We will be reading Leviticus 25:39-26:2 in the synagogue
Summary of the sidrot
This is a double portion of Torah readings, which together conclude the book of Leviticus. The sidra Behar begins with commandments about the land of Israel – specifically the obligation to shemittah, to leave one’s fields unworked every seventh year; and also to leave off cultivation for the 50th, Jubilee year. At the Jubilee, the land will revert to its original owner, slaves will go free and certain debts will be cancelled. God promises that there will be enough produce gained from the sixth year of harvesting to last through the shemittah year as well.
The sidra continues to discuss the obligation to Tzedakah – righteous behaviour – in particular to help people avoid debt and the need to lose their property in order to service debt. We must support the poor and help them out of their state of poverty. Interest and oppressive financial relationships are to be avoided. Behar ends with the repetition of the prohibition on worshipping idols, and the importance of Shabbat.
Behukkotai has a different tone. It opens by describing the blessings and rewards that the Israelites will receive if they uphold the covenant and follow the mitzvot. But then comes the passage known as the rebukes – tochecha – when Torah lists the tragedies that will befall us should we abandon God’s covenant and the doing of mitzvot.
The book ends with a brief series of teachings about tithing, the sanctification of voluntary gifts to the Temple, and about vows.
Sometimes the Torah reading so perfectly addresses the situation we are in in the outside world that it is uncanny. In the week of meltdown in the Eurozone with Greece unable to decide on a Government and various looming banking crises we find the Torah advocating a series of years when fields lie fallow and we live on what we can glean, or when debts are cancelled, slaves go free and land reverts to its ancestral ownership. We are reminded of the importance of our obligation to care for each other, to ensure that all have enough to eat and some form of being able to earn our own bread.
We are reminded of the importance of avoiding a situation where people get into impossible debt and descend into grinding poverty. We are reminded that all we think we own is simply lent to us, the real owner of the earth does not live among us. All wealth comes from God. All human life is sacred. This is what these sidrot tell us, and that wealth properly used preserves and sanctifies life, but the corollary is also true.
In Deuteronomy we read of the working out of the shemittah year: “If there be among you a needy man, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which the Eternal your God gives you, you shalt not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; but you shall surely open your hand to him, and shall surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wants. Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying: 'The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand'; and your eye be evil against your needy brother, and you give him nought; and he cry unto the Eternal against you, and it be sin in you. You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; because that for this thing the Eternal your God will bless you in all your work, and in all that you put your hand to. For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: 'You shalt surely open your hand to your poor and needy brother, in your land.' Deut 15:7-11).
Human nature does not change. Everyone is afraid of poverty and many of us find it hard to be charitable all the time – and how much more so if a loan we make might never be paid back. But this is an eternal obligation – the poor will always be with us and we must always be caring of them and support them. They are not some alien species; they are in the words of the bible” our brother”. They are us, except they have fewer resources and the same needs. Their dignity is as important as ours, their self-respect as vital, their validity and value the same as ours. Social inequality exists in every era and among every people and it must be addressed in every era and among every people. The Talmud (Berachot 18a) tells us He that mocks the poor blasphemes his Maker.. R. Assi says:.. He that is gracious to the poor lends to the Lord, and he that is gracious to the needy honours God. Something worth remembering as we watch all the certainties of our material world shaken.