Behar 5779

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.

Shemini 5779

In our parsha this week, Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9-11), we have one of the most famous episodes in all of Torah. Aaron, the High Priest and brother of Moses, has four sons, and two of them—Nadav and Avihu—priests in their own right—approach the altar and make an offer which G-d does not command. As a result of offering this strange or alien fire, as the Torah describes it, Nadav and Avihu die. Why, commentators ask, would death be the punishment for offering something that wasn’t commanded? Couldn’t one argue that their desire to offer sacrifice, to come close to G-d, is emblematic of their spiritual fervor and religious commitment, or commitment to sacred service? It feels like the punishment here not only doesn’t fit the crime but is way out of proportion to it.
Some commentators note that when you come too close to something, it can be dangerous, literally and figuratively. Put starkly, if you get too close to fire, as Nadav and Avihu did here, you will get burned. But beyond the obvious, there is much to be said for how easy it is to be burned out—pardoning the turn of phrase there—when we dedicate ourselves utterly and wholly to our work and don’t take time to care for ourselves in the ways we need to. Though there is much we might want to question about Nadav and Avihu’s treatment here, there is also much wisdom in the idea that we must find a way not to become so subsumed by our work, by our commitments, by always trying to do more, by never feeling like we’re doing enough and end up profoundly burned out emotionally, physically, psychologically and spiritually. May Nadav and Avihu’s story be a cautionary warning to us and remind us of the critical importance of taking time to tend to our own souls and nourish ourselves for the long hall.

Mishpatim 5779

This commentary was written for the Avodah Jewish Service Corps in 5779/2019.
Mishpatim, our Torah portion for this week, consists of a series of miscelaneous laws covering a wide array of subject matter, everything from the laws of owning slaves (an incredibly important conversation to dig into though that is not our area for this week), the importance of keeping Shabbat and the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot and laws of damages.
In the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet or section of Bava Kama, there is a chapter that is frequently learned called HaChovel, which deals explicitly with one of the subject areas in our Torah portion—what happens if a person injures another. Exodus 21:23-25 spells out the penalty—life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, bruise for bruise, etc. Our rabbis are so disturbed by this proscription that they devote an entire chapter to figuring out how to overturn it, using their own svara, an Aramaic term that means moral intuition or reasoning. It is one of the five sources the rabbis in the Talmud use to derive conclusions on matters of Jewish law. Svara is such a significant source that it has the power to overturn the proscriptions found in the written Torah or Five Books of Moses. In this chapter of Talmud, the rabbis conclude repeatedly that when the Torah talks about an eye for an eye, it is really referring to a monetary payment. Why is this such a significant move?
The Talmud is a lot of things—codifications of conversations on all manner of Jewish legal topics, stories about rabbis and other leaders, unfinished lecture notes and incredible religious and life wisdom. We’ve just read Parashat Yitro, in which the revelation of Torah—Matan Torah—occurs on Har Sinai. The rabbis of the Talmud, knowing that Svara can overturn written Torah in practice, also know that they cannot literally take out an eye for an eye from the written Torah text because the Torah is divine, and every letter has infinite significance. Therefore, they have to use a pretty radical set of tools to ensure that laws such as an eye for an eye are never put into practice as they are written. Instead, their meaning and application get completely subverted. In their own ways, the rabbis use the tools they have at their disposal to enact incredible religious and social evolution. I imagine that there were some voices who found the inclusion of so many of the laws in our Torah portion so disturbing that they would have rather those laws be removed from the Torah entirely. And who can blame them? So too, in our own lives and work, there are so many systemic and structural injustices we encounter every day, and we often despair of ever making significant change. We may not have every tool in our toolbox that we wish, or we may not be positioned to make as sweeping or radical change as we would like. I bless all of us that as we continue on our journeys this year and beyond, may we constantly remind ourselves of the ways in which we can make substantive change, no matter how small. When we feel caught in systems and cycles that serve no one, may we remember that even the smallest actions, those things that feel inconsequential add up and have the power to effect sustained, lasting change.