By Saul Golubcow
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portions are Behar and Bechukotai, Leviticus 25:1-27:34.
Chapter upon chapter of Leviticus is about sacrifices to obtain God’s favor and forgiveness, along with detailed instructions on how to create a state of holiness.
But this week’s combined parshayot that conclude Leviticus are absent such content. Instead, as described poetically, they address the “uncircumcised heart” — human weaknesses that debase ourselves and stain our relationships. It’s as if Isaiah had appeared several hundred years earlier and warned: “Your sacrifices and purifications will be worthless if you do not behave well.”
Behar introduces the laws of shemitah. Land is to observe a Sabbath every seventh year with no planting or harvesting. Any produce is for the taking. Biblical historians may debate how well this command was observed, but might its lasting importance be tied to how it can free us from being greedy and exploitative? Might a landowner lose sight of the ecological vulnerability of the land and the well-being of workers and livestock in the drive for short-term large crop yields and immediate profits?
Such blindness induced by the “uncircumcised heart” may be a constant affliction, so the shemitah injunction directs us to pull back for a year, rest, reflect, think about the land’s needs, be sensitive to employees, care for animals and plan judiciously so that the next six years are fruitful.
At the end of seven shemitah cycles is the Jubilee during which the land lays fallow for an additional year, Jewish servants are set free, and properties revert to their original owners. There is also a prohibition against charging interest on loans. Gains from money we extend for the assistance of others must perpetually lie fallow.
The Jubilee commands our uncircumcised hearts: “You shall not wrong one another.” But to succeed, we must balance our drive to prosper with the treatment of those who work for us or need our monetary relief. We must separate employment from ownership. And we must extend compassion and understanding to those who are compelled to sell their land because they “be waxen poor.”
The last two lines of Behar provide the theological foundation for accepting these commandments. The first is an oft-repeated warning against idolatry. The “uncircumcised heart,” in its enslavement to the fear of want, often falls prey to the blandishments of false comforts at the expense of dignity and decency. The last sentence commands keeping “Sabbaths,” not just the singular Sabbath of each week, but the Sabbaths of the shemitah and Jubilee, of our land, finances, workers, possessions, neighbors and animals, during which we pause to reflect and self-correct.
Acknowledging that the “uncircumcised heart” beats strongly counter to the aspirational goals in Behar, Bechukotai begins with a short description of the bliss of adhering to the commandments. It follows with a long, graphic delineation of the horrors that come from repudiating the mitzvot.
At the end of Leviticus, we are told that if God, in remembering our covenant, won’t give up on us, perhaps we should reciprocate by assiduously treating the “uncircumcised heart” defect.
To do so, three prescriptive aids are offered. There may be age and (back then) gender implications, but otherwise consider everyone equal regardless of height, weight, complexion or other external factors. Keep positive commitments and guard against fraudulent impulses. Embrace the spirit of generosity through tithing and other philanthropic efforts.
Thus, at the end of Leviticus we can proclaim, “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,” we will be strong and move toward decency and dignity with courage.
Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.