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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Seeds of Change – Parshat Behar 5776

Seeds of Change

When we talk about “planting the seeds of change” or “reaping what you sow,” we’re not merely speaking in metaphors. Certainly there are examples of nature and agricultural symbolism throughout our sacred texts, but this week we learn that the laws of the land (the literal land) are directly related to how we establish a just and equitable society.

This week we read from parshat Behar, the penultimate section of text in the book of Vayikra. The text details the laws of the returning of the land in Israel during the shmitta (jubilee year) and how slaves and land are returned to their prior status. We also read about what happens to Jewish-owned land in the diaspora in the jubilee year and how we are to help those who are in need within our own communities. The text ends with another warning against idolatry.

The Torah also uses a significant amount of space dealing with agricultural laws, which is odd given that the name of the Torah portion is Behar, which means “on the mountain.” We’re talking about a mountain in a desert far from a farming community, and yet here we receive all sorts of laws that don’t apply (yet). As you might expect, the commentators found this odd and looked for an answer.

One medieval commentator shares that perhaps we received these laws at Sinai because at that point no one owned any land yet, so no one could object that a particular law deprived people of what they had worked to acquire. In other words, it is much easier to impose laws at the outset before other norms or traditions become standard operating procedure. The system described is the precursor to the way in which modern Judaism champions social justice.

Or perhaps teaching laws of agriculture among laws of equality and justice is, like much of our religion, symbolic of both the deeply rooted tradition and the potential for growth. The power of social change is the power to change the world. As Jews we may be relatively small in number, but we are mighty as a people.