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Parashat Behar 5784

May 20, 2024
by Rabbi Susan Elkodsi (AJR '15)
Sylvia, z”l, passed away Erev Pesah at almost 100 years old. Although her loyalty was to the Valley Stream Jewish Center and Rabbi Yechiel, she often told me that I was her “favorite female rabbi.” She was intelligent and thoughtful, often adding her own “midrash” to our texts. She was raised to fight for civil rights, women’s rights and peace, and raised her children the same way. Her insights always added to our discussions.

Something that Sylvia struggled with, as many of us do, is the concept of “fear of God,” yirat haShem. I would usually try to explain that yirah meant “to revere,” or “to be in awe of,” but I’m not sure that helped. And thinking about yirat haShem in the context of this week’s Torah portion, Behar, I’m beginning to think that it’s time to stop trying to soften the idea of fear of God.

The beginning of parashat Behar, chapter 25:1-16, teaches us about the Shemitah and Yovel (Jubilee) years. We are commanded to let the land rest by not planting or harvesting, and then told how to calculate the price for crop-producing land that one sells to a fellow Israelite. Both are reminders that ultimately, the land belongs to God, and we’re in effect, “tenant farmers” charged with caring properly for the earth.

Verse 14 separates the commandments regarding caring for the land and selling it. “When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not mistreat one another.” The focus of the text has switched from how we are to treat the land to how we treat others.

Given how real estate prices have skyrocketed over the past few years, with bidding wars inflating values, it’s not difficult to imagine how tempting it might be for a buyer or seller to take advantage of the other. Rashi understands al tonu to mean wrongdoing in money matters, and Sforno, in what might be the biblical basis for taking a used car to a mechanic before purchasing it, looks to PT Bava Metzia 4:7 to warn that one may not “skim off any dust particles from the top of the drawer to create the impression that the purchaser receives completely refined merchandise, none of which turns out to be substandard or useless.” Here, there’s no such thing as “buyer beware,” both parties need to behave honestly.

There are many reasons why one might buy or sell crop-producing land, and the use of the word amitekha, “your neighbor/fellow,” suggests that we’re dealing with two parties who are equals, not an individual who is forced to sell because of his financial situation, although that does come up soon enough in the text.

Following the two verses explaining how the price of the land in question is to be calculated, verse 17 then tells us to not mistreat the other person. However, it adds, veyareita meiElohekha, ki ani Adonai Elohekha, “And/But fear your God, because I am Adonai your God.” Dr. Everett Fox translates this as “rather, you are to hold your God in awe, for I am YHWH your God!” Rabbi Shraga Silverstein, in The Rashi Chumash, writes, “And you shall fear your G-d, [who knows your intentions]. For I am the L-rd your G-d.”

Because the Torah is written in rather brief language, if something is repeated and/or seems superfluous, there’s a reason; each occurrence comes to teach us something different. Here, Sifra Behar explains that verse 14 has to do with defrauding one’s neighbor with money (as noted previously), while verse 17 has to do with mistreating someone verbally. While both verses warn the parties al/lo tonu, to not oppress or mistreat the other, verse 17 says nothing about any type of financial transaction! Rather, it’s a reminder that more is at stake than money or land, and that we need to treat others properly in word and deed (no pun intended).

However; we really can’t separate the two, as the next two verses command: “You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security; the land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill, and you shall live upon it in security.” (Lev. 25:18-19)

Here, we have the word betah, “security” at the end of both verses, having to do with the ability to live on the land – the Promised Land – which the Israelites believe they’re about to soon enter. Security can come in many forms; to me, verse 18 reminds us to treat others properly in business and personal interactions and relationships, because if we can’t trust (another way to translate betah) others we can’t live together. In verse 19, we need to trust that the land will provide the sustenance we need in order to survive, even – perhaps especially – when we can’t physically plant the crops, and need to trust that God will sustain us. If having to not plant and harvest, especially in the final Shemitah year that runs into the Yovel doesn’t engender a bit of yirah, I don’t know what might!

Two Hebrew words, pahad and yirah, can be translated into English as “fear.” Pahad is the kind of fear that causes trembling, often translated as “terror” or “dread.” Yirah is an acknowledgment of something bigger than ourselves; something awe-inspiring, awesome (or awful), something to be revered because it has real and/or perceived power over us.

So yes, Sylvia, fear is a good translation, and a little fear of God is a good thing. It reminds us that we can’t only operate in ways that benefits ourselves, but in ways that benefit each other and the world, and as a result, bring blessing.

Dedicated to the memory of Sylvia Brown. May her neshamah have an Aliyah.
Susan Elkodsi (AJR ’15) is the spiritual leader of the Malverne Jewish Center in NY and is immediate past president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis. Her writing has appeared on JewishSacredAging.com, and she has presented workshops for Limmud, NY, for AJR and in the community, and her book, Midrash HaZaK: Torah Wisdom by 70 Over 70 (but who’s counting), an anthology of divrei torah for older adults, will soon IY”H be published. Susan is passionate about helping Baby Boomers and older adults to find meaning and purpose in their lives within the context of Jewish tradition and teachings, and as part of a Jewish community. You can find her work on her website, www.babyboomerrabbi.com. In addition, she loves to knit, spin and weave, and she and her husband David recently added kittens Tiggr and Midnight to their family.