Parshat Behar (2012)
Leviticus 25 – 26:2
Our Responsibility to Our Countrymen and Resident Aliens
This parsha is quite short. However, keep in mind that this year in diaspora Parshat Behar is paired together with Parshat Bechukotai. This entire parsha is just a little over one chapter, as it contains the first couple verses of a second chapter. Which is good, usually I can ramble on over a single word so the shorter the parsha the less I get distracted hopefully!
Summarizing the content of this parsha is not that hard; it deals almost entirely with the Sabbatical years – both Shmitah, every 7th year; and the year of Yovel (Jubilee) observed as an additional year of celebration after ever 7th cycle, thus on the 50th year. Here we have revealed the Torah concepts of national economic cooperation, debt relief and inheritance. The second part of the parsha has a lot more to do with further issues of debt relief, and setting limits of debt causes hardship that one should be allowed to endure. Of course there are also a few other mitzvot lumped in there as well.
The Shmitah year – the sabbatical year, literally meaning “to release” – every seven years the land is required to lay fallow in order to enable the land to rest. We are also required to give debt relief to people. Both the land and the people of the land are released to rest and relief.
The Yovel year – which is after the seventh cycle of sabbatical years, it is a sabbath year for sabbath years – debt relief takes on a whole new level in which land and possessions are returned to their hereditary owners. People who had impoverished themselves and thus forced to sell their home or themselves into slavery (which should better be understood as “indentures servitude”) were granted their freedom and ability to return to their homestead.
Whereas today we do recognize the Shmitah year, we do not observe the Yovel year. The Shmitah year is something that is assigned to us by our fixed calendar, it is a mere matter of mathematics. Every seven years in the land of Israel this law is to be applied to Jewish farmlands. However the Yovel only begins when it has been proclaimed by a Sanheidrin. In the absence of an active, full assembly this cannot be halachically declared. Furthermore, there is a biblical understanding to these laws which limits the application. It is found at the head of this parsha:
“Speak to the Children of Israel
and say to them:
When you come into
the Land which I give you
then shall the land keep a Sabbath
| Daber el-benei Yisra’el
| ve’amarta alehem
| ki tavo’u
| el-ha’aretz asher ani noten lachem
| veshavetah ha’aretz Shabbat
The Torah clearly prescribes in the desert travels of the Children of Israel that they are to apply these laws once they go into the Land to posses it. Israel has been displaced and forced to ascend up to the Land to posses it several times. Though after the Assyrian exile, 10 of the original Tribes of Israel were lost; they were scattered or just ceased to be. Until a majority of the Tribes of Israel once again ascent to the Land this law of Yovel cannot be applied. We look forwards to the future redemption in the age to come.
Though most of us have a simple understanding of the Sabbatical years, there are some lesser known commandments that people often miss from this section if they don’t pay attention to the text; but they are not lesser in their importance. In fact for our application, probably more important. They are to pay the fair price for an item (Lev. 25:14), to not harm each other (presumably with words, Lev. 25:17), to not lend with interest to a countryman (Lev. 25:37), not to bow down to a pillar of stone (Lev. 26:1, though this one does not necessarily appear to be part of the context). Obviously we know that these laws are to be applied at all times, even though they are sandwiched between the laws we cannot apply according to Jewish law in a state short of messianic redemption. It is because their appropriateness is obvious, because they are basic principles of derech eretz (Lit. “the way of the land,” meaning proper manners and societal custom) that are unthinkable for us to not observe. And thankfully at this point in history the laws of slavery are null and void as human bondage is illegal and clashes with derech eretz.
In a very plain reading of the middle of our text there are some interesting commandments given to us on how to come to the aid of a brother who has fallen upon financial hard times. Technically one is only permitted to sell their land when the financial need demands such an extreme course of action (see Rashi to Lev. 25:25). According to the Torah if one sells their property and they have a relative with the financial ability to redeem that inherited property (which most often we assume is land, but it can be argued it applies to all inherited items of a familiar heritage), they are required to do so. The debtor can pay the person back for redeeming once he is able to afford it, and immediately receive his inheritance back (v. 26-27). Or else it is to be held by the person who purchased it as a redemption, and held in trust until the Jubilee year when it returns to the original ancestral holder. (v. 28) The person who redeemed it is not to be deprived of this purchase, they are granted full use of the land until the Jubilee year, which was the basis of the price they paid for the parcel (v.27). This “purchased” redemption is more like a lease until year of Yovel, and for use of those years is what the redeemer pays for in this real estate grab. Then when Yovel came around, the land would be given back to the original hereditary owner. The whole point was to not take advantage of any person, but to primarily assist one in need and return them to their ancestral possession, in order that everyone have a portion to call home. (compare to Ezekiel 46:16-18, and Parshat Emor).
