Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Overview of Behar
Seven positive and seventeen negative commandments
Shemitah the Sabbatical Year (last year of seven year cycle)
• Complete rest for the land
• Sowing fields, pruning vineyards, reaping after growth of previous year’s harvest and picking grapes prohibited
• Produce that grows on its own during the year is considered ownerless and available for anyone to eat
• Shemitah year ends this Rosh Hashana (2015)
Yovayl (“Jubilee” year after seven Shemitah cycles)
• “Proclaim release [of debts and servants] throughout the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof”
• Shofar blasts on the tenth day of the seventh month (Yom Kippur) announce its arrival
• Each person’s hereditary land (allotted when his ancestors first entered the Land of Canaan) is returned to him, if it had been sold
• Hebrew slaves are freed
• Prohibition of sowing, reaping, and picking grapes
Redemption of hereditary land in Israel
Redemption of hereditary houses in walled cities in Israel
Helping another Jew by…
• Acting before he begins to fail
• Not letting him starve
• Not charging interest for lending money or foodstuffs
Idolatry is forbidden
Sabbath must be observed
Overview of Bechukosi
Seven positive mitzvahs and five prohibitions
Materialistic rewards for observing mitzvahs
• Fruitfulness of the land
• Peace in the land
• Victory over enemies
• Prosperity and population growth
• Divine Presence will be felt in the land of Israel
Punishments for disobedience (Tochacha)
• Sickness and defeat
• Famine and wild beasts
• Horrors of siege
• National destruction and Exile
• Repentance will bring restoration
Valuations of dedications to the Temple
Consecration of animals to the Temple
Consecration of real estate to the Temple
Redemption of Second Tithe
The Linkage of the Number Seven
This week, the Torah presents ideas and regulations designed to rest the body; nourish the soul; regain lost freedom; recover ancestral property; replenish the soil and to prompt the realization that all one’s earthly positions ultimately derive from God. Shabbos occurs on the seventh day. Shemitah is a seven year cycle. Yovayl occurs the year after a period of seven Shemitah cycles. Of the Three Festivals, two last seven days. The third, Shavuos, occurs after seven weeks of counting the Omer. The High Holy Days take place in the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. The word Shabbos and related root-words appear often in the text. All harken back to the seven days of Creation that culminated in Shabbos. The calendar of sacred days and seasons prompts thoughts about God, about His ongoing involvement in the universe and about our place in the world.
“But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord.”
Shemitah literally means loosening or easing or releasing.
God refrained from productive creativity on the seventh day of Creation. We are commanded to rest weekly, on the seventh day. So, too, the land needs to have its own Sabbath and lie fallow every seven years. All agricultural activity is prohibited; fruits and vegetables that grow on their own are deemed ownerless (hefker) and available for all to eat.
During Shemitah all outstanding debts between Jewish debtors and creditors are cancelled. But during the first century BCE, Hillel the Elder realized that this created serious societal problems in that the lenders refused to lend and those who were desperately in need had no way to obtain loans. Because of this pressing need Hillel instituted the pruzbul, a legal document that transfers the debt to the Beth Din (religious court). The wording of the pruzbul is “I give over to you [the Beth Din] all debts which I have, so that I may collect them any time I wish.” According to the Torah law only loans made between two private parties are cancelled.
Acknowledges that the land belongs to God
Provides the opportunity for the population to study Torah (Ibn Ezra)
Reinforces the idea that amassing assets should not be one’s only life goal since ultimately it is Divine involvement that determines success (Isaac Arama)
Places limitation on one’s eating (due to food scarcity) which, in modern times, leads to simpler, healthier lives
Eliminates class differences in that all vegetation that grows is available to all equally
Facilitates soil restoration by requiring that fields remain uncultivated
“A Yovayl Shall That Fiftieth Year be to You”
Yovayl means a ram or ram’s horn. Loud blasts from the ram’s horn were sounded throughout the land on Yom Kippur to announce the start of the Yovayl year. The translation “Jubilee Year” (from the Latin root for “wild shout”) has no connection with Yovyal but “may reflect the modern use of jubilation to designate a festive celebration, especially an important anniversary” (Gunther Plaut). Martin Buber thinks that just like the ram is the leader of flocks, Yovayl is “the year that leads the return, that leads home and brings home, that restores impoverished owners of land to their original land and people fallen into bondage to their families…the horn of Yovayl calls and fetches us home.”
