Important Ideas to Live By
Overview of Parshas Behar
The Mishkan and Mt. Sinai
The Mishkan, Mt. Sinai and Sefer Vayikrah
“Who Knows Seven?”
The Nation of Israel: A Single Extended Family
On the Treatment of a Slave
Both charging and receiving interest are prohibited
Overview of Parshas Bechukosi
“Eem B’chukosi Taylachu…”
“Hope Despite Holocaust”
Laws of Valuation
Important Ideas to Live By
The essence of the Torah is the promotion of ethical behavior and social justice in the world.
Every human being has worth. The less well-off and slaves need to be treated with extra kindness.
We are an extended family bound by religion, tradition and history and have a special responsibility to help one another.
The importance of the recurring number seven in…
Days of the week
links us to, and reminds us of, Creation and the existence of a God who purposefully created the universe during a period of seven days (or periods) and “rested” on day seven. Creation and history are not random events.
Shemitah and Yovayl provide major personal, societal, economic, and religious benefits. Their existence enabled each Israelite family to maintain its land inheritance and prevented the concentration of the Land in the hands of a few.
Our behavior has consequences in our life
Overview of Parshas Behar
Seven positive and seventeen negative commandments
Focus on the holiness of the land of Israel
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
Yovayl (“Jubilee” year after seven Shemitah cycles)
• “And you shall proclaim freedom [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
Social justice for fellow Jews [when the impoverishment of another Hebrew is mentioned, he is referred to as “thy brother”]
Idolatry is forbidden
Sabbath must be observed
The Mishkan and Mt. Sinai
This parsha opens with the statement “And God spoke to Moshe on (prefix of Hebrew letter “beis”) Mount Sinai saying”. [Note: it’s also possible that the prefix “beis” means “with”. Understood this way, God is communicating to us that He wants us to live our lives “with” (i.e., behaving in a way that is consistent with) the ethics and morals presented on Mt. Sinai.]
Torah scholars wonder about the connection between Mt. Sinai and Shemitah (the immediately following topic):
Rashi cites the Talmudic answer that the juxtaposition is meant to teach us that just like Shemitah was presented at Mt. Sinai, so, too, all the Mitzvas and their details were commanded at Mt. Sinai.
But both Rasham (Rashi’s grandson) and his contemporary Ibn Ezra, provide an alternate approach. They think that the reference to Mt. Sinai is to remind us that the Torah and all its laws were given before the construction of the Mishkan.
The Mishkan was a mobile Mt. Sinai designed to offer a concrete replica of the awesome moment when the Israelites became a nation and began their relationship with God as a people and not just as individuals. The Mishkan was laid out in a three-part division of space that mimicked the location of the Israelites at the revelation on Mt. Sinai.
Most of the nation stood at the foot of the mountain. Similarly, all Israelites were permitted in the large Mishkan courtyard.
The area higher up on the mountain finds a parallel in the “Kodesh” section of the Mishkan, (which contained the Menorah, the Table, and the copper altar) and into which only the priests could enter.
The top of the fiery mountain, where Moshe stood alone, finds its counterpart in the Holy of Holies (where the Holy Ark was domiciled). Only the High Priest could enter this sanctum sanctorum and only on Yom Kippur, carrying with him a pan of burning incense.
The first and largest section of the text in Sefer Vayikrah (with the largest number of chapters and verses, as shown above) deals with matters relating to the (large)Tabernacle outer courtyard:
• Laws of purity (to determine who was permitted to enter)
• Laws about the slaughtering of animals
• Prohibition of ingesting blood
The second, smaller section of Vayikrah deals with the laws relating to the smaller “Kodesh” section of the Tabernacle including:
• Laws specific to the priests who alone could enter this area
• Laws pertaining to the Menorah
• Laws pertaining to the Table
The third, smallest section of the text, deals with blessings and curses arising from the nation’s either observing or disobeying the Torah as embodied in the Holy Ark, which contained the Ten Commandments. This area, the Holy of Holies, is also the smallest section of the Mishkan.
