By Sabrina Sojourner
This week’s Torah portion is Behar-Bechukotai, Leviticus 25:1-27:34.
This week’s double parshah takes place on Mount Sinai and comprises the closing chapters of Leviticus. It concludes and provides an epilogue for the Holiness Code discussion that began in chapter 17. And it offers a new insight into Eternal’s relationship to the land and to us. Put another way: our relationship to God, to each other and to the land.
Behar focuses on how the land is to be regarded and treated. That treatment is related to how we are to treat one another:
“The land shall not be sold beyond reclamation, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and reside with Me. Consequently, throughout the land of your possession, you shall give redemption for the land” [Leviticus 25:23-24]. God’s ownership of the land, and we as its tenants, is the underpinning of the Sabbatical cycle and the Jubilee year.
We are to care for the land as a conditional gift from God. The condition is to follow God’s ways in how we relate to one another, to God and to the land that belongs to God.
The proscribed cycle of care also indicates divine concern for permanent poverty. Gleaning after the harvest is allowed every year, including the sabbatical year, a Shabbat of the land for the Eternal every seven years.
During the land Sabbaths, food is for the taking by humans and animals. Food from the wild year and the double harvest from the previous year are intended to sustain the landowner and household.
After the seventh of the seven-year cycles, a 50th year of Jubilee is added. In the Jubilee year, indentured servants are freed and land is restored to ancestral owners. As with farmers today, mortgaging one’s land was the means of obtaining the supplies and equipment for one’s crops. After the harvest, money earned from sales was used to pay back the loan, and repeat. As we are aware, farmers were, and remain, one to two bad years away from losing their land. This concerned God.
Thus, God gave the laws about how the poor, workers, widows and orphans are to be treated. In Behar we see that the Eternal is also concerned with permanent poverty.
Redemption of an Israelite servant who is working off a debt is a family concern. However, the family cannot treat that person nor the family as slaves. “You shall not ruthlessly rule over them; you shall revere your God” [Leviticus 25.43].
Redemption of ancestral land is a tribal/community concern and redemption of an individual extends to the resident alien who has done well among us and becomes unexpectedly indebted. He is allowed to be redeemed by his relatives.
These, and all the laws presented in Leviticus, are contractually presented in the opening verses of Bechukkotai as rewards for following God’s commandments and the rebuke for not following God’s laws. I know that this section is both sweet and difficult to read for modern people. The Hebrew is beautiful and much more intimate than English allows.
The rewards conclude with two of my favorite lines of Torah: “I will establish My Mishkan within you, and My Spirit will not reject you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be My people” [Leviticus 26.11-12].
Paired with the two lines above from Behar, we find a God that cares deeply about our personal and spiritual wellbeing, a God that wants us to be the best person we can be — even as we question the prescriptions and proscriptions for the Divine means of doing so.
Sabrina Sojourner is a Jewish spiritual leader and community chaplain.