Yovayl has major societal, economic and religious benefits including …
o Preventing the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few
o Countering our natural acquisitive inclination
o Reminding us again of our dependence on God, the ultimate “owner” of the universe
o Realizing that no human being is chattel to be indentured forever
o Stressing the importance of a united family.
The nineteenth century social and economic reformer Henry George observed that the concentration of land in the hands of a few led to the downfall of many ancient societies. Yovayl assures the even distribution of wealth by insisting in the re-division of the land in accordance with the original allocation, thereby making monopoly impossible. Purchase of land should be thought of as a long term lease rather than an outright buy with the price dependent on the number and value of the crops remaining until Yovayl arrives and reverses ownership.
According to the Talmud, Yovayl was celebrated as long as the entire land of Israel was inhabited by Israelites and ceased to be observed with the disappearance of the Ten Tribes.
On The Treatment of a Slave [“Eved”]
Slavery as it existed in the ancient and modern world (and still exists today) was cruel and inhumane. The slave could be punished or killed at the master’s will. In ancient Greece the slave had no more rights than the beast. Athens maintained a thriving slave market. Aristotle believed that the practice of any manual job should disqualify the practitioner from citizenship. All non-Greeks slaves by birth were fit for nothing but obedience. In ancient Rome slaves were the lowest class of society, having no rights and no legal status or individuality. They could not create relations or families, nor could they own property. They were considered the property of the owner.The slave could be mutilated and crucified at the master’s whim.
The Torah’s attitude towards the institution of slavery is both progressive and enlightened. Nechama Leibowitz cites the German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) who observed that the Torah has no unique word to describe a servant and master. Eved can refer to anyone who…
Has sold himself
Has been sold
Is God-fearing (eved Hashem)
An eved always remains a human, never chattel. His treatment is highly regulated. He…
• Is bought in a private transaction, not in a public slave market
• Is treated with dignity
• Eats the same food as his master
• Cannot be given needless work or work with no time limit
• Is automatically freed after six years or during Yovayl, whichever comes first
The treatment of an eved is so demanding that the Talmud concluded that “Whoever buys a Hebrew slave buys a master over himself”.
“Do not exact from him [fellow Jew] advance interest...do not lend him money at advance interest or give him your food at advance interest”
Both charging and receiving interest are prohibited. One of the Hebrew words used to characterize interest is neshech, which derives from the root meaning “to bite”. Demanding payment of interest in advance takes a substantial “bite” out of the sum being loaned. The other word is “tarbit” [which later evolved into the word ribbit, “increase”] refers to the interest received by the creditor.
In the agrarian society of the Torah lending money to a fellow Jewish farmer [who was considered family] was an act of philanthropy—and not a business proposition—that provided the farmer with the necessary working capital to purchase supplies. The loan would be repaid after the crop is sold. The location of this prohibition in close proximity to the laws of Yovayl and Shemitah suggests that the purpose of the law was to drive home again the idea that that property is not ours unconditionally and that we have a responsibility to share our resources with others. Therefore, one cannot “rent out” money because it is God’s and merely on loan to us.
The intent of the mitzvah is to emphasize our obligation to our co-religionists. A shared history and outlook creates a unique relationship which is evidenced by the obligation to lend to our fellow Jews interest-free. Such loans demonstrate an extra level of compassion and responsibility for the welfare of our brethren. Therefore, this prohibition does not apply to a non-Jew. Rambam asserts that it is obligatory to charge interest on loans to non-Jews.
Rav S.R. Hirsch reasons that the ban on interest belongs in the category of sins between man and God. It is about an excessive [and false] sense of ownership that may prompt one to refuse to lend money to others in need unless accompanied by profit. But one who truly appreciates and understands that it is God who has the ultimate ownership would act differently. Since the crime is not about victimhood, both lender and borrower share in the violation. Furthermore, notes Rav Hirsch, utilizing one’s funds for capital investment and for paying labor (and not for financial transactions) creates the possibility of narrowing the gap between rich and poor.
