Behar 5779

Parashat Behar, our Torah reading for this week, introduces us to the Shmita year. Every seven years, Leviticus/Vayikra instructs us that the land must lie fallow—no agricultural or food production is permitted and there are a number of other restrictions put into place as well. The number seven holds great significance in Jewish tradition—we are commanded to rest on the Shabbat or the seventh day and, here, the parallel between our need as human beings to rest and the need for the land to rest is striking and profoundly countercultural. In a capitalist system which correlates human worth with human productivity, consequently deeming any human being whose body is incapable of the kind of unsustainable production our culture demands inherently dispensable, inherently unworthy and completely lacking in value, our Torah offers us a blueprint for what a radically liberatory, egalitarian system of rest and rejuvenation could look like. Recognizing that no human being, no animal, and no part of the land, upon which, our portion tells us later, we are strangers and sojourners with God, not owners outright can produce without ceasing, guidelines are put into place enabling us to shape a society in which the Shmita year is taken seriously. Yet, in the world as it is, the Shmita is an incredibly difficult mitzvah to observe. How might a commandment prohibiting food production, for instance, negatively impact those most viscerally impacted by rampant structural and social inequality? If a person cannot produce their own food, how are they supposed to sustain themselves and their families? And if they have not been able to store a year or two’s worth of food because they are living month to month, where does that leave them? In many ways, preparing, saving and storing for the future are luxuries, luxuries many in our own country do not have access to.
If we are to take seriously the Torah’s mandate to allow the land to rest, just as human beings are required to rest, we must take seriously the fact that in order to put this into practice, we are required to radically rethink and reconstitute our very social structure, a social structure which privileges some over others, and in which resource distribution and acquisition are wildly unequal. What might it look like for those of us with much to take seriously the Torah’s mandate to create a social system which allows all to survive, all to thrive? As we become intimately familiar with the reality of profound, systemic social and economic injustice through our work in the world, it is easy to despair of sustainable change ever coming. The status quo feels so intrenched. Yet, in this week of Behar, in this week in which we are hearing and reading the laws of the Shmita year, let us take some time to think about the actions, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential we can each take to do what tikkun/repair we are able to create a world in which all are able to thrive, a world which is truly a dwelling place for the Divine.

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