Sefer Vayikrah is primarily a book of laws, except for two reported incidents. One is about the strange fire that was brought into the Mishkan by Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. The second is about a blasphemer. In Douglas’ view these two narratives are representative of the two screens or curtains that divide the Mishkan into three sections.
The first incident makes mention of how Aaron’s sons remained “at the entrance to the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting)” and that both Aharon and Moshe entered the Ohel Moed, then exited to bless the people. The focus of these verses is on the location where the first screen (“masach”) serves as a divider between the outer court and the Kodesh area.
Although the second incident makes no mention of separation, the verses immediately preceding make mention of the “paroches”, which is the curtain that separates the holy area (Kodesh) from the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Kadashim)!
The three-time references to Mt. Sinai in the opening verse of this Parsha and again after the curses and again at the end of the entire Sefer may represent an enveloping, closing reminder of the apex that was reached by Moshe in his summit with God on the mountain and its attainable replication by the Israelites through the Holy of Holies.
“Who Knows Seven?”
The number seven recurs often:
Shabbos occurs on the seventh day of the week
Shemitah is a seven-year cycle
Yovayl occurs the year after a period of seven Shemitah cycles.
Two of the Three Festivals last seven days
The third Festival, Shavuos, occurs after seven weeks of counting the Omer.
The High Holy Days take place in the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar
The times of “Seven” are to…
Rest the body
Nourish the soul
Regain lost freedom
Recover ancestral property
Replenish the soil
Prompt the realization that all one’s earthly possessions ultimately derive from God.
According to Nechama Leibowitz, the sevenfold counting of the Omer “symbolized the incomplete character of the liberation from Egypt and the looking forward to its final consummation in the receiving of the Torah”.
The word Shabbos and related root-words frequently recur in the text. All events lead us back to the seven days of Creation that culminate in Shabbos. The calendar of sacred days and seasons prompts thoughts about God; about His creation of, and ongoing involvement in, the universe; about our place in His universe; and about our experiencing gratitude for what we have and for what we do not have.
“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”.
Just as God refrained from productive creativity on the seventh day of Creation and just as we humans are commanded to rest regularly on the seventh day of the week, so, too, the land needs to have its own Sabbath and lie fallow every seventh year. 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 (knowing that the loan would be cancelled in the seventh year). As a result, the destitute had no way of getting the funds they needed.
According to the Torah law only loans made between two private parties are cancelled. 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.”
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 Yovayl but, according to Rabbi Gunther Plaut, “may reflect the modern use of jubilation to designate a festive celebration, especially an important anniversary”.
Martin Buber thinks that just like the ram is the leader of flocks, Yovayl is the year that…
• “Leads the return
• Leads home
• Brings home
• Restores impoverished owners of land to their original land
• Returns people fallen into bondage to their families
…the horn of Yovayl calls and fetches us home.”
Yovayl rules include:
• Liberation of slaves
• Prohibition of farm work (just like in the Shemitah year)
• Lands returning to the original owner
• Voiding of current owner’s right to the land even after he has worked it for many years
• Admonishment of both parties to abide by principles of justice and honesty [“Al tonu ish es achiv”—you should not wrong one another:
o No insulting
o No provoking
o No taking advantage of the weakness of the other party
o Avoiding tactless remarks calculated to hurt the other person’s feelings
Sefer Ha’chinuch thinks that Yovayl was designed to curb Man’s acquisitive instincts and to remind him that the earth belongs to God. Counting of the years would prevent someone from coveting and possibly stealing land belonging to others, because ultimately it would be returned to the original owner.
The nineteenth century social and economic reformer Henry George observed that in agrarian societies, the concentration of land in the hands of a few led to the downfall of those ancient societies. Owning land equals wealth. 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 is more correctly to be thought of as a long-term lease rather than an outright buy. The price is determined by the number and value of the crops remaining until Yovayl arrives. The legislation prevents the development of a landless class and the concentration of property and power in the hands of a select few.