Some suggest that the interest is a form of servitude, but of a financial type. A no-interest loan is a more dignified relationship between the parties.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that lending money for interest brings in revenue without any physical effort. This stands in sharp contrast to the Torah’s approach that to be meaningful “even spiritual revenue must be earned by active involvement.”
In the sixteenth century, as life became much more commercial, loans were primarily extended to provide commercial capital. As these kinds of loans were vital for commercial success, and were not the kinds of loans first envisioned by the Torah, efforts were made to find a permissible vehicle.
The Talmud discusses an iska business arrangement in a partnership. Rabbis in Poland and subsequently in other parts of Eastern Europe created a document called “heter iska”. The essence of this document is to transform the lender-borrower relationship into an investment relationship. The provider of the capital, now a partner in the venture, agrees to limit his share in the profits to the dollar amount of the interest payments. What was once an interest payment is now considered profit. This technical redefinition of the loan as an investment allowed Jewish commercial enterprises to succeed without the laws of interest being violated. The banking industry in Israel has also adopted this device.
Following is the introduction to a Shtar Isko [Agreement Concerning Interest on Loans] format developed by the Beth Din of America:
“Jewish Religious Law strictly prohibits the paying or receiving of interest on loans made between Jews. However, when monies are advanced in the course of a business transaction, an agreement may be entered into, whereby the provider and receiver of these funds are considered equal partners. This partnership is based upon the stipulation that, upon request, every loss must be attested to by two trustworthy witnesses, and all profits verified by oath. All consequent profits and losses are then equally shared. However, in order to avoid these very stringent requirements, the provider of the funds, under this “Shtar Isko”, agrees to waive his share of the profits in lieu of receiving a fixed percentage of the money advanced. This percentage is then considered profit, rather than interest on a loan. This agreement becomes effective when the receiver of the funds executes a form as set below.”
“Eem B’chukosi Taylachu…”
This opening verse of the parsha means “if [or when] you walk in [pursue] my statutes…” then you will be rewarded with blessings for your obedience. Building on the similarly sounding Hebrew word “chakuk” which means engraving, the Lubavitcher Rebbe perceives a deeper meaning here: blessings are earned by those who constantly and continually “walk” (i.e., lead their lives) experiencing the words and ideas of the Torah as if they were engraved on their hearts and minds--much like permanent and deep stone engravings.
Why Are the Blessings of a Material, Not Spiritual, Nature?
If the ultimate goal is to achieve spirituality in the world to come wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the Torah to focus on the eternal spirituality and not the worldly materialism? Both Nechama Leibowitz and Rabbi B.S. Jacobson cite a number of approaches to dealing with this issue.
Achad Ha'am argues that the concepts of the world to come and resurrection of the dead developed only after the nation lost its independence and fell into a deep malaise. The pressing national depression precipitated a replacement of national destiny with concepts promising individual salvation.
Ibn Ezra thinks that the blessings were stated in general terms but the curses in very specific language in order to frighten and deter the listeners. Blessings would be immediate but the curses would occur gradually. First there would be minor sufferings, to deter further sinning. But if the evildoing persists, then the most serious curses would be inflicted. Furthermore, the Torah purposely concealed the ultimate spiritual rewards to prevent misunderstandings. Because the world-to-come (Olam Habah) concept is too difficult to explain in a group setting, rewards are presented in a commonly understood language that the masses could relate to.
Rambam believes that this Olam Habah concept is unfathomable. Material rewards are not meant to be the ultimate rewards. Rather, their existence provides an environment conducive to good conduct, thereby facilitating our ability to achieve the ultimate, true spiritual experience. Our conduct in this world determines our fate in the world to come. Ideally, one strives to perform mitzvahs for their intrinsic value and not for any ulterior motive.
