From its outset Torah is the story of Israel and the Holy One whose name the nation would bear. From the very beginning of the history that is recorded in the Torah, humanity is called to bear collectively the image of the One True Creator. With the disobedience of humanity the mantle is passed to Israel with the command to be a “kingdom of priests and a Holy nation.” (Shemot 19:6) But what does this actually mean?
The first command in Gan Edan is literally to serve (l’avdah), the land (B’restit 2:15). The God of Israel is not a King who exhausts his creation, rather a sovereign who serves the creation He loves. So as His image bearers it is incumbent upon us to also serve earth and its inhabitants. In such a manner we are to make the name of the King known, and bring all of humanity back into the service of Hashem. As it states in the daily prayer Alenu, “our task is our inheritance”.
Many of the stories and laws of Torah offer the seeds for a vision of a just world. Here are a few that give us a glimpse into our participation into the partnership of redemption:
Abraham pleads with God to save the condemned cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the negotiation process, Avraham embodies an obligation to protest perceived injustice even when victims are strangers and unworthy.
Joseph establishes a system for storing and rationing food so that the Egyptians will not starve to death during a time of famine. His example offers a lesson of using imperfect political authority to protect the lives of all members of society
Even the experience of slavery in Egypt teaches us the pain of oppression, and warns against inflicting such oppression on others, even those who are perceived as marginalized and disenfranchised.
But the extent of Hashem’s benevolence is overwhelming in this week’s Torah portion. The Shabbat of Israel is incredibly unique compared with the world surrounding ancient Israel. It allows for rest for all who are weary. Rich and poor, young and old, male and female, slave or free, and even the animals get a rest! But with the Sh’mitah (the Sabbatical Year) in this week’s portion even the land is given a break! The Sh’mitah and the Yovel give us a ritual to concretize the reality “Everything belongs to the Lord.” (Lev. 25:23)
In fact in the beginning of the parasha Hashem states, “When you come into the land that I give to you, the land shall observe a Shabbat rest.”(25:2) The Hebrew word to give, notein, suggest that the gifting is ongoing, similar to the gifting of Torah. So as long as we are in the land we are to celebrate and recognize that we enjoy blessings of the land due to the benevolence of the Holy One. Likewise our sovereignty over the land means we are to care for, serve and protect the land, rather than consume and exploit the land.
Every seventh year the land is to lay fallow and not be tilled or harvested. The Lord promises that He will provide three years’ worth of vegetation in the sixth year. This is enough for that year, the Sabbatical year, and the next year until the harvest. So observing the Sh’mitah is indicative of trusting in the provision of Hashem.
This is also true of the Yovel, the fiftieth year, or the year following seven Sabbath years. It is a kind of Super Shabbat! Remarkably during the Yovel the land is to revert to back to the original ancestral heritage. This is designed to keep a few people from gaining control over all of the resources that God granted to Israel. While Torah never advocates a complete redistribution of wealth, it does protect against predatory greed.
So here are seven principles (yes this is intentional) that we can take away from Parasha Behar:
1) We are the Creator’s image bearers so we have responsibility to be both servants and sovereigns to the land and to our fellow sojourners.
2) The world and everything in it belongs to God; human beings come upon wealth only by Divine benevolence and do not necessarily deserve it.
3) If we look after our charge, the earth and others God will look after us. Our provider promises to give us enough to last throughout the Sabbatical year. If we give rest to the weary the needy, the helpless and the homeless, how much more will Hashem meet our needs?
4) Corrective measures are necessary to prevent some people from becoming exceedingly rich at the expense of others. Jewish law does not propose a redistribution of wealth, but rather it institutes controls against the gap between the rich and the poor from becoming too wide.
5) The responsibility of poverty relief is an obligation, not a choice. (v.
6) Strategies for poverty relief and protection of the land must balance short term and long-term needs.
7) If we obey God’s commands to care for the earth and others then we will be secure and continue to have His blessings. If we do not, well…by choice we’re on our own. (v. 18)
In the final accounting, it really does all belong to the Lord!