Friday, May 15, 2009

Take a Sabbatical, Don't Forget Your Brethren! Parashat Behar 5769

(apologies for the late timing of these words on last week's parasha. I hope that they are timely and meaningful, nonetheless)

Times of transition are always appropriate for words of Torah. The beauty of its being an עץ חיים, a tree of life, is that each parasha is imbued with a sense of vitality, containing so many dimensions that it can always be applied to the situation at hand.
As I mark the point of being half-way through my undergraduate career, and prepare to leave campus after one last Shabbat, many aspects of Parashat Behar (the first half of a double portion with B'chukkotai) speak to my place at this point in the year and in life. Before discussing its first major topic of the commandment to observe a שמיטה (sabbatical) year every seventh year and a יובל, a Jubilee, every fifty years, a four word long condition is placed: כי תבואו אל הארץ - When you come to the land. While it is always important and meaningful to learn about these mitzvot, we are reminded, even before they are detailed, that they can only be performed in the land. I take it as a personal reminder to never forget my commitment to Israel and Zionism. I hope to find a way back to Israel this coming winter. While we should certainly rejoice in our adopted homes in the Diaspora, and be thankful for all they have given us, we must never forget the holiness in the land of Israel, as well as the imperfect, but irreplacable land of Israel.
As I mentioned last week, this semester has been a busy one for me, doing some schoolwork in between Hillel, minyan, work study, other jobs and more. I would like to see this summer as a type of person Sh'mitah, with the hope that the slightly slower pace at which I can move will give me time to reflect on my priorities, and which ways I can improve my actions and interactions. While unfortunately not everyone is luck enough to receive such a long break, we can certainly all take lessons from this mitzvah of letting the land lie fallow once every seven years. As I felt at certain points during the semester, I was spending all of my time and energy on my classes, jobs, and Hillel position, and often failed to think enough of the larger world community beyond Morningside Heights, where there is so much work that needs to be done. Sometimes, we need a reminder like sh'mittah to tell us to think about our families, friends, God, Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) and Kol Yosh'vei Tevel, all the inhabitants of the world.
In the middle of Behar, the Torah transitions into another 6/7 year cycle, that of the Hebrew slave, who often sells him or herself in order to pay back a debt. We are told:
כי ימוך אחיך עמך ונמכר לך, לא תעבד בו עבודת עבד,
When your brother becomes destitude and is sold to you, do not work them as one would a slave. (Leviticus 25:39)
Vayikra Rabbah, the 5th century Palestinian midrash on Leviticus which I studied this past semester, presents a fascinating take on this verse, expanding and connecting a number of important concepts in how to treat the 'other,' reminding us how there really are people who depend on our actions to provide for them in their times of need - just as others help us up when we are down. The author uses a verse from Psalms (41:2), as a jumping off point, using it to explain our verse at hand.
אשרי משכיל אל דל, ביום רעה ימלטהו ה'
Happy is the one who is wise towards the poor/unfortunate, for God will rescue him or her on the day of evil. As it often does, the midrash is making light of the odd wording in the verse. How would someone be wise towards the poor? And Why would God not rescue someone who simply gives to those in need?
A number of rabbis are quoted, each mentioning a personality trait or action through which they are being wise towards those in need. Among the answers are: allowing one's positive inclination (יצר הטוב) to overcome their negative inclination (יצר הרע), giving charity to the poor (litterally, handing a coin to the needy/beggar), one who helps in a burial when there is noboy else to take care of the provisions, and one who visits the sick. Although the answers were given by different indivduals, I believe the common thread lies in the fact that each of these actions takes a level of discernment in how to go about it, but also can have a profound effect on the lives of others.
The themes of Sh'mittah and the needy in our midst in Parshat Behar give us important reminders about prioritizing our busy lives, urging us to step back from the craziness of our daily routines, and consider actions, some easier than others, that can enhance the lives of others as well as our own. Through this lens, we can better appreciate the message imparted at the beginning of the second half of our Parasha, Bechukkotai (Lev. 26:11-12)

ונתתי משכני בתוככם, ולא תגעל נפשי אתכם. והתהלכתי בתוככם וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים; וְאַתֶּם, תִּהְיוּ-לִי לְעָם.
I will cause my presence to dwell among you, and my soul will not despise you. And I will walk among you in your midst; I will be for you a God, and you will be my people.
When we are concious of how we spend our time and act towards others, it is possible to create a society in which God's presence is brought into our midst. This is my hope and prayer at this time of transition for so many. May it be an עת רצון, a time of favor before God and humanity.

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