Ramban points out that the listed blessings of Nature benefit the entire group. God weighs the behavior of the majority of the people in determining reward or punishment. Individuals, on the other hand, are judged individually by their own behavior. We prosper or perish based on our own behavior. The Midrash observes that the first paragraph of Shema-- which is addressed in the singular to the individual -- makes no mention of rewards.
Joseph Albo thinks that promises to the nation as a whole cannot be spiritual so must necessarily be material. He cites a number of instances in the Torah where spiritual recompense is alluded to when addressing the individual.
Isaac Arama notes that, in fact, the Torah repeatedly stresses the spiritual rewards for good behavior: “…And I will set My abode among you… And I will set My abode among you, and will be your God, and you shall be My people”. Once we are freed of the mundane worldly, material challenges, this spirituality can be experienced and can thrive.
Sara Lee Boshnack speculates that the then-existing slave mentality necessitated promises of things that were tangible and immediate.
On the Tochahcha (Admonitions/Warnings)
Based on the wording, repetitive referral to the land and the proximity of topics it appears that the curses were triggered by the nation’s failure to observe the Shemita and Yovayl Sabbatical years. Now, as the depopulated land is barren, the violated Sabbaths will be made up numerically (“then shall the land expiate its Sabbath years”).
Rabbi David Fohrman offers an intriguing hypothesis that links to the Garden of Eden story. In both instances there are the Divine blessings of prosperity; of conquest and dominion; of peace; and of lushness and fecundity. Rashi’s comment on the verse “I will stroll among you and I will be your God” is “I will walk with you in the Garden of Eden and will be like one of you”. The promise to maintain a relationship with God is contingent on obeying God’s demand. In the Garden of Eden it was to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Here it is to observe the land’s Sabbath(s).In Rabbi Fohrman’s view, the divine restrictions in place (in the Garden of Eden) and time (Sabbaths) make the point that all the goodness that accrues to us derives from God and, as such, we are obligated to acknowledge and to follow His dictates.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve showed that they thought it was they who had total control and dominance. The consequence of their behavior was a breakdown in their relationship with God; they were forced to hide from God’s expected anger. But the Torah is giving us a second chance to cling to and walk as one with God -- by acknowledging that these gifts are from God. By violating the Shemita and the Yovayl laws, we demonstrate (like Adam and Eve) that we think that we are the masters of the universe and that we are free to do whatever we please. The inevitable consequence of such belief and behavior is a loss of the close relationship we once had with God i.e., the curses and horrors of the Tochahcha.
There is a second Tochacha recorded in parshat Ki Savo; it represents punishment for our failure to observe Torah b’simcha u'vetuv layv--with joy and goodness of heart. That one contains 98 curses (double the size of the one in this week’s parsha) and is filled with frightening words, haunting images and an awesome array of curses far exceeding and overwhelming the preceding blessings.
Ramban’s view is that the two Tochachas refer to the destruction of the first and then the second Holy Temple.
Rav J. B. Soloveitchik’ s opinion is that the first Tochacha relates to God’s past Covenant with us, while the one in Ki Savo relates to the future. The consolation is that at the conclusion of all the punishment and all the suffering, the Jewish people will repent and return to God.
Rav Yissocher Frand elaborates: “The Destruction of the First Bais HaMikdash and the Babylonian exile which followed it had a prophesized finite end to it. The prophets foretold that the people would be in exile for 70 years and following this 70 year period, the Jews were given permission to return to the Land of Israel (where they eventually rebuilt the Bais HaMikdash). Therefore, it makes sense that the Tochacha which foretells the Babylonian Exile features the consolation in close proximity to the end of the chastisement.
We do not know of a specified date for the redemption from the Destruction of the Second Bais HaMikdash. We have now been in this exile for close to 2000 years! However, there will be an end to this exile. When will that occur? We do not know, but it will come. This is precisely why the consolation does not immediately follow the Tochacha here [in Ki Savo]. We need to wait. We need to wait until we return to our God. Eventually, we will get out of it because in the end Israel will repent and immediately thereafter they will be redeemed …but we do not know when that is going to happen.”
