As we have made our way through the Book of Leviticus, we have often noted how boundaries have been crossed—between the inside and outside of the body in issues of tzaraat ("leprosy"); between the clothing of the priest and the furniture of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle; between proper offerings of fire and dangerous ones. Now, as the Book draws to a close, in the first of this week's two portions B'har, we have another boundary crossing, between human beings and their land, as the model of the seventh day of rest, Shabbat, determines the manner in which the land is cultivated and sold. As human beings need a day to rest and refresh, so does the earth—a suggestion that when God promised uncountable progeny to Abraham along with an eternal claim to the land, the two promises were really one: human beings and land deriving sustenance and refreshment from each other, as the first "human being," adam, did from the adamah, the "earth."
But as one cycle of seven years becomes first two, then three, four, five, and six, another concept emerges as the seventh year of that cycle approaches. The year following seven seven-year cycles is a yovel, rendered in English as Jubilee, referring to the ram's horn sounded as the year begins, on Yom Kippur. Now the boundary is crossed between liberty—a seminal idea for human beings—and release, of the land from the series of owners who have possessed it over the previous fifty years. (The notion that Yom Kippur is really a day of liberation is intriguing.)
In the Jubilee, the land reverts to its original owner, as a sign that the land belongs to no human being, but to God, who leases it to those who will till it. "The Land is Mine," God proclaims in Leviticus 25:23, and "you are but sojourners and tenants with Me." Human beings deserve to be redeemed from indenture, and land deserves to be redeemed from the human owners who use it, as opposed to God, who desires only that the product of the divine creation flourish and show forth all the potential that God sowed in it. In a sense, the law of the Jubilee acts as a bridle on God's unlimited grant of dominion over the earth to the first human beings (Genesis 1:26), much as God realized the need to adjust the human diet as a result of the widespread violence that caused the Holy One to send the Flood.
Another example of the crossing of boundaries between human beings and the land is the word g'ulah, "redemption." No sooner has the text announced that the land must be redeemed from its later acquirers in the fiftieth year than it proceeds to speak (Leviticus 25:25) of the obligation of relatives to redeem—buy back from indebtedness—any relative who has come on hard times. There is a mathematical formula to guide these transactions, based on the proximity or distance of the sale to the next Jubilee.
This obligation is followed by other injunctions insuring that the redeeming relative does not add to his poor relative's woes. The redeemer may not charge him interest on any debt, and if he sells himself into servitude, the redeemer is not to treat him as a "slave," eved (avodat eved, see 25:39), but as a hired laborer, since he is an Israelite, reminding us at the end of this passage (Leviticus 25:55) that Israelites are avadim only to God. The language is similar to the statement that proclaims that "the Land is Mine" (Leviticus 25:23)—the land and the people who live on and work it belong to God, but now not because of the adam-adamah (person-land) connection of the Creation, but because God brought us out of Egypt, out of servitude to Pharaoh, into the servitude of God. This juxtaposition of God freeing us from Egypt and the kinsman redeeming the relative from servitude casts God's role as Redeemer into a very intimate setting: God is our "redeeming relative." Human redeemers rarely can command seas to split to let their freed relatives out, but the lesson seems to be that they should do everything they can!
This week's second portion, B'chukotai, sounds very familiar. It restates the so-called Deuteronomic theology that order in nature is a sign that Israelites are observing the mitzvot and disaster a sign that they are violating them. This theology is most succinctly rendered in the traditional second paragraph of the Sh'ma (Deuteronomy 11:13-21), a passage that has been excised from Reform prayer books since the beginning of our Movement, despite attempts to reintroduce it in both Gates of Prayer and Mishkan T'filah. It reminds us of the determination of even the most radical nineteenth century reformers that whatever changes they made in the liturgy, they refused to "edit" Scripture or bar certain "objectionable" parashiyot. We have always read the same portions as other Jews around the world (insofar as our observance of only one day of Festivals permitted), and while our policy of reading selections from each Torah portion means that we can ignore problematic passages, they remain there as an option to read and struggle with. Our yearly journey through the Book of Leviticus is the most potent tribute to this historic decision.
Yet while we may argue with the theology of this passage, we also need to recognize that it lays the theological groundwork for the prophetic message, so crucial to the Reform sense of our Jewish roots. Deuteronomy 13 notes that to be legitimate the prophetic message must be rooted in the commandments of God. This section of Leviticus lays down the Torah's basis for the entire prophetic enterprise that because of the people's sins destruction shall come upon them (described in language that evokes the Plagues in Egypt) as well as exile among the nations. This, of course, is the other side of the "you were slaves in Egypt" theme: if you act like God's servants now, you will be rewarded as the Israelites were in their coming out of Egypt; if you do not, you will be treated like the Egyptians. And in the end, this dire prophecy is a reminder that whether or not the Israelites observe the seven-year cycles and the Jubilees, the land is still assured of its rest in those periods. The Israelites will have plenty if they observe these periods, and will be exiled if they do not, but the Land shall not have to suffer from the Israelites' unfaithfulness. God's covenant with the land in unconditional.
But the covenant with the people still remains in force. God knows that the Israelites will ultimately repent of the evil they have brought upon themselves; God will have compassion upon them, and will return them to the Land. This, of course, is the message of the post-exilic prophets, and that message is enshrined and predicted in the Torah, in this passage. Torah and the Prophets are, indeed, one, and while God puts words like these into the prophets' mouths, they were in the Torah all along for us to read and take as warning—if only we had.
What an uplifting message on which to end the Book of Leviticus!
Only it doesn't end yet. A coda remains—a rather pedestrian one, if you will: a lengthy section about the value that must be paid in vows that the Israelites have made--for their own person, for animals to be offered, for tithes to be brought to the Tabernacle. It is as though God (or the editors) was (were) saying: I have just described the arc of Jewish history for the next several hundred years; its curve, depending on whether you are obedient or not. But lest you take premature comfort in the notion that even if your sins produce wide-scale destruction and exile, in the end God will have compassion and take you back—that's not enough. You have to observe the mitzvot, and you can; here is an example: if you make a vow, here's how you can fulfill it. You made me a vow at Sinai, remember? "Naaseh v'nishma" you said. That was a huge statement, and you didn't always keep it. Now I'm asking you to lower your sights—if you make a vow to pay an amount equivalent to a human being, you will owe fifty shekels of silver if you are a mature male, thirty shekels if a mature female. Pay up—and you will save yourselves decades of horror. I've made it very simple for you; please—God seems to be pleading as this book closes—don't make it difficult for Me. I want you to luxuriate in my compassion now.
Rabbi Richard N. Levy recently retired as Rabbi of the Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR, where he continues to teach in the fields of liturgy, spiritual growth, and social justice. He is a past Director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at the campus and a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.