Parshat Behar

by Ariel Resnikoff, Jewish Studies Teacher

When I was a child, my father often spoke to me about what he saw as the greatest gifts of Judaism and the Jewish tradition, “our collective inheritance” he called them: Ivrit (the Hebrew language), which connects us to our ancestors; kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), which keeps us conscious of what we consume; chagim (Jewish holidays), which keeps us dialed into Jewish yearly cycles and the unique Jewish calendar; and above all, Shabbat (sabbath), an individual and communal day of rest with almost no exceptions, and according to my dad, the crown gem of Jewish ritual practice. 

As an adult, I understand exactly what he meant, and about shabbat in particular. Although my partner and I are not orthodox in any sense–though we were both raised in orthodox families–we still make sure to mark shabbat each week by eating a ceremonial dinner and lunch as a family, going off our phones and computers, and generally abstaining from work and spending real quality time together without the everyday distractions that so often compromise our attention during the week. We love shabbat. It is at the heart of our Jewish ritual practice. And when my non-Jewish friends ask how on earth we pull it off, the answer is simple: it’s our inheritance.

In this week’s Torah portion, Behar–meaning “On Mount [Sinai]”–G-D informs Moses of the laws of shmita (the sabbatical year), a veritable sabbath for the earth that arrives every seven years, in which “the land shall rest a shabbat to G-D” (Leviticus 25:2). During the shmita year, all agricultural work on the land and in the fields ceases, and the produce of the land becomes open to all humans and animals that wish to harvest it for their sustenance. After seven sabbatical cycles, a fiftieth year–referred to in the Torah as yovel (jubilee)–occurs, in which the laws of shmita apply, in addition to the freeing of all indentured servants, and the returning of the land to ancestral ownership rights.

The idea of insisting on a sabbath for the earth, for the fields and crops, and also for indentured servitude and land ownership, seems utterly brilliant to me, both spiritually and economically, ethically and morally–indeed, as my father suggested, a crown gem of our Jewish tradition. 

Writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the question of shmita and yovel: “Much of human history has illustrated the fact that you can have freedom without equality (laissez-faire economics), or equality without freedom (communism, socialism), but not both. The powerful insight of the Torah is that you can have both, but not at the same time. Therefore time itself has to become part of the solution, in the form of the seventh year and, after seven sabbatical cycles, the jubilee. These become periodic corrections to the distortions of the free market that allow some to become rich while others suffer the loss of land, home, and even freedom” (“On Parshat Behar”). 

As we move into shabbat this week as a JCHS community, I invite us to consider the ways in which our tradition has gifted us this powerful ritual in multiple arenas: a ritual that bends and even torques temporality itself in order to provide a momentary utopic glimpse of freedom and equality fused in symbiosis.