Parashat Behar 5776

Rabbi Charley Baginsky, 20 May 2016

This week’s portion of Behar lays out what could be considered one of the most socially radical elements of the whole Torah – that of the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. These laws parallel the laws of Shabbat, just as we are supposed to rest from work on the seventh day so the land is rested in the seventh year. In the Jubilee year, the 50th year, seven sabbatical cycles are completed and the whole of society returns to a foundational state.
It is hard to imagine any government, now or in the past, telling the population that their accumulated wealth and property had to be returned to the State for redistribution. Perhaps earlier societies had more belief in one the central assertions of the Torah that everything is owned by God, as the text says: “the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine, you are but strangers and residents with me”.
Rashi teaches that the Torah begins with the creation of the world and not with the first commandment to remind us that we are all creations – land, humanity, even ideas of possession. This idea should transform our ideas of obligation and responsibility and perhaps even altruism. Behar constantly reminds us that we must never assume entitlement. But the portion also recognises that there is a connection between the bankruptcy of the land and soul. Although the practice of letting the land rest every seven years was of benefit to the land, its main aim was not ecological. Rather it was about letting the world be for a year. Just as on Shabbat we are supposed to let the world go by, not answer our phones, chase our email, pursue work so the seventh year was a reminder to reprioritise – to remember who people were outside their defined title of work or slavery, or for us by what we earn, or the title we hold.
Liberal Judaism stresses that we must look to the ethic of a law when deciding what is relevant to our Judaism – there is probably no greater ethic than the one in this parasha, the sabbatical year was the guarantor and ultimate fulfilment of the practical justice. Hundreds of years before we were even thought of the Torah presented a new and radical way of seeing the world, it refused to say just because this is the way things are, this is the way it should stay – may this inspire us to keep believing that while we may not complete the work we have to be part of making a difference.
A Prayer for the Occasion – from Rabbi Janet Burden
Av HaRachamim, Source of Compassion, You support those who are falling and lift up those who are bowed down. We ask that You give strength and courage to those who are bent low under the burden of unpayable and illegitimate debt. Guide their steps towards a fairer share of the world’s wealth; help them to stand firm against those who would deny their claim for justice.
Adonai Tzidkeinu, Eternal God of Righteousness, help us to alleviate their despair through swift and effective action. Inspire us with the passion to pursue justice on their behalf; reinforce our will to speak out. Give us the will to open our hearts and our hands, so that we responsibly lend to them all that they need to help themselves.
Oseh HaShalom, Maker of Peace, teach all Your children that without justice there can be no lasting peace. Help us to see our own good in working for the good of others. Let all share equally in Your gifts, that we may fulfil the vision of a world set right under Your rule.
May this be Your will, and let us say, Amein.

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