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Parashat Behar

May 12, 2011

By Rabbi Bruce Alpert

Here’s the scene: I open the door to the cupboard or refrigerator and stare intently at its contents. Perhaps I rearrange things a bit to discover what might be hiding in a remote corner. I stare some more. Then, after an additional moment or two of hesitation, I grab a handful of something I don’t really want and, disdainfully shutting the door, declare that “there’s nothing to eat in this house.”

What brought this domestic idyll to mind were a pair of verses from this week’s parashah, Behar.The Torah is discussing the command to give the land a sabbatical. While allowing land to lie fallow is a cardinal agricultural principle, it does call for a certain amount of faith. The Torah addresses the issue directly: “Should you ask, ‘what are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will yield a crop sufficient for three years” (Leviticus, 25:20-21, New JPS Translation).

Beyond the timeless inquiry “what’s to eat?” these verses raise, for me at least, an intriguing question of how we understand what we are given. The word ordain – used by Artscroll as well as the Jewish Publication Society – fails to capture the dynamic of the text: v’tsiviti et birkhati lakhem, “I will command My blessing for you.”

The locution “command” here I think is both curious and powerful. When I consider the many blessings in my own life, I usually think of myself as their passive – and often undeserving – recipient. But what does it mean to command blessing? And is such a command the province the Holy One alone?

Consider, for a moment, my fridge door declaration about the state of our domestic provisions. It’s never true. There is always something to eat in our house. The cupboard has plenty of canned and packaged goods, the fridge has most, if not all of the staples, the freezer is stocked with any number of things that will approach edibility with but a few turns in the microwave. Whatever the incumbent risks that come with living in my house, malnutrition is not one of them. So what we really mean when we say “there’s nothing to eat in this house” is that nothing we can readily put our hands on will satisfy this inchoate craving we are currently experiencing.

The difference between viewing blessing as something passively granted and actively commanded is the difference between grumpily walking away from the cupboard with a handful of raisins, and excitedly combining those same raisins with the almonds sitting next to them, the lettuce, tomato, pepper and lemon that’s in the fridge, the olive oil, salt and pepper in the spice rack, and sharing that salad with someone for whom you care. It is the difference between taking one’s good health for granted and using one’s strength to serve good purposes. It is the difference between a private sense of gratitude and brightening someone’s day by saying “thank you.”

Perhaps this is the essential meaning of v’tsiviti et birkhati lakhem, “I will command My blessing for you.” Blessings are not passive states but transformative powers. God, through His command, marshals the power of His blessing to transform our lives. In moments of insight, we recognize those transformations and call them our blessings. And they too are transformative powers to command.

Such blessings indeed fill all the cupboards of our lives. May we possess the will to see them as such, the gratitude to recognize their immediate and their ultimate source, and the strength to command them to transform other lives.


Bruce Alpert is a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion and the rabbinic intern at Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, Connecticut.