Parashat B'har begins in a very unusual way. "The Eternal One spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: . . ." (Leviticus 25:1-2). Since the Book of Exodus, we have come to expect phrases in the Torah like "The Eternal said to Moses . . . "; "The Eternal spoke to Moses and Aaron . . . "; and, in Leviticus, "The Eternal One called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting . . . " (Leviticus 1:1). Why, in this instance, do we have a somewhat different "introduction" mentioning Sinai? After all, we already know – and assume everywhere else in the Torah – that Torah was given at Sinai. Why say it again?
Rashi and other commentators have made efforts to explain this using fairly convoluted logic. I would suggest that this phrase is intended to make us sit up and pay attention, not so much to the actual laws that follow, but to the actual message or meaning embedded in these statutes and ordinances. So what are the rules that may lead us to these bigger ideas?
The first set of regulations following our introduction includes laws about the Sabbatical Year – the land's Sabbath. Every seventh year, the land must have a complete rest: ". . . you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines. . . . But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce . . . " (Leviticus 25:4-6). While any number of commentators try to explain how this shows a good understanding of the science of agriculture, for our purposes, please set this thought aside until we get to a discussion of our "bigger ideas."
The next group of laws is related to the Sabbatical in many ways, especially in the use of the number seven. "You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years – so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years" (Leviticus 25:8). Then, on Yom Kippur in the fiftieth year, the shofar is sounded and a Yovel (often translated as "Jubilee") is proclaimed. During this entire fiftieth year, the land again lies fallow (yes, for the second year in a row!), all agricultural lands that have been sold in the previous fifty years revert to the original owners, and Israelite slaves are to be set free. Much has been written about the progressive economic and social implications of these rules, but again, those comments will not be our focus here.
The final section of laws in B'har again appears to be a very radical approach to social responsibility. We learn that extended family is obligated to protect Israelite kinspersons from losing their land and their homes, and from falling into unending indentured servitude or debt-slavery by providing financial support to rescue them from such straits. Again, it seems that social justice is the motivation for these laws and commandments.
However, despite the well-reasoned commentaries alluded to above – economic and social in nature (and very appealing us in the twenty-first century) – the end of the parashah actually tells us directly that the purpose of these regulations is theological rather than economic, political, or sociological! We hear, in God's voice, "For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I your God, the Eternal" (Leviticus 25:55). Not only do people belong to God, but also during the discussion of the Yovel we are reminded that the land, as well, belongs to God, " . . . for the land is Mine: you are but strangers resident with Me" (Leviticus 25:23).
The message is clear. God created everything and everything belongs to God. Land is only loaned to us to use, and the Sabbatical and Jubilee come to remind us that God can decide to whom it has been leased and how it is to be used.
Israelites may find themselves in difficult straits and may have to "sell" themselves into servitude. But we can never really be servants to anyone but God because we chose to serve God rather than any other master.
As I said earlier, we "moderns" are often very interested in economics, politics, and social issues. And, while I haven't done a formal study, I would argue that these things interest us much more than theology. However, I wonder if the overarching concept I have suggested as tying this parashah together couldn't pique our interest. Consider this:
- If we actually believed that God owns everything, would it be possible for us not to generously give tzedakah according to Jewish law? The point isn't that we are supposed to give 10% of our income away to help others: it's that God actually lets us keep 90% of what is actually God's.
- If God is the true owner of the earth and all its land, wouldn't we figure out a way to use that land to feed all the hungry everywhere?
- If we really internalized the concept that we are servants of God, would it be possible to underpay those who produce our goods, harvest our food, or (as an educator, dare I say) teach our children?
- If, as servants of God, we must protect our extended family from homelessness, is it a far stretch to "extend" our family to all humankind?
So, here's the irony: I have argued that this portion is about theology, not politics, economics, and social issues. But, it is clear that when we bring our theological concept to today's world, it demands that we address these very issues.
For God's sake!
Robert Tornberg, RJE, is a Jewish educator with nearly forty years of experience in synagogue schools, day schools, and as the Education Director of DeLeT at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Currently completing the dissertation for his Ph.D. in educational administration and program evaluation, he plans to develop an independent consulting practice focusing on program evaluation and professional development for Jewish schools, synagogues, and other organizations.