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Parashat Behar

May 27, 2016
by Cantor Sandy Horowitz

In the Harry Potter books, Harry is able to take a strand of memory, slip it into a pool of water and then immerse himself in that pool in order to experience the memory.  Reading Torah can sometimes feel this way. Torah creates the opportunity to experience multiple planes of reality, simultaneously living in our present-day world while immersing ourselves in ancient biblical events, and then returning to reflect on what we have gleaned. What follows is an exploration into the multiple simultaneous strands of time and place that occur as we read this week’s Torah portion.

Parashat Behar begins with shmita, the laws regarding care of the land: “Six years you shall sow your field and six years you shall prune your vineyard…but in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of rest to the land” (Leviticus 25:3-4). This verse refers us back to the opening story of Genesis, when God performed the work of creation for six days and rested on the seventh. We then read in Genesis 1:26 that newly-created man was told to have “dominion…over all the earth”; in Leviticus, he is instructed in how to do so — he may use the land for his own purposes, as long as he gives it a rest every seven years. On the way from Genesis to Parashat Behar‘s instruction to provide rest for the land, we stop at Exodus Chapter 20, where the commandment is given to us regarding the observance of Shabbat for ourselves. God rests, we rest, we allow the land to rest.

Having looked back, this verse also suggests promise of a future. Not only will the Israelites “come into the land which I [God] give you” (Leviticus 25:2), the laws of shmita imply they will remain and care for that land. Subsequent verses multiply the shimta laws by seven, adding greater permanence and a host of instructions regarding ownership and fair treatment: “And you shall count seven Sabbaths of years, seven times seven years…and you shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout all the land…” (Lev 25:8,10). There is even the promise of walled cities (“And if a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city…” — Leviticus 25:29) — imagine how that must have sounded to our wandering ancestors!

Behar then, provides a timeline that moves both back and forwards in biblical time; but where exactly on the timeline are the Israelites of Parashat Behar? The Book of Exodus ended “in the first month in the second year” following liberation (Exodus 40:17); subsequent Leviticus chapters imply continued movement forward in time.  However, this week’s chapter begins with, “vay’daber Adonai el Moshe behar Sinai” – “and God spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai“. Are they back at Sinai then, waiting at the foot of the mountain while Moses receives his instructions from God, or are they in the wilderness “in the second year”?

According to Rashi regarding this verse, the explicit reference to Mount Sinai serves as a reminder that all God’s commandments come from Sinai. Although many of the Sinai laws will be repeated by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, those cited in Parashat Behar are not. Rashi explains that the mention of Sinai functions as a reminder that this omission does not lessen their value. One might conclude that the people are probably not literally back at Sinai, and that the narrative is indeed moving forward, even though we won’t get another location reference until the beginning of Numbers (Numbers 1:1 — “God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt…”)

We return from our immersion into Behar, but our spiritual travels continue. For while we are counting seven years and seven times seven years in Leviticus, our present-day selves are in the midst of counting the 49 days of the Omer — we count seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot; the commemoration of receiving the laws at Sinai takes place on the fiftieth day. We count the Omer daily, metaphorically re-tracing the steps of our Exodus ancestors as they journeyed from Egypt to Sinai, from freedom to redemption. Regardless of whether our Behar ancestors were standing at the foot of the mountain or two years out from there, as we count the Omer on our spiritual trek towards Sinai, we may regard ourselves as if we are following right behind them.

As Ben Bag Bag says in Pirkei Avot, “Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it”.

Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.