14 May 2015

Behar-Behukotai 5775: Law of the Land

Behar-Behukotai 5775: Law of the Land

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

Henry David Thoreau

Before a Torah was ever mentioned, G-d established a covenant in which He promised land to our forefathers and their descendants. Torah was given as the terms of that covenant, and parashot Behar and Behukotai speak of how Torah relates to our connection with the land. In Behar we are told of the importance of the land’s sabbatical cycles against the backdrop of Mount Sinai.

G-d spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai saying: …When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land is to cease, a Sabbath to G-d. Six years you are to sow your field…but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath for the land.… (25:1-4)

Behukotai sets the mitsvot and their repercussions firmly on the foundation of our care for the land in keeping these seven-year cycles.

And if after this you will not hearken to me…I will make desolate the land…so that your land becomes a desolation and your cities become a wasteland. Then the land will find acceptance regarding its sabbaths. All the days of desolation it will enjoy cessation since it did not enjoy cessation during its sabbaths when you were settled on it.  (26:27, 32-35)

The ultimate tenor of Torah is our relationship and connection with the earth. The Torah commands us to inherit it, settle it, care for it, build upon it, allow it rest, even fall in love with it. The rewards and punishments expressed in Torah — of which this week’s reading is a prime example — are expressed in our capacity to cultivate the land or be cast away from it.

Why does G-d place so much importance on land? The answer goes deeper than just nationalism. He reminds us in Torah that we are of the earth[1] and that we should see it as an integral part of our identities. Integrating our spiritual and physical selves is essential to achieving wholeness in our lives. We are promised land because it is when we are conscious of our connection with the earth that the human experience is most successful. While we must know that our souls are from the breath of G-d[2], we must also know that the vessels that receive that divine breath are made of the earth[3] and they are no less important. In one verse we are told that:

G-d formed the human of dust from the soil, He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being. (Gen., 2:7)

Only with ‘dust from the soil’ and ‘the breath of life’ are we human beings. The aim of Torah is to teach Israel to become one with both parts rather than forsake one for the other. We are not to forget the divine breath within, but we are also not to disregard the nature of the earthy exterior. This balance ensures that we do not forsake our physical world for the loftiness of our intellectual endeavours, nor do we encumber our spirits, allowing the body to act alone. In the very earthy book of Vayikra, a book that literally speaks predominantly of earth, flesh and blood, we understand that holiness comes from the embrace of our physical being that emerges from the soil along with our spiritual being that comes from the highest heavens.

[1] To Adam He said: By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, until you return to the soil, for from it you were taken. For you are dust, and to dust shall you return. (Gen., 3:19)

[2] Gen., 2:7

[3] ibid.


Law and Lore

Zemirot V

Voysha & Az Yashir Moshe (Shirat haYam)

 The Talmud does not include Vayosha (Exodus, 14) and Az Yashir Moshe (ibid., 15) as part of the daily prayers. However, it does mention (Rosh HaShana, 31a) that it was said daily by the Levi’im while the afternoon sacrifice was brought in the Bet haMikdash.

The first mention of it as part of the morning prayers is by R. Moshe ben Klonimus, a 10th century poet who lived in northern Italy, who records that the Shira was said daily by congregations in Germany.

The Shira was not originally included as part of the zemirot. It was said after the blessing of Yishtabah which closes the zemirot. Rambam writes: “There are places that have the custom to read the Shirat haYam every day after saying the blessing of Yishtabah”.

 With time, the custom spread and the Shirat haYam is now said by all.

 R David Abudirham (c. 1340) writes that the verse ‘Adonai Yimloch le’Olam va’ed should be repeated in order to indicate that the Shira is complete.

R Hayim Vital (1542-1620) writes that it was the custom of his rabbi the Ari z”l to say the Aramaic translation of that verse as well.

S&P custom does not follow this and the verses are read without repetition or aramaic translation.

 Some congregations have the custom to replace the Shira with the parasha of Ha’azinu on the 9th of Ab. S&P custom follows this.


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 God

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.

X  Bechukotai

51        Blessings for obedience  (26:3-13)

All land based:  Seasonal rain, successful produce, plenty of bread, satisfaction, safety, peace.

Enemies will flee. Covenantal relationship.

52a      Results of disobedience – Part One: Sickness, defeat, famine and wild beasts  (26:14-26)

Terror, consumption, fever, failed produce, enemies attack, lose independence. Covenantal revenge, pestilence, lack of bread, no satisfaction.

52b      Results of disobedience – Part Two: National destruction and exile.  But…  (26:27-46)

Eat human flesh, destroy idols, destroy cities, desolate land, scattered exile, Shabbatot repaid, no rest, constant fear and almost die out. (26:27-41)

Remember covenant, and land. Covenant will not be broken. These are the laws. (26:42-46)

53a      Evaluation of a personal vow  (27:1-8)

Age:     20-60     20-60     5-20       5-20

Sex:       M                   F            M           F

Value: 50sh          30sh      20sh      10sh


Age:     1mth.-5     1mth.-5     60+      60+

Sex:           M                 F               M             F

Value:     5sh         3sh           15sh        10sh

If too poor, Kohen makes valuation according to means.

53b      Redemption of animals, land, firstborn and the tithe from the Mishkan  (27:9-34)

Animals – value plus a fifth. House – value plus a fifth.

Land – value (to yovel) plus a fifth.

Firstborn – value plus a fifth, or sold according to value.

Inalienable property of Mishkan. Redeem tithe – value plus a fifth.

These are the mitzvot which God commanded Moshe for the Bnei Yisrael at Mt. Sinai” (27:34)