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The Weekly Torah Portion:
Rabbi Davis gives his commentary and insight
Summary Behar Bechotai 5762
The beginning of Behar reminds us that the Israelites are still at Mount Sinai. They are informed of the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years. The reason that the sedrah starts by informing us that these laws were given at Mount Sinai is to remind us that not only were the Ten Commandments given there, but all the mitzvoth from that time until now. In fact the people remain at Mount Sinai until the middle of Beha'alotecha, which we read in three weeks time.
The way the Sabbatical and Jubilee laws are introduced bears a striking resemblance to the way the Torah introduces the laws of Shabbat and the Counting of the Omer:
"Six years you shall sow your field... and gather its produce, but on the seventh year will be a Sabbatical for the Land, a Shabbat to Hashem; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard". (Leviticus 25:3-4)
"And you shall count for yourselves seven Sabbatical Years, seven times seven years, and the days of the seven Sabbatical years shall be 49 years". (Verse 8)
The laws of the Sabbatical Year were as follows: Every seventh year in the agricultural cycle, the land in Israel was not to be ploughed or sown. Crops which had been planted during the previous year, or had seeded themselves, were hefker. This meant that they could be eaten by any person, or animals in the field. The farmer was not permitted to trade with these crops. The same applied to fruit. The farmer was permitted to water his fruit trees, otherwise they would die from drought. (There are some countries in which it doesn't rain in the summer!)
In the Jubilee (Heb. Yovel) Year, there were two main additional laws: a person who had sold land within the last 50 years, was entitled to receive it back. In effect, the purchaser had bought the field leasehold, rather than freehold. The second law was that anyone who owned a Hebrew slave had to set him free.
The rationale behind such laws may be found in verse 23:
"And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; for you are only strangers and tenants with me."
In other words, we are not allowed to take ownership of the land of Israel for granted. It belongs to the Almighty, and we are His tenants. And like any other tenants, the condition of our staying there depends on keeping to the contract. One of those conditions is that we keep the laws of Shmitta - the Sabbatical Year. By refraining from agricultural work in that year and by not selling land in perpetuity, we acknowledge Hashem as Master of the Land. This is of course very similar to Shabbat, by not working on Shabbat, we recognise Hashem as Creator and Master of the world.
Letting servants go free at the Jubilee is also a declaration that we are not the ultimate Master, and they should also have only one ultimate Master, and not be beholden to another person.
This explains another law which appears in Behar: to assist a person financially if he is in need, give him his dignity and not to charge interest on any loan you may give him. (Verses35-38). Even the money we have is not ours to use as we please. It is a conditional loan, to be partially used for the benefit of others.
Why is there an implied connection with the Counting of the Omer?
The connection between the two portions now becomes clear: fulfilment of these mitzvoth leads to the creation of a model society in the Land of Israel, and constitutes our entitlement to the Land. Abrogation of these laws and the covenant with Hashem leads to punishments, and, ultimately to exile. In fact, although the punishments in Bechukotai are mentioned in connection with the mitzvoth as a whole, non-observance of the Sabbatical year is singled out. (See chapter 26, verses 34,35 and 43, where the Torah says that the Land will lay barren to compensate for the Sabbatical years not observed.)
Amidst all the doom and gloom of the prophecies, we find two strong messages of comfort. One is that no matter what, Hashem would always remember the covenant with our forefathers, the Jewish People would always survive and a remnant would return to the Land of Israel.
The second message of hope is less obvious. In verses 32 and 33, we are told that the Land of Israel will remain desolate during our years in exile, and will remain desolate even when our enemies would try to settle it. This prophecy meant that the Land was being preserved for us. The Talmud in Sotah predicted that it would only prosper when the Jews would return. All this has now come to pass!