of all, and the creation of fairness and equity paramount, even while acknowledging that there will always be poor and there will always be rich in our world.

This is an important message for us to keep in mind during the counting of the Omer - this special time of the year between Pesakh/Passover, the holiday of our freedom, and Shavuot, the holiday of responsibility (the giving of the Law). However, the fact that in a free society we all have responsibilities to one another, is a message that we must remember every day and every moment. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, may his memory be a blessing wrote, "in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."  Let us work towards the day when all indeed recognize their responsibility, but none will be guilty of neglecting it.  May we all find the sound of the shofar within us so that we can tear down the walls around our hearts and bring redemption and hope into our lives and into our world. May its sound be clear and strong, so that it pierces not only our own hearts, but also the heart of all people, of the universe and of God with it's call.

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