Behar (At The Mountain) Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2
This week’s portion opens with the laws of the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee. The first section describes the Sabbatical year – for six years the farmers will tend and cultivate the land and on the seventh year, they will rest. The words used in this section are all related to the Sabbath or “Shabbat” as it is known in Hebrew, and parallel the words found in the Ten Commandments regarding the observance of the Sabbath.
In the Ten Commandments we read: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.” (Exodus 20:9-10)
In this week’s portion, we read: “For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits. But in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.” (Leviticus 25:3-5)
The English translation, however, does not do justice to the extent to which the concept of Sabbath, through the recurring use of the Hebrew word Shabbat, is stressed in this passage. The Hebrew is as follows: “But in the seventh year there shall be a Shabbat Shabatton for the land, a Shabbat to the LORD. . . . It shall be a year of Shabbaton for the land.” The Hebrew Shabbaton, a derivative of the Hebrew word Shabbat, is used to denote solemn rest.
This passage, therefore, is all about the Sabbath. But rather than discuss the Sabbath that we observe each week, as we rest on the seventh day, this Sabbath refers to the land, the year of rest that must be observed in the seventh year.
The Jubilee is a further Sabbath. After seven Sabbatical years, there is a fiftieth year of Jubilee. In addition to the celebration, the blowing of the trumpets, there is a profound message of freedom and restitution implicit in the Jubilee. The verse inscribed on the famous Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, symbol of the freedom the US has always prided itself on, is found in this section: “And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan.” (Leviticus 25:10) Loans taken in previous years are forgiven, land transferred in previous years is returned to its rightful owners, keeping the tribal territories inviolate. This is truly a declaration of freedom – for any man who sold his land or any man sold into slavery to relieve a debt, is now free again. This freedom is endowed upon us by G-d.
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.” (Verse 10) Providing further understanding of the reversion of the land to its original owner, this verse extends beyond the context of real property transactions. This verse tells us, in no uncertain terms, that the Land of Israel belongs to G-d. Our presence in the land must be in line with His guidelines and His restrictions. And those restrictions include a verse in Deuteronomy: “and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” (7:2) The words “show no mercy to them” are a translation of the Hebrew “Lo Techanem.” An alternative translation of those words, found in the Talmud is: “do not give them a place,” or do not enable the nations to have a place in the land. This is consistent with the verse in our portion – the land belongs to G-d and only He has the right to determine who can take possession of it.
The Sabbath reminds us that G-d created the world and we are commanded to rest one day each week, to stop our activities of work and creation and devote ourselves to spiritual pursuits. The land does the same in the seventh year and reverts to its original owner in the 50th year, after seven Sabbatical cycles. The message is the same – the land belongs to G-d and only He can determine who may possess it, who may cultivate it and when.
Behukotai (My Statutes)
Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34
“If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase… I will give peace in the land.” (Leviticus 26:3-6). So begins a critical chapter in the Bible, one that sets forth clearly G-d’s expectations from His people and the rewards and punishments that follow obedience or disobedience respectively. Amazingly, all of the rewards and punishments are connected with the Land of Israel. If we follow G-d’s word, He will reward us with peace and prosperity in our land. If we disobey Him, we will be exiled and spread among enemy nations.
But G-d concludes this chapter with a fabulous statement, a promise that the Jewish people took with them into exile, time and time again. “Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them, for I am the LORD their God” (Verse 44).
For centuries, anti-Semitism was fueled by a belief that G-d had abandoned His people, that the promises that had been listed specifically in the Bible for the Jewish people were no longer relevant. Medieval Christian theologies were based on this premise. But it is the clear statement in verse 44 that belies this idea, for G-d explicitly states that, despite exile and deserved punishment, G-d will never break His covenant with us.
Interestingly, G-d anticipated this phenomenon and addressed it through His prophets: “But when they came to the nations, wherever they came, they profaned my holy name, in that people said of them, these are the people of the LORD, and yet they had to go out of his land. But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came. Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD, It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name . . And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. (Ezekiel 36:20-23)
The people of Israel have sinned and they have been exiled in punishment. But the very exile of the People of G-d causes a desecration of His name, for the nations remark, disparagingly, if these are the people of the LORD, then why have they been removed from their land? The apparent abandonment by G-d of His people causes the nations to doubt the very promise, to question the veracity of G-d’s word – a profound desecration of His name. Therefore, G-d assures us that He will return us to our land, if only to vindicate this desecration. And in vindicating this desecration, the nations will understand that G-d, indeed, has never broken His covenant with us.
With the establishment of the State of Israel and, later on, with the stunning victory in 1967 and the return to the biblical areas of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, many in the nations began to reject the doctrines that formed the basis of anti-Semitism and realized that G-d had not abandoned His people. Indeed, with the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, G-d’s name is being sanctified, daily.
Director, Israel Office