Parashat Behar-Bechukkotai 5777

Rabbi Jackie Tabick, 19 May 2017

There are some who believe it possible, even preferable, to keep religion and politics separate. Talib Kweli, an American hip-hop performer advises: “Skip the religion and politics, head straight to the compassion. Everything else is a distraction”. But anyone reading Behar, would soon understand such a separation is impossible and indeed not always helpful to society.

Most of Leviticus details the role of the priests in Ancient Israel and the intricacies of the sacrificial system. In Hebrew a sacrifice is called a Korban and the root meaning of this word is that it provided individuals with a means of ‘drawing close’ to God. But of course, the means of drawing close to God was not just through rituals, especially, luckily for us, not just through the sacrifice of animals!

At the beginning of Behar, another way to draw close to God is taught, the Jubilee. It was a complicated piece of legislation whereby land should be returned to the family of the original owner at the end of a 50 year cycle. In fact it was so complicated many scholars feel that it was never fully implemented. But that doesn’t mean that the laws don’t teach something important and that they haven’t influenced later Jewish thought.

In essence the legislation boils down to the idea that the wealthy shouldn’t just keep getting wealthier and the poor poorer, but that in order to look after the vulnerable in society there has to be opportunities to give people a fresh start, so that whatever difficulties might have brought havoc and poverty into their lives, there was always an opportunity to begin again. Indeed, that is probably why the Jubilee began not on the logical choice, Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, but on Yom Kippur, the Day for Atonement, for this connection would remind people that they had a chance to begin their life again: spiritually, financially, and socially. It was a system, established by law, that tried to teach us that it is God who is really the owner of everything, “the land is Mine, you are but strangers resident with me”1 not us, for we only live for a short time, so we should not be totally possessive of what we think we own.

And that attitude, that God is really the owner of everything on this world, has to be behind what we do and think not only in the Jubilee year, but present at all times. Now I am sure that in this well connected world, we are well aware of those who need our help when disasters strike, flood, famine, war, and most of us reach into our bank accounts and give. But the Torah teaches us that it is not just at times of disasters that we need to act, but that we need to set up systems in our society that regularly care for the vulnerable; that we should be more than willing to part with some of our money in order to help the poor or sick, because really all we are doing when we give tzedakah, is acting as an agent for God, handing over some of God’s property that has been lent to us for a short time, partially in order to fulfil that very mitzvah.

An anonymous teacher of the nineteenth century makes an interesting comment on the phrase2: “If your kinsman becomes impoverished”. He taught that: “all the commandments that a person does leave a residue [of a Hebrew letter] and illumine one’s forehead… But when one fulfills a [second] commandment, the letter of that second commandment illumines one’s forehead and the letter of the first commandment disappears and is swallowed up within. But the commandment of charity does not disappear quickly like other commandments; instead it illumines one’s forehead throughout that week”.3

What might he be trying to teach us here? That what we think, and more especially what we do, leaves a mark on our lives and influences our spiritual search for good. And giving tzedakah makes the longest lasting difference to our lives and souls.

We have to make choices daily, in the knowledge that these often small choices will influence the way things turn out in the end, and the Torah teaches us that we have to train ourselves to make those choices and organise our lives and our world in such a way that fairness, equality and kindness can be a normal part of life, helping to fulfil the vision of a world that does keep to the values inherent in the celebration of the Jubilee.

As Arthur Waskow, one of my favourite Jewish teachers, a real modern prophet, wrote, “The Jubilee replaces ‘having more’ with ‘going deeper’, deeper into one’s own self as part of the One Self that unifies the world.”4

So sorry Talib, but it seems to me important that at the root of our political life we have an understanding that it is actually God who owns what we seem to own. That attitude hopefully will then lead us to share this Divine loan with those in need. But the two, religion and politics, need to work together to create a better world, a world that is truly compassionate to all of God’s creation. Politics? Religion? Not separate worlds, for there is only one creation.

1 Leviticus 25:23
2 Leviticus 25:25
3 In the name of anonymous kabbalists in Reuben Hoeschke [Katz] (d. 1673) (ed.), Yalqut Re’uveni (‘Reuben’s Anthology’) (Warsaw, 1883), pt.3, p.41a. Translated by Rabbi Larry Tabick.
4 “The People & the Book,” The Jerusalem Report, May 21, 2001
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