The mystical Rav Kook sees in Yovayl “a remedy for the distortions of the past, restoring national life to its original conception and its pristine freshness…the nation is visited with a spirit of forgiveness and repentance in remedying all the injustices of the past…as soon as Yom Kippur arrived the Bet Din sounded the shofar, the slaves left their households and fields returned to their owners”. Rav Kook perceives…
A restoration of individual self-respect and freedom
A nurturing of the nation’s soul
An elimination of inequalities, distortions and faults which facilitates
A freeing of the divine soul dwelling in the nation, allowing it to shine with all its spiritual glory
Bible Professor Yairah Amit of Tel-Aviv University views Yovayl “as a social law that…
Opens new options for a better life to every member of Israelite society in economic straits
Limits the competitive race for achievement to 50 years
Demonstrates an attempt to struggle against the continuous domination and exploitation of one part of society by another
Ensures each member of Israelite society a new cycle of opportunities
Is an astonishing idea conceived to forestall the possibility that any Israelite would find himself forever without property and forever dependent
Attempts by means of ideological legislation to direct and educate society, to impose divine justice, and thus to ensure the right of all its members to live honorably, with a guaranteed minimum of economic means”
In summary, 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 trio of seven—Shabbos, Shemita and Yovayl—works together to invest the nation with a spirit of forgiveness and a remedying of past injustices.
According to the Talmud, Yovayl was celebrated so long as the entire land of Israel was inhabited by Israelites. It ceased to be observed with the disappearance of the Ten Tribes.
The Nation of Israel: A Single Extended Family
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments on the recurrent use of “brother” in description of social legislation:
• “…let no one wrong his brother
• …redeem what his brother sold
• …if your brother is impoverished, redeem what his brother sold
• …let your brother live with you”
The word “brother” sometimes means a relative but mostly means a fellow Jew. As a Jew, we are each a member of an extended family-- being children of Avraham and Sarah; sharing the same history; reliving the same memories on holidays and often suffering together at the hands of our enemies.
Rambam elaborates: “If a brother will not show mercy to a brother, who will show mercy to them? To whom do the poor of Israel lift up their eyes? To the gentiles who hate them and pursue them? Their eyes are turned to their brethren alone”.
Rabbi Sacks concludes that the family is the most powerful vehicle for continuity in that it provides education and tradition to its offspring. Family feeling is also the most primal and powerful moral bond. “Wherever families are strong, a sense of altruism exists that can be extended outward from family to friends to neighbors to community and from there to the nation as a whole… The Jewish people remains a family, often divided, always argumentative, but bound in a common bond of fate nonetheless.” Our parsha reminds us of our obligation to help our fallen brethren rise again.
On the Treatment of a Slave
Slavery as it existed in the ancient and modern world (and still exists today) was (and remains) 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”)
A Hebrew slave 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 Israelite] advance interest...do not lend him money at advance interest or give him your food at advance interest”
The biblical prohibition against charging interest is the only such restriction known to us from the Ancient Near East
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 “tarbis” [which later evolved into the word ribbis, “increase”] which refers to the interest received by the creditor.
In the agrarian society of the Torah lending money to a fellow Israelite 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 near 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 create 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. The Jewish nation is meant to behave as a cohesive unit, like a single organism, each one concerned for the other’s benefit as much as with his own. Loans with even the slightest amount of interest are forbidden, regardless of how rich or poor either party may be, or what use the money will go for. Therefore, this prohibition does not apply to a non-Jew. Rambam rules that it is obligatory to charge interest on loans to non-Jews.
A Jew is permitted to borrow money from a non-Jew and pay interest to him on the loan, thereby enriching him; and a Jewish person is also permitted to lend money to a non-Jew who asks for a loan and collect interest from him, just as non-Jews are permitted to lend and borrow money to and from each other with interest. Perhaps the underlying idea is that interest is not prohibited in relationships with any non-Jewish person or entity, including institutions and corporations not owned or controlled by 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 nature. 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.”
With the rise of commercial activity in the sixteenth century, loans became sources of capital for businesses. 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 way to charge interest on these business credits.
Charging interest is a necessary part of market life. Like charging rent, business interest is amoral, i.e., neither moral nor immoral, just business. The great economist, Adam Smith (1723-1790), explains
“That [revenue] derived from it [stock] by the person who does not employ it himself, but lends it to another, is called the interest or use of money. It is the compensation which the borrower pays to the lender, for the profit which he has an opportunity of making using the money”.
