Behar 5780

Behar 5780

This week marks the tenth Shabbat since I have been in shul, davening with a minyan. Each Shabbat morning as I arise, put on my tallit and prepare to pray the morning or Shacharit service, I cannot but feel the absence of friends, the silence without melodious harmonization, and the void left without a physical community to be amongst. This is the second Shabbat out of those ten Shabbatot during which we liturgically complete the reading of one of the five books of the Torah. This week, we read the two final parshiyot in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, Behar and Bechukotai. Ordinarily, when the Torah is read with a minyan of ten adult Jews present, at the conclusion of a book of the Torah, the entire congregation rises if able to do so and proclaims together, “be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another”. We know that in the fullness of time, a year will elapse, and we will return once more to Leviticus, and we wish each other and ourselves well on our continuing journey through Torah and life itself.

The Jewish tradition is one deeply bound to time, but not in a Western, linear fashion. Instead, ours is a tradition of cycles. Seven is a key number for us in organizing these temporal cycles. The 25th chapter of Leviticus, which is the vast majority of Parashat Behar, the first of our two Torah portions this week is a prime example of our Torah’s concern. We learn first about the Shmita or sabbatical year. Every seven years, land is to lie fallow, uncultivated, unharvested. The prior six years the land is worked as it typically would be and, knowing that the Shmita year was coming, it is expected that society is organized in such a manner that no one is left behind in the seventh year. Animals and human beings are able to sustain themselves and enjoy the rest afforded to them by this time.

The fiftieth year, after seven cycles of seven years, is known as the Yovel or Jubilee year, in which all debts are forgiven, and land is returned to its original occupants. It ought to be mentioned here that even as such land returns to its original inhabitants, G-d makes clear to human beings that land is, in fact, not ours at all—we are merely tenants upon it. All land ultimately belongs to G-d.

As we are reading about the forty-nine years leading to the Yovel, we are simultaneously in the midst of counting the Omer, a practice that we do daily during the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot.  On the fiftieth day after the first day of Pesach, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, we would bring our first fruits, the first results of our post-Pesach wheat harvest. We rest on this day out of abundant gratitude for our produce, and with each day’s counting of the Omer leading us to this time, we are deeply conscious of where we are in this cycle, we pray will have an abundant end.

So, too, we count the years until the Yovel, marking the Shmita year with each cycle as we go, praying for years of bounty and plenty. The Torah instructs that when we are resting, we are to ensure that all members of society can engage in this rest. And, so too, when the Torah describes the three pilgrimage festivals, of which Shavuot is one of them, their rest and joy is meant to be felt by and available to all.

And so, I return to my Shabbatot in this time. I think often as I engage in my own Shabbat practice of the privileges inherent in being able to remain sheltered in place, with access to plenty of wholesome, nourishing food, a spacious yard to enjoy, and enough space so as not to feel too cooped up. With each passing Shabbat, I mark the time since I was with in-person community. I grieve that loss, and yet, I know deeply how truly lucky I am. The relative stability and security I presently feel should be available to all.

The Torah this week reminds me starkly yet again that the social safety net it envisions, a system of laws and practices rooted in the idea that all human beings are created B’Tzelem Elokim—in the image of The Divine is, at best, profoundly broken in our own society. We express gratitude for essential workers and first responders, calling them heroes. Many are showing the very best of humanity through how they are relating to those of us who are engaged day in and day out doing tasks which we would be hard-pressed to function without—and, if we’re honest with ourselves—hard-pressed to do ourselves. Yet, too many express nothing more than surface-level gratitude and are angry when a delivery is delayed. I want my package and I want it now. Workers going without essential PPE? Too many of us are more concerned with expediency than with protecting the health and safety of those delivering our longed-for quarantine goods.

In a society steeped in instant gratification, the notion of interdependence, that we are each ultimately responsible for and bound up with one another is foreign, anathema.

Let us heed our parsha’s radical calls for social responsibility and restructuring as we imagine and, G-d willing, co-create a more abundant world post-COVID. Just as our Torah instructs us to ensure that the needs of all are met before the Shmita year, let us work to reimagine a society that considers meeting basic human needs as a given and not an inconvenience. Just as we honor the cycles of time, experiencing periods of rest and labor, let us work ceaselessly to ensure that the rest our Torah calls us to engage in is something that all can enjoy and not merely a privileged few.