The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Social Values in Parashat Behar
Rabbi Dr. Pinchas Heyman
A central theme in the story of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai is the limitations placed on the Israelites in their relationship to the mountain. They were limited in place: "And set boundaries for the people all around saying, take care that you do not go up upon the mountain or to touch the edge of it" (Exodus 19:12). They were also limited in time: "And be prepared for the third day for on the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people on Mount Sinai" (Exodus 19:11). From that day on every Jew who lives his life according to Jewish values recalls both the revelations of Mount Sinai together with its limitations: "lest you forget .... the day you stood before the Lord , your God at Horev" (Deut. 4:9-10). The God-fearing man knows that his behavior and his domination over society are limited by the procedures and practices of Judaism. The observance of these practices and limitations promises that the fire of inspiration kindled at Mount Sinai will accompany him and Jewish society constantly.
Parashat Emor limited Man's control over time: Shabbat and the holidays are called mo'adei Hashem (the times of the Lord) and Man must alter his daily behavior in order to bring the sanctification of the time into his mundane schedule. In our parashah, Behar, the Torah defines the boundaries of Man's behavior relevant to place--his land and his society. Man is in control of his land for six years, but the seventh year is holy to the Lord: "Six years you shall sow your field and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruit, but in the seventh year there will be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land" (Lev. 25:3-4).
The first seven (!) verses of the parashah describe the observances of the Shemitah (Sabbatical) Year and come to teach that the one who truly controls the land is He who created it and gave it to Man, not those who settle on it and cultivate it. Liberation of the land once in seven years makes the land a kind of continuation of Mount Sinai, with its limited access.
Verse 8 onward describes the kind of society to be built in the Land of Israel and the limitations placed upon it. A socio-economic revolution is to take place each fiftieth year. The poor man who sold his inherited plot of land in his hour of need is to receive it back; the unfortunate convict who had been sold into slavery returns in that year to freedom and independence. There is a limit to monopolization of commerce, "takeovers" in our current corporate jargon, and to building a financial empire at the expense of others. At least once in his life every Jew living in the Land of Israel can witness God's soveignty over man, the land, and society.
Many laws which govern the day-to-day administration of society stem from these fundamental concepts of limitation: Our parashah lists the prohibition of fraud (verses 14-18); the commandment to redeem agricultural and urban property from a purchaser to restore it to the original owner (verses 25-34); prohibitions against taking usury and interest (verses 35-38); laws defining various conditions of slavery (verses 39-54). All of these are explained more fully in Talmudic literature, the national legal system of the People of Israel.
Following the Jewish custom in Babylonia for reading the Torah on Sabbaths, we divide the Torah into fifty-four weekly portions and each of these into seven "aliyot" (sub-portions), to be read by each of the seven men who are called up to the Torah in the synagogue. The sages who organized the weekly portions arranged the division in such a way that in many parashot, the central "aliyah", the fourth in number, contains the main theological point of the entire parashah.
In our parashah, Behar, the fourth "aliyah" tells of the commandment to support the right of every Jew to dwell on the land of his family. "If your brother becomes poor and has sold away some of his property then his nearest kinsman shall come to redeem that which his brother sold" (Lev. 25:25). When any Jew who has fallen on hard times sells his land-holding, we are commanded to redeem the land on his behalf in order to make possible his continued settlement on his portion. The fundamental concept of the parashah, limiting Man's use and control of the Land and his manipulation of society, fortifies the position of every individual in Israel, no matter how poor, and determine his right to a reasonable degree of self-respect. Respect for the individual, who is a microcosmic reflection of society as a whole, is rooted in and protected by these laws.
The reason behind this outstanding social morality can be found in two key verses from the parashah:
"And the Land will not be sold permanently, for the Land is Mine, for you are strangers and residents with Me" (verse 23)
"For the Children of Israel are slaves to Me, they are My slaves whom I took out of the land of Egypt, I am the Lord, your God" (verse 55)
From these two verses we may learn that Man's freedom is born from his subservience to God, while one who wishes to be free of the yoke of God ultimately falls under the yoke of his fellow-man! The terms used in verse 23, "For you are strangers and residents with Me", do however confront us with a problem of interpretation, since a stranger and a resident are not the same: a stranger has no rights in the Land whereas a resident certainly does. The Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 18th century) explained as follows: Anyone who considers himself the owner of the Land and wishes to do with it as he sees fit, will soon discover that he is only a stranger, but someone who knows he is only a stranger and that his control of the Land is conditional upon the will of God, he is the true resident.
This classic paradox reflects the idea that a Jew is spared from subjugation to another or to society as a whole, by being subjugated "to He who spoke and created the world". Since the Almighty has prior ownership of every Jew, the Land, and society, He placed limitations on the extent to which any man may control another. Man's freedom and liberty are protected by his acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven.
Parashat Behar presents us with the fundamental values of an authentic Jewish society. May it be His will that we are deemed worthy of seeing such a society built in our time in the Land of Israel.
The weekly Torah portion is distributed with the assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science.