Sephardic scholar Rabbi Eli J. Monsour cites the approach of the Keli Yakar (Rav Shlomo Efrayim of Luntshitz,1550-1619) in understanding the prohibition against interest. There is always uncertainty in any business. The Torah urges us to believe in God and to recognize that it is His role and His involvement that determines success or failure.
There is much less uncertainty, however, in money lending because the collateral for the loan guarantees the creditors’ recourse should the borrower fail. The Torah wants us to live our lives knowing that ultimately nothing is guaranteed, and all is in God’s hands. Overconfidence by the creditor can undermine his faith in, and dependence on, God. The prohibition is directed at both borrower and lender because when the former pays interest he is contributing to the latter’s sense of financial security and overconfidence. But the repayment of loans to non-Jews is not guaranteed because of their ongoing and historic hostility to us. Lending to them and charging interest, therefore, is permitted. The prohibition of charging and accepting interest is presented in this parsha that discusses shemitah because both subjects are about the fundamental belief that our livelihood is in God’s hands.
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 arrangement into an investment partnership. 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 Keli Yakar ‘s approach would argue that the introduction of some uncertainty by making it a business and not a loan is enough to avoid the prohibition of interest. The banking industry in Israel has also adopted use of this document.
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.”
Seven positive mitzvahs and five prohibitions
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
Stages of 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
“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 on stone (in contrast to writing with ink on paper or parchment), the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the deeper meaning: blessings are earned by those who constantly and consistently “walk” (i.e., lead their lives) experiencing the words and ideas of the Torah day-in day-out as if they were engraved on their hearts and minds--much like permanent and deep stone engravings. The root is also related to chok, those divine laws that appear to lack any rational explanation. Rewards are bestowed on those who observe even these difficult-to-understand mitzvahs.
Recurrence of a root-word highlights the major theme of the text, according to Martin Buber. The Hebrew word “k-e-r-i”, which is repeated seven times, means “haphazard” or “natural accident” or “indifference”. It is the belief that what happens to a person is simply a matter of chance or coincidence (Rambam). It is this indifference, this trivialization of the relationship between the nation of Israel and God (“If you walk with me with keri”) that brings on national calamity. God responds by walking with us with keri.
Variations of the Hebrew root-word for desolation (shemama) occur some six times, underscoring the bleak and devastating conditions that will result. “At different periods the Land of Israel was desolate not only because the Israelites were exiled from it, but also because its conquerors found it uninhabitable” (Rav Adin Steinsaltz).
Several times the Torah repeats that we will experience “the punishment for your sins sevenfold”. The number seven links to the days of creation; to the years of Shmeita and to the seven cycles of Shmeita leading to Yovayl.
Why Are the Blessings of a Material, Not Spiritual, Nature?
If the goal is to achieve rewards in the world to come would it not be more appropriate for the Torah to focus on the eternal spirituality and not the worldly, temporary materialism? Both Nechama Leibowitz and Rabbi B.S. Jacobson cite several approaches to dealing with this issue:
Achad Ha’am argues that the concepts of the world to come and resurrection of the dead were later developments. These ideas emerged 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. The material blessings listed here were for the entire community, and not for an individual.
Ibn Ezra thinks that the blessings were stated in general terms but the curses in very specific language 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 to which the masses could relate
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 most 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 actions. 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 cannot be spiritual so must necessarily be material. He cites several instances in the Torah where spiritual recompense is alluded to only when addressing the individual.
Isaac Arama notes that, in fact, the Torah does repeatedly stress 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 reasons that the then-existing slave mentality necessitated promises of things that were tangible and immediate.
On the Tochahcha (Admonitions/Warnings)
The blessings for faithfulness are presented in general terms. By contrast, notes Rabbi Hertz, the penalties and horrors that would befall the sinful people are described in extensive detail, arranged in five groups of increasing severity:
• Sickness and defeat
• Wild beasts
Based on the wording and frequent referral to the land (“Sabbatical rest”; “land will enjoy its Sabbaths”), discussed in the immediately preceding sections it appears that these punishments were triggered by the nation’s failure to observe the Shemita and Yovayl years. Now, as the depopulated land lies barren, the violated Sabbaths will be made up (“then shall the land expiate its Sabbath years”).
