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Dan Has DoubleThe Questions: Parshiot Behar and Bechukotai

05/11/2023 08:32:36 AM


Dan Leemon

Once again, we read two Parashiot this week. Behar -- which means “on the mountain”, and refers to what God told Moses on Mt. Sinai; and Bechukotai -- which means “in my rules” where God tells us what good things lie ahead if we follow God’s rules  — and what bad things will happen if we don’t!  
In recent weeks, the Torah has presented us with so many rules and mitzvot:  about sacrifices, priestly responsibilities, holiness, kindness, fairness, cleanliness, eating, and holidays (to name a few).  Just when you’d think we’re out of topics for more mitzvot, here comes one more: resting.  Would you think we would need rules about resting?  In this case, it’s about resting the land (and all the people and animals who work the land).  Every seven years, we are to leave our lands unfarmed and unharvested.  Whatever grows by itself during this year belongs to the landowner, the farm workers (those who are paid and also slaves), anyone who lives there, and the animals, both domestic and wild.
- Why do you think the Torah commands us to rest the land every seven years?  Who (or what) benefits from the rest? 
- Do you see any problems with this commandment?  Whom does it affect?
In addition to the people and the animals, we now understand that it’s good for the land to rest, too — to replenish nutrients in the soil.  And if you think “where will the food come from in the seventh year if nobody’s producing it”, God has an answer to that, promising that the sixth year’s harvest will be enough for three years.  Why three?  Well, there needs to be food for the sixth year, the seventh year, and for the eight year until the new crops grow in and are harvested.
The Parsha continues to talk about an even bigger rest, the “Jubilee Year” (in Hebrew, the “Yoveil”), which comes every fifty years and is considered a holy year.  This is a year beyond rest — it’s a year of restoration and reset.  Farmland (land outside walled cities) that was bought during the intervening years is returned to its owner (or its owner’s children or family).  Anyone enslaved is set free.  This returning of property (including slaves returned to freedom) may be a difficult concept to grasp in our modern times.  But try to think back to ancient times:  Land and what it produced was everything.  There were no factories, banks, medical centers, schools, law firms, retail stores, ice cream shops, Starbuck’s, retirement funds, social security — pretty much all the people worked their land to produce plants and animals for food, or to make into clothing and shelter.  One can imagine that over the 49 years between Jubilees, some people did well, whether due to luck, talent, or hard work, and some people not so well.   Perhaps some people were able to buy land and increase their wealth over time; perhaps others had to sell their land, go into debt, or even end up working just for the food and clothing they needed to survive.
- Why would God command that land be returned to its owner and slaves set free?
- What’s your opinion of this commandment?  What does it do for people?  Is it fair?
The Torah also talks about how to treat people who do not have enough food and cannot support themselves.  It says not to take advantage of them by charging interest on loans, or to overwork someone working for you.  And we are told that we are especially responsible for taking care of our immediate family and relatives who may need help. 
- Why does the Torah tell us this?  Do you think some people are inclined to take advantage of others who need help?
- How do you think it feels to need help — to need others to give you food or clothing or a job so you can survive?
Bechuotakai is the last chapter of the third book of the Torah, Vayikra (Leviticus), which, if you’ve been paying attention, has given us commandment after commandment, mitzvah after mitzvah, rule after rule, until it’s hard to remember them all (and even harder to obey them all!).  Finally, in this Parshah, God lays out the rewards for following all these commandments, and the punishments for not following them.  The rewards sound pretty good:  Plenty of rain to grow crops, plenty of food to eat, peaceful lives without enemies starting wars or wild animals attacking us, and feeling that God is with us, watching over us and taking care of us.  
- What rewards would be especially important to you?  
- What makes you feel secure, happy, and peaceful?
Then come the punishments for not following the mitzvot, and they are pretty strongly worded:  Disease, loneliness, not enough food from our farms, being overtaken by our enemies. I won’t go into more detail here, but the descriptions get even worse and more scary.  God does say that, even if we disobey the commandments and don’t do the good deeds and all these bad things happen, God will remember the covenant between us, and make sure that we survive somehow.
Today we live at a time of science and knowledge where we know that a lot of these rewards and punishments are not sent by God, but by nature.  Sometimes there are droughts and farms don’t yield enough food.  Sometimes we fight our enemies and lose.  Sometimes, as we have all experienced, new diseases come and we need to learn how to fight them and stay healthy.  So if the things talked about in the Torah are not the actual rewards for following the mitzvot — if observing Shabbat or respecting our parents or taking care of people in need doesn’t cause it to rain on our farms or keep us healthy:
- Why do we follow the mitzvot today?  What are the rewards?  What are the punishments for not being kind or fair?
Reflecting on the double Parshiot of Behar/Bechukotai, and thinking about the week ahead:
- When do you feel the most “rewarded” — peaceful, comforted, satisfied?
- When do you feel the most “punished” — worried, lonely, in need?
- What is your favorite way to rest, and why do you like it?
- How do you plan to get some rest this week, and what will you be resting from?
When we finish reading a book of the Torah, we say “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek” — this is kind of like saying “congratulations” or “whoopee!”, but the words around about strength:  be strong, be strong, and let us be strong (alternatively, let us make each other strong).  
- What makes you feel strong?
- How do you help others feel strong?
With all those questions in mind, I wish you good rest, many rewards, and all the strength you need as we continue to stay healthy, support one another, and move forward.
Shabbat shalom,

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784