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Parashiyot Behar-Behukotai 5781

May 7, 2021

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A D’var Torah for Parashiyot Behar- Behukotai
By Rabbi Ariann weitzman (’11)

Our double portion this week, parashiyot Behar-Behukotai, offers a connected vision of a world founded on basic trust in the systems of nature as an expression of God’s abundant grace. Parashat Behar begins by instructing us in the laws of the sabbatical and Jubilee years. Every seven years, we must let land lay fallow. Every 50 years, we must let the land rest an additional year, free individuals enslaved by their debts, and let land revert to its ancestral holdings. Along the way, objections are raised: How can you sell land knowing it must revert back to its original owner in just a few years? How do we deal with houses in cities or small villages? How can we truly believe that food will be provided for us in the 7th year of each cycle, or even more hard to comprehend, in the 49th and 50th years of the Jubilee cycle? The text gives both technical explanations of how to overcome logistical challenges of this system, as well as a simple promise: God’s bounty will provide, and even in the 8th year you will still be eating grain grown in the 6th year.

Parashat Behukotai begins in a less pleasant way, with a series of blessings and curses. If the Israelites obey God’s laws, particularly those about the sabbatical year, they will prosper and grow in strength. If they disobey, the land will reclaim its sabbatical, and they will be ejected from it by force.

It is hard for most of us to imagine the vulnerability involved in working the land for one’s food. If there is too much sun, not enough rain, not enough rain at the right time, an overabundance of pests, or the wrong kind of bugs move into your field, your crop may be utterly destroyed. You may not have enough to eat this year, or to sell this year, let alone to eat next year and the year after that.

Although we may not understand this type of vulnerability, we may be intimately aware of what it means to live with other kinds of vulnerability. We may live with financial vulnerability or insecurity of housing or food. We may live with professional insecurity, not knowing if our paid work will last, if we are capable of doing a good enough job, or perhaps we suffer from “imposter syndrome” at work. We may live with physical vulnerability due to age, disability, or illness. All of these types of vulnerability can be frightening, or even truly dangerous, when we are not being supported well by our families, workplaces, and communities.

But if we are lucky, we also live with emotional vulnerability, the ability to sit with hard emotions, or be open to being hurt, rather than be hardened against these scary feelings, running away from them whenever they crop up. Emotional vulnerability is a spiritual gift that can be cultivated. It is one of the tools which helps us survive and even thrive during challenging times. It helps us deepen relationships because we can be truly present with whatever emotions a partner, parent, child, or friend brings to us.

Parashat Behar asks us to become vulnerable in the most frightening way, risking our future sustenance. Behukotai teaches that if we are open to becoming that vulnerable, the rewards will be greater than we can imagine. Since I do not grow my own food, nor do I live in the land of Israel, I’ll take the privilege of reading this promise more metaphorically. If I am open to making myself vulnerable, the spiritual and emotional rewards will be more than I can imagine. If I am vulnerable in my relationships, both personal and professional, I will be rewarded with the trust of my family, friends, colleagues, and congregants. But if I don’t know how to make myself vulnerable, if I am evasive, stay at surface-level, or avoid hard conversations and feelings, I risk the loss of depth and meaning in those relationships. If we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and honest about our vulnerability, true bounty may be our reward.
Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (AJR 2011) is the Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning for Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, NJ.