UNIVERSAL TORAH COMMENTARY
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah Reading: Parshas BEHAR, Leviticus 25:1-26:2
Haftara: Jeremiah 32:6-27
THE LAND BELONGS TO G-D
“To G-d belongs the land and its fullness, the earth and its inhabitants.” (Psalms 24:1). “The heavens, the heavens belong to G-d, but the earth He GAVE TO THE SONS OF ADAM. The dead will not praise G-d nor all who go down to desolation. But we will praise G-d from now and forever! Halleluyah!” (Psalms 115:16-17).
Our present parshah, BEHAR, and its “sister”, next week’s parshah of BECHUKOSAI, which in some years is read on the same Shabbat, explain under what conditions the Earth and its treasures are given in trust to the sons of man, and when the trust is taken back by its rightful Owner — if men breach the deed of trust, which is the Torah, G-d’s Covenant.
The social, economic, ecological and environmental lessons of BEHAR are particularly urgent today, when men act as lords of the Earth, owning and controlling vast tracts, depleting and destroying her gifts, despoiling her of her treasures for their own short-sighted gain and pleasure, without ever pausing to consider: Who really owns all this? For what purpose did He make it? On the contrary, the Torah commands us to appoint seasons and special years in which we all reflect on Who owns everything and learn to respect His creation.
BEHAR continues with the theme of the cycle of time, which was also central in last week’s parshah of EMOR in the section dealing with the annual cycle of festivals (Leviticus Ch. 23). The section in EMOR began with the first of all of G-d’s “appointed seasons”, the Holy Shabbat, which is the crown of G-d’s Covenant. BEHAR takes the concepts of “Six days of work, one day of rest” a level higher, dealing with the cycle of years, which is measured in circuits of 7 x 7 Sabbaticals, followed by the fiftieth Jubilee year.
Our parshah of BEHAR thus begins with the Shemittah cycle in which the land is to be worked and tilled for six years, after which it is to be left “fallow” throughout the seventh year. The Torah gives us a picture of an idyllic world in which independent owner-farmers are raising their wheat and grains for bread and tending their vineyards for wine. After all their gifts to the poor and tithes to the priests and Levites etc. during the six years of labor, they are to go a step further in the seventh year, giving their very fields and vineyards back to their true Owner. In the seventh year, they are not allowed to work their own land. Instead, they must open their gates to everyone so that all can have a share in the fruits from the holy Table of G-d — the produce of Israel in the Shemittah year has a special sanctity. Even the animals have their share in the fruits of the Shemittah year — for like us, they too are G-d’s guests on His amazing Earth. The Shemittah cycle is a fundamental rhythm in time designed to help us constantly keep in mind that G-d is the true Owner — of all the world around us and of our very selves.
The fifty-year Jubilee cycle takes us to even higher levels of this awareness. The Jubilee cycle is like a gracious cosmic game in which even the losers eventually get to go back and have a fresh to start all over again — because G-d, the true Owner and Master of all the land and its inhabitants, is truly compassionate. Even in the idyllic world of independent land-owners, one tends to be more successful, while another is less successful. In time, one is forced to sell his land and even his house. Then he falls into debt, and eventually he becomes enslaved. In the Jubilee year, signaled by the trumpeting of the Shofar of Freedom on Yom Kippur of that year, all the slaves go free and all the fields and orchards go back to their original owners.
In our parshah, the Torah sets forth the code of laws applying to ownership of land in particular, and also of other forms of property, and under what conditions. The laws in our parshah include those of sale, and of business honesty and integrity. The forms of property include people’s own selves: under the law of slavery, one person might become the “property” of someone else, whether in the legal or economic sense, or in the spiritual sense, where a person may even fall so low as to sell himself to some form of idolatry.
Rashi on Leviticus 26:1 explains the “moral logic” underlying the sequence of laws set forth in our parshah: “At first the Torah warns about the observance of the Sabbatical year. But if a person is greedy for money and falls under suspicion of violating the Sabbatical year, he ends up selling his possessions. That is why the Torah juxtaposes here the laws of sale, including the sale of moveable articles. If the person still does not repent, he ends up selling his hereditary land. If he still does not repent, he ends up selling his house. If he still does not repent, he has to borrow on interest. in the end he sells his very self, not just to an Israelite, but even to an idol-worshipper.”
Yet even the most degraded goes free in the Jubilee year, in which the blast of the Sinai trumpet of Freedom on the Day of At-One-ment signifies that all the debts have been paid through the redemptive power of Binah, the Fiftieth Gate. This theme of freedom in our parshah is particular relevant to us in the present season, as we count the days of the Omer in the seven-fold count of the days and weeks leading up to the Fiftieth Day, the Day of the New Offering, season of the Giving of the Torah: Freedom.