The Ohr HaChaim (1696-1743) suggests that the Tochacha here is in the plural because it was meant for a time when the entire nation would sin. But in Ki Savo the Tochacha is expressed in the singular because it is addressed to individuals who act inappropriately even if the nation as a whole is not sinning.
In Ki Savo, as the Israelites are about to enter the holy land as ish echad blayv echad, with a strong sense of national unity and identity, they are spoken to as one organic whole, in the singular. Here at Mt. Sinai the Israelites are spoken to in the plural because they were a rag-tag group of individuals that has not yet coalesced into a unified nation.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes three significant differences between the admonitions here and the scolding presented in Sefer Devarim. Here the wording is in the plural; in the Book of Deuteronomy it is in the singular. Here the words are God’s; in Devarim it is Moshe speaking. The curses in Devarim conclude with the vision of a future filled with bleakness and pessimism. Here God assures the nation that even in their worst hours they will never be destroyed. He still loves us and promises reconciliation if only we change our behavior. His Covenant with us remains in force. The people of the nation of Israel will continue to have a shared fate, destiny and responsibility for one another. And it is this responsibility, argues Rabbi Sacks, which demands that each of us become leaders, to originate acts of kindness that can sometimes make a major difference in the world. Out of the promised suffering and retribution will rise, like the mythical Phoenix, a people with a re-enforced sense of helping one another and aiding humanity. Rabbi Sacks concludes “… that even the smallest Jewish community can turn to the Jewish people worldwide for help to achieve things that would be exceptional for a nation many times its size. When the Jewish people join hands in collective responsibility they become a formidable force for good.”
“Hope Despite Holocaust”
Nechama Leibowitz’s analysis of the text concludes that there is the promise of an optimistic outcome embedded in the horror of the Tochacha.
Israel will lose its state; witness the destruction of the Temple; and experience a dispersion of its people. Its land will become so barren and desolate that “…enemies that dwell therein shall be astonished at it.” These enemies, astounded by the lack of everything and by the prevalence of disease and plague, will recognize that this desolation was caused by Israel’s sinning. Rashi’s interpretation is that this astonishment is good. It means that no foreign power will want the land and try to conquer it. As history has shown, many nations tried to settle in the land, but none ever succeeded. The Divine promise among the ruins has kept the land for the Jewish nation.
“And you will I scatter among the nations” means that the people will be, in Rashi’s words, “scattered like chaff, with the winnowing fan, with no one particle coming into contact with another.” But the Talmud perceives a blessing in that our enemies will be unable to engineer a total destruction of our people scattered around the world.
“And I [God] shall bring them into the land of their enemies” appears to be another punishment. But the Maharal points out that the Hebrew word for “bringing” has a positive connotation and implies concern and care. God will not just send us away, but He will bring us Himself and be with us through exile and wanderings.
One of the closing verses of the Tochahcha says it all: “And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break my covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God.”
The Sefer Vayikrah Symphony…
…as conducted by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag.
The opening overture presents themes regarding the individual yearning for closeness to God by bringing offerings (korbanot).The ensuing movements deal with a host of communal themes…
• The rules and procedures for bringing Offerings and for dealing with states of Tumah
• Centrality of Community
• Our Covenant with God
• Laws that enable us to become Kadosh in our daily lives--separate but not isolated as we engage the world
• Blessings for, and dire consequences of not, observing the Torah law.
The closing Coda of Valuation (ayrchin) brings us back to the individual and his worth. The majority of the Sefer deals with communal issues. But at the beginning and at the end is the melody of individuality in expression and in creativity.
Why Does Sefer Vayikrah End With Laws of Valuation (ayrchin)?
Dr. Alvin Greengart thinks that the depression and feelings of worthlessness that result from reading the Tochacha can be mitigated when we are reminded of our individual uniqueness and worth. Others have suggested that this is a reminder that while this Sefer is filled with communal commandments and ceremony, the Torah demands that we never lose sight of our uniquely individual value.
Some think that the unpleasant Temple housekeeping financial needs are purposely kept for last. But perhaps the opposite is true. Compared to the wrenching, frightening imagery of the Tochacha, donating money for communal needs hardly seems painful at all.