27 May 2016

Behar 5776: Words and Weapons

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Behar 5776: Words and Weapons

“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

— Benjamin Franklin

Perashat Behar is well known for its presentation of the shemita (sabbatical) and yobel (jubilee) cycles in the national calendar. These cycles were to be periods of pause from the regular process of life. The term in Torah that sets the tenor for the Yobel, the 50th year that came after counting seven cycles of seven years, is דרור/deror – liberty.

Sanctify the fiftieth year; you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land! (25:12)

The Yobel was a time when people realigned with their core identity and embraced the inherent liberty of the human condition.

It shall be a home-bringing for you, you are to return each man to his holding, each man to his house you are to return. (25:11)

Oddly, in the midst of the discussion of the Yobel year with its laws on leaving the earth fallow, proclaiming of liberties and its promises of plenty and blessing, an apparent non-sequitur is inserted:

You are not to maltreat any-man his fellow; you are to hold your G-d in awe! (25:17)

Although this line is written within the context of real estate sales, the Talmud makes a point of not relating it to fraud or price gouging for that is already addressed earlier in the Torah. Instead, the Hakhamim see this as pertaining to the words we use with one another.

You are not to maltreat any-man his fellow’ — the maltreatment in this verse refers to that of words.[1]

 Know that insulting someone with words has its own verse [in Torah]: ‘You are not to maltreat any-man his fellow; you are to hold your G-d in awe!’ This verse was stricter with this verbal maltreatment than that of business dealings and enforced it with the fear [of G-d]. (Rambam)[2]

It is, of course, a meaningful and essential law that promotes kindness and goodwill in human relationships. But why here? Surely there are more appropriate contexts for it elsewhere in Torah. Why in the context of liberties?

I believe that there are two possible answers to this question. The liberty to speak one’s thoughts is essential in achieving freedom. If we are not able to speak out new ideas and address realities openly any hope of achieving freedom is lost. But at the core of the search for freedom is the recognition of the value and preciousness of the human soul. When we fight for freedom we are in essence fighting for our souls. We are struggling to allow room for the growth and development of our human spirit. When we do not value our own existence and we do not sense the sacred need to grow spiritually we do not truly understand the value of freedom.

The liberty to speak allows us to express a way of thinking that is not necessarily in line with the norm or that of the masses. It allows for questioning and testing of truths and in that endeavour becomes the essential device for freeing the soul.

Still, the very same liberty can destroy the human soul with just a few words. A cynical remark, an insulting jab, a derogatory slight can cut deep and has the ability to significantly damage our spirits. It is only because blood isn’t spilt and the wounds are not visible that we allow ourselves to treat these blows lightly. Words are as deadly to the soul as they are enlivening.

Sometimes I wonder how we might look if indeed we could see the wounds left by our cavalier rhetoric. How disfigured would we be? Thankfully, even such scars heal over time but they require attention as well in order to heal properly. Wounds of the soul have their own manner of healing. The healers of the soul are those who cherish and respect it and set wisdom and care as the standards of their lives.

The expressions of some are like daggers, and healing [comes] from the words of the wise. (Proverbs, 12:18)

In Perashat Behar, in the midst of all the liberty and jubilation, one line warns us to care for the spirit that is at the centre of freedom and all of its blessings and joy and to keep from harming it with cutting words.

As we thank G-d for our liberties let us think as well of the great liberty that we bear with our speech. And while we may not always be able to help others with it we can, at least, take care not to hurt them.


[1] Baba Metsia, 58b

[2] Commentary on Mishna, Baba Metsia, 4:10.

Parasha Perspectives

IX  Behar

50a              The Seventh year  (25:1-7)
In Israel: six years sow and gather, 7th is a rest (shmitah)
for the land, a shabbat for God
50b              The Yovel year  (25:8-24)
Count seven shabbatot of years; announced on 10/7;
same laws as shmitah plus restoration
of land to original owners (25:8-17).
Obeying God’s laws will lead to safety and welfare
in shmitah year i.e. three times regular
produce in sixth year (25:18-23)
50c               Redemption of the land   (25:25-28)
If he is able, a relation buys back land. If not, wait
until yovel year.
50d              Redemption of houses   (25:29-34)
Walled city – houses can only be redeemed in first
year of sale (not yovel)
Villages – houses can be redeemed like fields in
yovel year
Levite land – houses redeemed in yovel. Their fields
can never be sold.
50e              Practical love of neighbour (25:35-38)
Support the poor, charge no interest on loans, fear
50f               No permanent servitude for any Israelite (25:39-46)
Obligations:  treat as if hired, yovel ends service, do
not overwork him, fear God.
Non-Israelite slaves can be kept forever while
Israelite ones are redeemed in yovel.
50g              Israelite slaves of ‘stranger’ settlers  (25:47-26:2)
Should be redeemed by a relative or himself if he
now has the money.
He is hired year by year, not overworked, free in
yovel if not earlier
Bnei Yisrael are servants to God alone, so do not
make idols.
 Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS