Lean on Me – Parshat Behar-Bechukotai 5777

lean-on-me

It wasn’t so long ago that Portland’s Jewish community was without a Jewish Free Loan program. Last January, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland launched this wonderful and necessary service for our community. There is great power in knowing that as a community we have the means to support one another, whether it’s for those emergency car repairs she didn’t budget for or the money to buy a suit for an interview so he can get back on his feet. These interest-free funds serve a beautiful purpose: helping others to help themselves.

The creation story in the book of Bereshit isn’t the only creation in the Torah. The entire sacred text is an account of the creation of a people, and at the center of this cultural origin story is the idea that a structurally sound community supports its members.

This week we read Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, the final parshiyot in the book of Vayikra. This double portion, Behar-Bechukotai, focuses primarily on the laws of agriculture and land. What makes this section of text unique is that it takes the notion of land ownership and farming and uses that to create a society in which no one group holds complete control forever. We read about the 50-year land ownership cycle in which we are required to allow the land to rest every seventh year. In the 50th year of the cycle, all land returns to its original owner. Imagine a farmer who falls on hard times because of a drought or poor crop. In order to sustain his family, he might sell off parts of his farm acre by acre. After 10 years he might have nothing left, and he might be forced off the land or have to find another way to make a living. According to our Torah laws, in the 50th year, this farmer would receive back all his land and become his own landlord again.

In the beginning of this long list of what happens to our land as we reach these milestone years, we receive the Torah imperative in chapter 25, verse 25: “If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding . . .” In this moment the Torah gives us an important law, a law that requires extending help to people in financial trouble so that their economic condition does not worsen. This verse of the Torah requires of us that we help maintain dignity, and at a bare minimum the status quo of support, so that basic needs of human existence are met within the community.

Rambam, the great 16th century philosopher, rabbi, and physician, teaches in his work the Mishneh Torah that the highest form of tzedakah is to help people help themselves become financially independent. Thus, establishing a Jewish Free Loan program allows our community to sustain our members, to help them get back on their feet, and to move forward. In fact, all of our community resources provide these opportunities, and it is our responsibility to perpetuate these modern versions of the safety net, because if circumstances were just a little different, we could just have easily been the ones in need.

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Slippery Slope – Parshat Bechukotai 5776

Slippery Slope

When conservative Judaism made the change to allow congregants to drive to shul on Shabbat, the argument against the change was that congregants would take this permission further than intended. Those opposed to this shift were concerned that anyone who started driving to shul on Shabbat would eventually be driving to the movies on Shabbat or driving to the mall on Shabbat. This is the definition of what we often call a “slippery slope.” It’s the fear, logical or not, that one action may result in unintended and disastrous consequences. The slippery slope argument is invoked in order to maintain the status quo rather than risk a calamitous outcome. In the case of driving on Shabbat, the concern was that one decision would water down the observance of the entire movement.

That’s not a discussion we need to get into specifically, although this week’s parshah contains an interesting version of the slippery slope. This week, in parshat Bechukotai, the Israelite nation is receiving the final laws of the book of Vayikra, which detail specifically how we should treat one another in various relationships and how we should connect to God. The Israelites have only been out of Egypt for a short period of time, and during this first taste of freedom, they are in their stubborn and rebellious adolescent years as a nation. God, as the dutiful parent, tries every which way to implore the Israelites to keep the mitzvot. God tries to use a love and logic approach in giving consequences that fit the actions, as we saw in parshat Yitro. God tries angry intimidation, as exhibited when the Israelites build the golden calf. Now, God brings on the threats.

Chapter 26, verses 14-45 are a section of text known as the Tochecha, the rebuke of the nation for their missteps. In verse 18 God shares that the disciplinary action for sinning will be sevenfold. The Sifra, a fourth century commentary on the book of Leviticus, sees the process of falling away from God’s ordained path as occurring in seven steps, which read remarkably like a cause-and-effect slippery slope argument:

  1. People will stop studying Torah.
  2. Without this foundation of study, they will come to see the commandments as matters of personal choice rather than moral obligations.
  3. They will therefore resent people who do study and practice and who make them feel guilty for not doing so.
  4. They will then try to stop others from fulfilling the commandments in order to feel less guilty themselves.
  5. They will deny that the commandments came from God.
  6. They will deny the existence of a covenant between God and Israel.
  7. They will deny the existence of God.

The Sifra offers what is certainly a worst cast scenario, but it also reminds us that our actions, for better or worse, can cause chain reactions in the world. And it got me thinking. We really only focus on the negative slippery slopes (a slippery slope has a pretty negative connotation), but the change we sometimes fear could just as easily result in a series of positive aftereffects.

Consider the positive slippery slope of driving to shul on Shabbat. The reason this response was accepted was because removing the prohibition against driving potentially allowed more people to feel comfortable traveling to shul on Shabbat. This, in turn, would help build community and strengthen the Jewish people in the long run. Perhaps rather than calling this positive chain reaction a “slippery slope,” it instead harkens back to how Moshe received the Torah in the first place; he climbed the mountain.