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Parashat Behar-Behukotai

May 17, 2012

By Rabbi Ariann Weitzman

“It should not be believed that all the beings exist for the sake of the existence of humanity. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes, and not for the sake of something else” (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:13).

This week’s double portion elaborates on the laws of the sabbatical and Jubilee years, detailing the extreme punishment Israel will suffer if the sabbatical years are not strictly kept. The parashah opens with the reminder that these laws were given on Sinai, orienting the reader to the centrality and importance of what is to follow. Indeed, these laws must be central to the Torah’s concern, as the texts reminds us we will be removed from our land as a result of failing to abide by them, as it is written in Leviticus 26:43, “The land will be bereft of [the Israelites] and it will be appeased for its sabbatical years.” Pirke Avot 5:9 lists only four categories of sin which will result in exile and failure to observe the sabbatical, or sh’mita, years may be a surprising addition.

The sh’mita years are so fundamental to the functioning of the land which the Israelites are about to inherit that even if we fail to observe them, they will find a way to observe themselves. In Leviticus 26:34, the text reads, “The land will then tirtzeh for its sabbaticals.” The commentators argue over the meaning of tirtzeh and various translations have been proposed, including: “be appeased” (Rashi) and “pay back” (ibn Ezra). The apparent meaning of the text is that the land will force off its inhabitants in order to observe all of the unobserved sabbatical years in a row. An alternative understanding of the verse might be “the land will desire its sabbaticals.” Just as I desire my day of rest each week (which usually falls on a Tuesday!), the earth desires its own rest and has been granted both the right and obligation to rest by God. This rest is unlike the rest humanity is granted for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur in last week’s parashah, which are designated as days of rest “for you,” that is, for us (Lev. 23:24, 32), but it is a Sabbath rest for the Eternal (Lev. 25:2). In that way, the land’s seventh year rest parallels the day of rest God took in the first week of Creation. It is a rest that is inherent in the structure of Creation, not a human cessation of activity alone.

Many commentators remind us that the sabbatical laws teach that the land does not belong to us in perpetuity, but is loaned to us to use for a short time only. Even beyond that, the land has its own role to play in observing God’s laws. While God gives us the task of caring for creation and ordering it, the land also benefits from its own wildness. It needs the disorder that comes when it is allowed to lay fallow or the chaos in those corners of the earth that are beyond human control. This wildness does not exist to serve us, but to please its Creator. Surely God did not create the leviathan or locusts for the sake of humanity!

The Torah is a testament to the faith of our ancestors and a guide for the future of our people. It is naturally an anthropocentric document, meant to control the course of human behavior alone. In small glimpses, the Torah comes to teach us that our world is a theocentric one and not only humans, but all things strive to be in relationship with the Divine will. Perhaps in struggling to understand the mystery of these relationships, we might find new ways to encounter the Divine as human beings and as Jews. One of my favorite pieces of liturgy on Shabbat morning, the Nishmat, declares, “Could song fill our mouth as water fills the sea, and could joy flood our tongue like countless waves, could our lips utter praise as limitless as the sky and could our eyes match the splendor of the sun…never could we fully state our gratitude for…the lasting love which is Your precious blessing” (Siddur Sim Shalom, 1989). What a blessing it is to go out into the world and remember this deep truth! We are challenged with the task to feel the spirit of the world reverberating with our own in relationship with the Eternal. May we feel this resonance with the land, the sea, the sky, and then bring it closer and closer, echoing in all things until we can sing praises to the Eternal in unison.


Rabbi Ariann Weitzman, AJR ’11, is the Director of Congregational Learning for Bnai Keshet, in Montclair, New Jersey. She dedicates this D’var Torah to the memory of Maurice Sendak, alav hashalom, who understood wild things.