In fact this section is going to lay out many laws about the honor of the native-born person, as well as the immigrant. True it gives obvious priority for us to redeem the property of our own kinsmen, and to liberate them from humiliatingly becoming the property of an immigrant while in their own native land. Besides, we are more able and therefore even more commanded to treat our kin with respect as servants or laborers among us; our own people should be less likely to be victimized in our own keeping. Likewise we need to show concern for the possessions of our own heritage anyhow. Furthermore, the Maharal of Prague (16th century) who comments on the words of Rashi (11th century, v. 53 “לומר שאתה רואה / this is to say that you see it”) says we are not allowed to see another of our brethren in suffering without doing something to help them. He even challenges us to not see the prohibitions of leveling hardship upon an Israelite and such as suggesting its main purpose is to make it impermissible for a non-Jew, for instance, to oppress a native-born Israelite; but instead he makes the point it is essentially saying it should be unbearable for us to see a brother in need and not feel obligated to help, so these are all the ways we can do so laid out for the Torah herein. We are to redeem property and honor of our own kinsmen before we go speculating in other matters.
Nonetheless the Torah demands dignity for the Israelite and the foreigner in our midst.
Now one would wonder on what basis G-d should demand such “socialistic” ideas of the people. How can the Torah get into how we utilize our land, labor and holdings? How can it demand that we show charity to others? Before the Torah gets into any of this G-d is going to make His point very plain as to why he should tell us how to treat our countrymen and the immigrants among us:
“The Land shall not be sold permanently.
For to Me, in the Land
your are like residents and aliens
And in all the land of your possession
you shall grant a time of redemption
for the land.”
| Veha’aretz lo timacher litzmitut
| ki-li ha’aretz
| ki-gerim vetoshavim atem
| Uvechol eretz achuzatchem
| ge’ulah titnu
Now my translation of the above scripture might seem curious to some, but this is the best way for me to put it in a way that is consistent with the Hebrew language. On one hand it comes with the more colloquial connotation many Israelis recognize being said, “your all immigrants and foreigners as far as I’m concerned.”
But it also comes with another colloquial understanding most of us American Jews will get. In fact, I’ll tell you even my non-Jewish friends have heard it so much around us Jews that they even use a phrase a lot like this that is common to us all, “who did you have Shabbos by?” What we are really meaning to say is, “Who did you celebrate Shabbat with.” Who has hosted us to celebrate with them as their guest? And it is similar with this phrase, that Hashem has taken us in as His guest.
We are all just guests and foreigners on His Land, and this is His way; that He want us to contend with each other this way because that is how He has dealt with us. We are dwelling in His home, and on His land; we should open up to help our brethren and strangers alike because our possessions are not really ours anyways, we are just benefiting from G-d Almighty’s holdings. The Rashi to verse 23 outright tells us to not be selfish with the land because it doesn’t belong to us anyhow. G-d is saying “You are all foreigners and resident aliens that I am taking in; thats how I see it.”
As if this wasn’t enough, G-d makes it completely explicit to us how we should deal with the poor and needy among us:
“For instance, if there is a countryman
whose hand falters while with you
you shall uphold him.
as a stranger, and a resident alien;
so that he may live with you.”
| Vechi yamuch achicha
| umatah yado imach
| bo ger vetoshav
| vachai imach.
We are required to come to the aid of our own achim – literally brothers, but in the greater sense and in spoken Hebrew even in biblical times this means one’s own countrymen. Likewise it assumes that we know that we are supposed to come to the aid of the stranger, the convert (ger), the “ger toshav / the resident alien,” the person who settles among us. When we see that he begins to matah – to wobble out of control (mat), and to fall down (matah) – we are to rush in to try to help him. Don’t just let him stumble and fail “yado imach / under your hand,” while your hand is close enough to save.
Rashi makes a point in his commentary on this verse base do on the phrase “vehechazakata / you shall uphold him,” that we should try to support him. In other words, we should rush in to help before the person completely falters. A person who has been knocked over by life can often be left laying under such a heavy load that not even five people can help him up from such a total disaster. Therefore we should try to do every little bit that we can to help our fellows in their need before their situation comes to total disrepair if at all possible.
In any case, this is our obligation; to uphold and support our needy countrymen and the immigrant among us.
Something to Consider:
A lot of people will say that it’s a very nice idea, but supporting the needy is just not possible without them causing total disrepair to themselves and their finances. However, the Torah says quite to the contrary; while firmly telling us to not worry about it, this is our obligation. He gives us the example of the Sabbatical years, that G-d will give us enough success and produce in the regular years to make up for what we have lost in observing the years of rest, and then some in excess. (v. 21) It calls us out on an idea of faith, putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to our convictions. For conservatives who do not feel obligated to help the poor, they pretty much suggest in the end that G-d is just commanding us to do something which is impossible to perform; but that doesn’t sound like the talk of “people of faith” now does it?