Rabbi David Fohrman presents an intriguing hypothesis that links to the Garden of Eden story. In both, there are the…
Divine blessings of prosperity
Conquest and dominion
Lushness and fecundity
Rashi’s comment on the verse in this week’s Parsha, “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 accepting God’s dominion over all the goodness He has granted us. In the Garden of Eden, it was manifest in the one restriction of not eating 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 in time (Sabbaths) make the point that all the goodness that accrues to us derives from God and, as such, we are obligated to acknowledge Him and to follow His dictates.
By not accepting God’s edict to them, Adam and Eve communicated their belief that they could act any way they pleased because they felt that it was they (and not God) who were “masters of the universe”. The consequence of their behavior was a breakdown in their relationship with God; they were forced to hide from God’s anticipated anger.
The Torah is giving us a second chance to cling to and walk as one with God – if only we acknowledge that these gifts are from Him. By violating the Shemita and the Yovayl laws, it is as if we are showing (like Adam and Eve) that we think that it is we who are in control, not God. The inevitable consequence of such belief and behavior is a loss of the close relationship we once had with God, as manifest in the curses and horrors of the Tochahcha. *****
There is a second Tochacha recorded in parshas Ki Savo; that punishment is 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 even more 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 this first Tochacha relates to God’s past Covenant with us, while the one in Ki Savo relates to the future. The consolation is that after 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 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 is not sinning.
In Ki Savo, as the Israelites are about to enter the holy land as “ish echad blayv echad”, with a keen 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 fully coalesced into a unified nation.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes three significant differences between the admonitions here and the scolding presented in Ki Savo:
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 here 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 nation of Israel.
“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 meeting another.” But the Talmud perceives a blessing in that our enemies will be unable to engineer a destruction of our people scattered around the world.
“And I [God] shall bring them into the land of their enemies” on the surface appears to be another punishment. 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.
God’s anger is not everlasting. 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 Book of Vayikrah Symphony…
…as “conducted” by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag.
The opening overture presents themes regarding the individual yearning for closeness to God by bringing offerings (korbanos). 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. Most the Sefer deals with communal issues. But at the beginning and at the end is the melody of individuality in expression and in creativity.
Valuation not Value
Ayrchin is a type of vow that allows a person to donate to the Holy Temple the monetary value of one's field; or of one's house; or of one's animal; or the monetary value of oneself.
The Kohen evaluates the worth of the donated item. However, when it comes to pledging the value of a human being, the Torah establishes a standard scale based solely on age and gender (see following table). This valuation of human beings does not take into consideration any other qualities: wealth, health, appearance, mental capacity, tribe, or even whether a person is a Jew or a gentile.
But why not allow the priest to estimate the value of a person just as he is responsible for valuing the donor’s non-human possessions? Also, why is the listed valuation for a woman significantly lower than for a man, something that may strike the reader as sexist?
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin thinks that the valuation system underscores that human life is inestimable, and therefore, only human strength can be valued, but not a human being’s essential worth...The vowing of the equivalent of a human being is connected to the ancient practice of dedicating one's life or the life of one's child in service to the Temple. Because men were assumed to be physically stronger and more productive, they receive a higher valuation than females. This is not about moral worth or the level of sanctity. Rather, the donation represents the equivalent value of human labor and service on behalf of the Temple.
Rav Steinsaltz differentiates between the vow to donate one’s own “worth” and the vow to give someone else’s “value” to the Temple. In the former, a fixed sum is specified, as indicated above. In the latter, an estimation is made of how much the individual could earn in his lifetime and that is the amount that is donated. When it comes to trying to determine our own worth, one’s self-image may interfere with arriving at a true value. We cannot truly determine our own inner value. God alone knows our hearts and our souls. Our individual self-worth cannot come from human judgment.
The value of a woman is determined in accordance with her capacity for work, not her intrinsic worth. It was not meant to include her infinite, indeterminable value as mother, wife, child-raiser, and performer of all domestic chores.
Why Sefer Vayikrah Ends with Laws of Valuation
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 Book 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.