Parashas Behar/Bechukosai – The Gift and The Curse :
This week we have another double Parasha which also happens to be the final instalment from the book of Vayikra. Parashas Behar begins with the rules of the Shemittah and Yovel year (the 'sabbatical' and 'jubilee' years for the land) and then moves on to give over the rules concerning the selling and purchase of land (within Israel), the redemption of this land during the Yovel year (will discuss more below) and eventually we are told guidelines pertinent to preventing poverty which includes the prohibition against charging interest to a fellow Jew and generally trying to help him. Parashas Behar ends with some directions on slaves and in particular the treatment of Jewish slaves and the mitzvah to try and redeem one if he comes into the hands of non-Jews. Parashas Bechukosai is a little bit more scary, giving over a long list of blessings followed by an even longer list of curses which we are told will happen if we shy away from our duties as Jewish people. These curses include some familiar examples of what has happened to us throughout centuries of persecution and bare uncanny resemblance to historical events.
The laws of the Shemittah year are vast and very complex but the general idea is that for six years we are allowed to work the land of Israel but on the seventh year it is a 'Shabbat for Hashem' [25:4] and we are commanded to leave the land unharvested. Although we are allowed to eat from the produce of the land during this Shemittah year, Rashi emphasises that it is forbidden for people to treat their fields as their own and prevent others from enjoying the harvest. Everyone from owners to non-Jewish workers to even animals must have free access to the produce during this special year and the produce is to be used strictly for food by the owner and not for commerce. The Chasam Sofer brings down an interesting observation that the laws of Shemittah bear testimony to the fact that the Torah is divinely written from Hashem as the chapter guarantees that the year before Shemittah will produce a crop large enough for the next three years, until the next available crop is harvested (three years is... one year that the land is left fallow during Shemittah, one year if it coincides with the Jubilee/Yovel year where it is also left fallow and one year that the new crops will take to produce following the one or two previous fallow years). If a human being were inventing such a commandment, he would be foolish to make such a prediction... therefore according to the Chasam Sofer only G-d could make such a bold statement. Ramban comments that if the Jewish people observe the laws of Shemittah, the people will be able to work productively in the other six years and not have to leave the land fallow every other year (like most lands require). In fact we see that the Jewish people are the only nation who have been able to turn Israel into a flourishing land which has the ability to produce a variety and abundance of crops consistently... Israel was described as a wasteland when under the control of other empires and this is yet more evidence of our special connection to the land of Israel and in particular Hashem's promise that if we stick to the laws of the land then we will be able to benefit from it greatly. By showing this faith in Hashem and leaving the fields fallow and the vineyards untended during the Shemittah year and by returning land to it's original owners (ancestral heritage) during the Yovel year Hashem will gift us with bumper harvests and reward us for our commitment to his Torah... on the flip side it is quite clear from all the mefarshim that if we do not adhere to Shemittah and Yovel years then there will be no blessing from Hashem and we will have to endure untenable lands which will ultimately lead to our exile from the land as it says later on in the curses of Parashas Bechukosai. The Midrash explains that this exile punishment is a just מדה כנגד מדה/mida kaneged mida/measure-for-measure retribution as violation of the Shemittah laws results from a person's conviction that his increased labour guarantees him success. Hashem therefore expels him from his home and subjects him to life in a strange environment. The hardships of life in exile with its insecurity and instability will then prove to him his intrinsic helplessness and reliance on Hashem.
The next sequence of passages following on from the laws of Shemittah and Yovel years seem to be unrelated and randomly placed... we have laws on general purchases from a Jew, the selling of land or his ancestral portion, the selling of a house in a walled city and eventually laws pertaining to poverty, the prohibition to lend money to a Jew with interest and then Jewish slaves. So what is going on here?... Luckily for us we have Rashi who explains their logical sequence and placement at this point... By this progression of commandments, the Torah implies that if one allows greed to keep him from observing the Shemittah and Yovel prohibitions, he will eventually have to lose his money and be forced to sell his valuables and movable goods. If he still does not repent and change his ways then he will be forced to sell his ancestral portion of land and his house, and, finally, to borrow at interest. If this progression of punishments has no effect, he will eventually have to sell himself as a slave to a fellow Jew (where at least he will receive the special treatments specified in the Torah). The worst of these possibilities is however hinted in the final laws which are concerning a Jewish slave who has sold himself to a non-Jew... the worst scenario possible here is that he will become a servant to idols in such a household... A clear cut message hidden from the remaining possukim of Parashas Behar on the consequences of not keeping to the laws of Shemittah and Yovel.
So the Torah states in the first of these passages that... “When you make a sale to your fellow or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow, do not aggrieve one another” [25:14]. On it's most basic level this phrase refers to business conduct and how we should not “aggrieve” or act unjustly with eachother. Rashi brings down an incredible insight on this, however, that in addition to this simple meaning of not cheating anyone in business, the verse has the further meaning that, in doing business, one should “...make a sale to your fellow or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow”... in other words we should give preference to a fellow Jew! This is an extension of the general principle that one should seek to help his fellow Jews in any way possible. The highest form of Tzedakah is to enable someone to make a living in an honourable way, without being required to seek charity... so the best way to help a needy Jew is to do business with him... every Jew loves to do business afterall! The Rambam rules that the highest form of charity is to step in with help to prevent a person from becoming poor. This includes offering him a loan or employment, investing in his business, or any other form of assistance that will alleviate that persons problems. The basis for this principle is brought in a later possuk that explains that... “If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him...” [25:35].
Following on from this we see the commandment to sell land fairly, where we have to bear in mind the redemption of the land in a Yovel year (every seven Shemittah years, therefore 7 x 7 years = every 49 years) and since the land reverts back to their original owners in the Jubilee year, the buyer of the field is actually purchasing the number of crops the land will produce until the field reverts back to it's ancestral heritage. If the seller sets the price based on the land rather than the effective lease of that land as explained above, then he is committing fraud... and is very naughty! This of course only applies in Israel and we no longer have ancestral plots as we are unable to identify ancestry.
The final possuk I shall discuss is the second commandment that... “Each of you shall not aggrieve his fellow” [25:17]... which is similar to the possuk given previously concerning business conduct but here the phrase refers to not hurting people with words in personal relationships. We are taught that it is forbidden to remind people of their earlier sins or of embarrassing aspects of their past, a personal favourite prohibition of mine... for no particular reason of course. The Sages teach that it is worse to hurt someone personally than financially, because money can be replaced but shame lingers on. Someone who embarrasses his fellow in public is described as a murderer and the severity of embarrassing someone is so strong that the Talmud writes that one should allow himself to be killed rather than embarrass his fellow, just as one must die rather than kill him (Sotah 10b).
Next week we enter into the desert with the fourth book of the Torah, which is Bamidbar and next year we go into the Champions League... even though we did embarrass Arsenal and Chelsea... (had to relate it somehow).
Shabbat Shalom and a successful week ahead to all!
Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)

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