At the very heart of the entire system of redemption set forth in the Torah through the festival cycle and through the Sabbatical and Jubilee cycles lies the Shabbat, which is the very essence of the Sinaitic code. When Moses first asked Pharoah to free the Israelites, all he requested was that they should go “into the wilderness” (away from the technology of civilization) in order to liberate themselves from slavery to earthly lords of the land like Pharaoh. The commandment of Shabbat was given at Marah (Exodus 15:25), prior to the Giving of the Torah at Sinai. The concept of Shabbat is built into the concept of the Manna, which appeared for six days of the week with a double-portion on the sixth day. Shabbat is the fourth commandment. Immediately after the Ten Commandments in Exodus ch. 20, the Torah begins MISHPATIM with the laws of slavery, which involve the Sabbatical and Jubilee concepts.
Now in BEHAR, as we approach the conclusion of the elaboration of the Sinaitic code (BECHUKOSAI sets the seal on this, while the name of our parshah — “On the Mount” — reminds us of Sinai) the Torah returns to the theme of Shabbat as being at the very center of the Covenant. The concluding verse of our parshah is: “Guard My Sabbaths and have reverence for My Sanctuary, I am Hashem” (Leviticus 26:2). The entire time-scheme set forth in BEHAR — the Shemittahs and Jubilee year — is founded on the concept of Shabbat. Then in the following parshah, BECHUKOSAI, we see that the vengeance of the Covenant is built around a structure of seven-fold punishments for the spiral of sin caused by the violation of the Shabbat.
It is a strange irony that the observance of the Shabbat as set forth in the Shulchan Aruch, the practical Code of Jewish law, is something that most of the contemporary world finds impossible to accept. While the entire world accepts the concept of the Work and Leisure cycle, the world is unable to accept that a person may voluntarily take upon himself to abstain from all kinds of activities on the Sabbath day, and so too in the Sabbatical year, in order to show that he takes upon himself the Kingdom of Heaven, the world of the true Sabbath.
No serious political or intellectual commentator today would take seriously the idea that the complete observance of Shabbat and Shemittah, including abstinence by Israelites from the 39 prohibited labors on Shabbat and all the prohibited labors of Shemittah, could be the key to the redemption of Israel and saving the world ecology.
This contemporary neglect of the concept of Shabas a serious concept is in stark contrast to the centrality of the Shabbat in the prophetic vision of the world of the future, in which the Sanctuary in Yerushalayim is at the very center.
“For so says HaShem to the castrated who will guard My Sabbaths and chose what I desired and who hold by My Covenant. And I have given them in My House and within My walls a place and a name better than sons and daughters, I will give him an eternal name that will never be cut off. And the sons of the strange people who will be attached to HaShem to minister to Him and to love the name of HaShem, to be to Him as servants — all who keep the Shabbos and do not transgress it, and who hold by My Covenant — I will bring them to My holy Mountain and make them rejoice in the House of My Prayer, their whole-offerings and peace-offerings will be for favor on My Altar, for My House will be called The House of Prayer for all the peoples. Thus says HaShem, Who gathers the scattered of Israel — more will I gather upon him and those of his who have already been gathered.” (Isaiah 56:7).
In other words, in the world of truth, where everything belongs to G-d (as opposed to the world of the lords of the land, where everything is falsehood) the pride of place goes to those who weekly take on the discipline of Shabbat, abstaining from every form of the 39 forbidden labors as explained by the sages, in order to receive the holiness of the day.
It is in strange contrast that the observance of Shabbat and the Shemittah in the Land of Israel are today matters of contention, with a majority of the population apparently not against blatant violation and defiance of the Shabbat, which is publicly favored by leading judges, politicians and commentators.
In order to save Israel, there needs to be a full-scale international program to explain to Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths that the observance of Shabbat and Shemittah by true Israelites, with the support of gentiles, is in fact the very key to bringing prosperity and blessing into the entire world.
The observance of Shabbat and of Shemittah is an art-form, in which man submits himself to a code which focuses his mind on the ways we interact with and manipulate the environment on the days of the week and during the non-Sabbatical years.
It is through abstinence from manipulating the environment for one day of the week that we learn how to elevate our activities on the other six days, and we turn our daily work into the work of building a sanctuary of holiness around us here in this world. Observance of Shabbat and Shemittah enhance our respect for the natural world around us and for the various grades and levels of life and being. The Shemittah teaches respect for the environment and ecology.
Shabbat is the key to the entire redemption: “If Israel will keep two Shabbosos, the Son of David will come immediately.”
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Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum