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Shabbat Behar Behukotie

5756

 

The Torah portion for this Shabbat is the last one in the Book of Leviticus, a double portion called Bahar -- Behukotie. The text begins in Chapter 25, "The Lord spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard." The second part begins in Chapter 26, verse 4, "If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit." This is a very interesting pair of quotes, for it demostrates the unique values taught by the Torah. A people are about to establish their new national character, and they are told to observe not only a Sabbath day every week, but a "Sabbath year" when the land will lay fallow so as not to exhaust its ability to produce. Then they are promised that by observing these teachings of the Torah they will actually assure for themselves the blessings of nature.

Surely, as young as you are or as old and experienced as you may be, you realize that "nature is nature," and drought occurs for religious people as it does for the Godless -- and we all know that very often the wicked seem to be blessed with much success, leading the faithful to question their own obedience. So we ask, is the Torah wrong? Is it a book for fools?

Our sages have taught us that the Torah was given to wise people, and not to fools. The question we have asked is one that is asked by those who do not believe, those who foolishly think that faith in God is for the purpose of immediate gratification. "See, God, I have said my prayers -- so pay-up!" Who among us would dare speak his faith in this manner. Our sages have taught us that the blessings of God are measured in the long run. A people who live by God's teaching are sure to prosper over the life of generations. Yes, they may have a drought for a year or two or five... But they persevere. Joseph understood that there would be seven lean years -- and he prepared Egypt to endure throught that long drought. Likewise the Jewish people, in the days of glory of the kingdom of David prepared to endure a long drought of no sovereignty, of persecution and of decimation. Yet, we have survived. And we shall continue to survive, and we shall turn the corner and see the rains fall, bringing blessings of growth and prosperity -- as long as we have people who are willing to learn Torah and live by its precepts.

 

5757

 

This Shabbat we read the last but one portion in the Book of Leviticus, a portion called Behar. The text begins in Chapter 25, verse one: "And the Lord spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruit; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest to the land, a sabbath for the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. That which grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of your vine undressed; for it is a year of rest to the land. And the sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you; for you, and for your servant, and for your maid, and for your hired servant, and for the stranger who sojourns with you, And for your cattle, and for the beast that are in your land, shall all its produce be food. And you shall count seven sabbaths of years to you, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty and nine years. Then shall you cause the shofar to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the Day of Atonement shall you sound the shofar throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it; it shall be a jubilee to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family."

I cannot begin to tell you how often I have asked myself, why is it that we Jews have been at the forefront of the battle for justice and freedom, for human rights and civil rights and human dignity throughout history. Why is it that our heritage, the Torah and the Tanakh, the Talmud and the great interpretations of the Rabbis from Rabbi Hillel and Akiba to the great late chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Cook, to that wonderful sage, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel -- all stressed the sanctity of life and the importance of our right to choose -- even if we choose to be heretics, over everything else in Judaism?

Maybe it starts with the very first words of the Parsha: "Vaydaber Adona'y el Moshe behar sinai -- And the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai." We can look at these words - no we must look at these words as more telling than merely an indication of the place where Moshe and God held their meeting. Why? Because the place is not that important. If the Constitution of the United States was written in New York, would it read any differently than it does? How many people even know where the constitution was written, or approved, or kept? The Constitution is a compilation of principles that guide the government, the congress and the judicial system of the United States. Its text is published and stands free of time and space. So, also, does the 'constitution' of the Jewish people, the Torah that God revealed to Moshe to teach the Children of Israel.

So, the verse "Vaydaber Adona'y el Moshe behar sinai -- And the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai." must mean something else -- maybe something more. I would like to suggest to you an interpretation that is used in the first book of the Torah, relating to the first word of the Torah, 'Beresheet,' in the beginning. The sages asked, 'how can you start with this word? The beginning of what? What constitutes the beginning? Was it the thought of God, or the words "let there be," or possibly was it the actual appearance of that first light?' The answer was sought in the purpose of creation, not in its sequence. The sages separated the prefix "b" from the word 'reshit.' They said, "b" has more than one meaning. While it is true that more often than not it means 'in' or 'at' -- still it does at times mean 'for' -- as in our father Jacob working for Laban 'b'rakhel bitkha haktana -- for Rachel [Laban's] (your) little daughter.' Thus bereshit was interpreted to mean 'for a "reshit -- beginning" God created...' In our text this week, we need to consider the verse as saying, "Vaydaber Adona'y el Moshe behar sinai -- And the Lord spoke to Moses 'for Mount Sinai' -- which is to say in the spirit and manner of Mount Sinai."

The "spirit of Sinai" is the ultimate spiritual connection between God and the Children of Israel. To this day, sages of all religions investigate and speculate about the nature and manner of the experience. Since God is ephemeral and nonphysical, what was it that the Israelites saw -- or even heard? How very awesome that moment was we can learn from their reaction, when they asked Moshe to have God stop, lest they all perish. "And they said to Moshe, Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die. And Moshe said to the people, Fear not; for God has come to test you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that you sin not. And the people stood far away, and Moshe drew near to the thick darkness where God was." [Ex. 20:16-18] So Moshe entered the thick darkness, from which he extracted light -- which is to say enlightenment. He spoke to Israel for forty years after the Sinai experience, to make them a unique people who will pursue justice and peace.

The unique values taught by the Torah, by which a people were about to establish their new national character, are best exemplified by the command to observe not only a Sabbath day every week, but a "Sabbath year," when the land will lay fallow so as not to exhaust its ability to produce. The rules of the seventh year extend beyond allowing the land to lay fallow -- as we read in Deauteronomy 15, "At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release; Every creditor who lends anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbor, or of his brother; because it is called the Lord’s release." [Deu. 15:1,2] As if this was not a law sufficiently demanding upon the people, the text extends that demand to "seven times seven" -- the Jubilee year. "Then shall you cause the shofar to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the Day of Atonement shall you sound the shofar throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it; it shall be a jubilee to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family."

The release of the 'seventh year' which is called in Hebrew "Shmita," was meant to give members of this special society that was formed by the teachings of God at Sinai, a chance to level the playing field, so that those who fell by some misfortune may rise and join in the game of life. The Jubilee year was much more profound. At the time of the Jubilee the slate was to be wiped clean, and a new game was to start -- to be sure with new dominant players, because fifty years is a sufficient time for a generation to disappear and another to take its place in center stage of the drama of life. Some people are, by their nature, doomed to fail, and time after time they will get themselves in debt, in trouble, and into the house of the less fortunate. However, a just society does not punish children for the shortcomings of their parents. Thus the Jubilee year was to create the ultimate justice, the most equitable society where families need not hold grudges from generation to generation, and the young never find themselves so disadvantaged from birth as to not be able to rise above their inherited misfortune. The verse "proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it," from today's Torah reading, is affixed upon our Liberty Bell, and deserves "credit" as the motto of the drive to equality and suffrage that inspired the founding fathers of our nation to fashion and mold our mation in its finest and most idealistic form, that of a nation "under God, with liberty and justice for all."

 

May we never stop Proclaim[ing] liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it!

 

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5758

 

The Torah portion for this Shabbat is the last one in the Book of Leviticus, a double portion called Behar -- Behukotie. The text begins in Chapter 25, "The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard." The second part begins in Chapter 26, verse 4, "If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit."

This is a very interesting combination of quotes, for it demonstrates the unique values taught by the Torah. Looking at the text in a historical perspective, you have a people who are about to settle in a new land and establish their new national character, and they are told to observe not only a Sabbath day every week, but a "Sabbath year" when the land shall lay fallow so as not to exhaust its ability to produce; indentured servants will be set free, and they shall "proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it." Then they are promised that by observing the teachings of the Torah they will actually assure for themselves the blessings of nature. Surely, as young as you are or as old and experienced as you may be, you realize that nature is nature, and drought occurs for religious people as it does for the Godless -- and we all know that very often the wicked seem to be blessed with much success, leading the faithful to question their own obedience. So we ask, is the Torah wrong? Is it a book for fools?

Well, what of the national character of the nation in the midst of which we dwell? What is happening in the United States? I know you all read the papers and hear the news on the radio and on T.V. -- but let me focus your attention on one particular issue, because it is a critical issue in my opinion.

May 1, 1992: Eric Houston, 20, killed four people and wounded 10 in an armed siege at his former high school in Olivehurst, California. Prosecutors said the attack was in retribution for a failing grade. Houston was convicted and was given a death sentence.

January 18, 1993: Scott Pennington, 17, walked into Deanna McDavid’s seventh-period English class at East Carter High School in Grayson, Kentucky, and shot her in the head. He then shot janitor Marvin Hicks in the abdomen. Pennington was sentenced to life without parole for 25 years.

February 2, 1996: A 14-year-old student turned an assault rifle on his algebra class, killing two classmates and a teacher, in the central Washington city of Moses Lake. Barry Loukaitis was sentenced to two mandatory life terms for the attack at Frontier Junior High School.

February 19, 1997: A 16-year-old student opens fire with a shotgun in a common area at the Bethel, Alaska, high school. He killed school principal Ron Edwards and classmate Josh Palacious. Two other students were wounded. Authorities later accuse two other students of knowing the shootings would take place. Evan Ramsey was sentenced to two 99-year terms earlier this year.

October 1, 1997: A 16-year-old outcast in Pearl, Mississippi, was accused of killing his mother, then going to school and shooting nine students. Two of them died, including the boy’s ex-girlfriend. Authorities later accuse six friends of conspiracy, saying the suspects were part of a group that dabbled in satanism.

December 1, 1997: A youth opened fire on a student prayer circle in a hallway at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky. Three students were killed and five others wounded. A 14-year-old student, described as emotionally immature, was arrested.

March 24, 1998: Two boys opened fire with rifles on classmates and teachers when they came out during a false fire alarm at the Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Four girls and a teacher were killed and 11 people were wounded. The boys were taken into custody.

April 24, 1998: In Edinboro, Pennsylvania, a 14-year-old-boy fatally shot a teacher and wounded two students at an eigth-grade dance. The suspect, an eighth grade student at J.W. Parker Middle School, had reportedly told students he planned to make the dance "memorable."

May 19, 1998: A high school senior shot and killed another student in the school parking lot at Lincoln County High School, three days before they were to graduate. Jacob Davis, 18, confronted Nick Creson, 18, apparently because they had argued about a girl. After the shooting, Davis reportedly put the gun on the ground, sat down next to it and put his head in his hands.

May 21, 1998: A day after being expelled for bringing a gun to school, Kipland P. Kinkel, a freshman at Thurston High School, in Springfield, Oregon, opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle in a high school cafeteria this past Thursday, killed one student and critically wounded 23 others. A man and woman were later found dead at his rural home — they have been identified as the boy’s parents. Today, counseling was to be available for students who were affected by the events.

In an unrelated incident yesterday, a armed boy ordered his girlfriend off a school bus, took her to his home where he killed himself by shooting himself in the head; Police say three sixth graders in Missouri plotted to kill classmates in the same manner as the killing in Jonesboro, Arkansas — setting off the fire alarm and picking their victims off as they came out of the school building.

After the school yard shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in March of this year, Attorney General Janet Reno convened a panel of experts, at the behest of President Clinton, to look at ways to prevent similar tragedies. The panel, with officials from education and law enforcement, has met twice, including once with President Clinton. Participant Dennis Kenney, director of research for the Police Executive Research Forum, said panelists discussed a variety of solutions — "after-school programs, mental health counseling, student problem solving." But what they all quickly realized was the sobering truth that there are no quick solutions — no federal mandated program is likely to solve what appears to be localized incidents, even if it sweeps the nation from east to west and from north to south.

While most U.S. schools are safe, a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education revealed some troubling signs: Ten percent of the nation’s schools reported one or more violent crimes in the 1996-1997 school year, including murder, suicide, rape, robbery and fights involving weapons. Some experts believe that what’s been happening in schools is simply a spillover of the larger societal problem of juvenile violence. "We’ve surveyed teachers and students in schools all over the country — in small schools, big schools and rural schools — and we get significant levels of teacher concerns and student fears," said John Firman, director of research for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Juvenile crime began climbing in 1987 and has fallen only in the last two years. Still, some experts say the numbers remain intolerably high. In 1996, nearly 93,000 juveniles were charged in violent crimes — a number 60 percent higher than a decade ago. In 1996 alone, more than 2,000 juveniles were charged with murder.

Our sages have taught us that the Torah was given to us to make us wise, so 5that we will understand that nature is nature, and drought occurs for all - religious people and those who think there is no God. Very often wicked people seem to be blessed with much success, while the faithful suffer "in obedience to God." As Jews, we know that we have survived for two thousand years in spite of all the persecution and the evil that befell us -- because we have had our Torah way of life. We had faith and we lived by mitzvot, and our families were stronger than the hate of our enemies.

We have survived because we had the Torah -- we knew who we are and how we must live. We had family, we had community, and we had a world that was made by God and given to us to watch over, even from our position as weak victims. What we see happening today in our country is caused by the breakdown in faith and in the traditional values of family, work, and community. When parents will nurture their children with love, and set a personal example by their own harmonious, loving lives -- our children will not come to school to shoot and kill -- they will come to grow richer with knowledge and prepare for the good life of responsible adult Americans. May that day come soon, and may we all share its blessing.

 

5759

 

The Torah portion for this Shabbat is the last one in the Book of Leviticus, a double portion called Behar -- Behukotie. The text begins in Chapter 25, "The Lord spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard." The second part begins in Chapter 26, verse 4, "If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit."

Our sages have taught us that the blessings of God are measured in the long run. A people who live by God's teachings are sure to prosper over the lives and time of generations. The text above, "If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully," is ever so slightly different in the Hebrew: "Im bekhukota'y telekhu ve'et mitzvota'y tishmoro va'asitem otam -- If you walk in my statutes and guard my Mitzvot, and you shall do them..." Life is not a set piece. It is a journey. Moshe informs the Israelites that there is a right way and a wrong way to travel. Life is a series of choices. To be sure, nature is capricious and unpredictable. Yes, there may occur a drought that will last for a year or two or five... But the people can and will persevere. Joseph heard Pharaoh's dream and understood God's message -- that there would be seven lean years. Because of the wisdom God gave him, he prepared Egypt to endure throught that long drought. Likewise the Jewish people, in the days of glory of the kingdom of David prepared to endure a long drought of a lack of sovereignty and safety. They prepared for a coming time of persecution and of decimation.

The history of the Jews is not merely a record to be kept as the medals of war heros. They are not relegated to a knick-knack shelf for colorful display, to be taken out to be dusted and worn for a Veteran's Day parade. Our hisotry is a road map -- where we have come from and where we are going. Yes, where we are going! For only in the light of our experience will our future be guaranteed. If we fail to do our best, at any given time in our existence, which is the building blocks of our history in the making -- we shall fail to reach our goal. It is in this context that we must see the reading from the Torah this week. God is the master guide for the voyage of all the generations. He looks at us and says, 'take this road, and you shall suffer the least. However, you may wish to take this road, thinking that it is more exciting and scenic. I must warn you: go this way, and you shall suffer dire concequences.'

We have traveled thirty five hundred years since we took off from Sinai. We have gone down many a path -- some have been good paths, triple 'A' recommended by the Master guide. All too many were not. We have had the rain come down in its season -- and we have had many a dry season. We have planted wheat -- and we have gathered our harvest many a time with bitter tears. Through it all, we have suffered -- but we have survived.

Yes, indeed, we have survived. And we shall continue to survive, and we shall turn the corner and see the rains fall, bringing blessings of growth and prosperity -- as long as we have people who are willing to learn Torah and live by its precepts. "Ashrey ha'am shekakha lo -- fortunate are the people that is thus treated; Ashrey ha'am she'adona'y elohav -- fortunate is the people whose God is the Lord."

Amen

 

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5760

This Shabbat we read in the Torah a portion which is usually only half of the combined last portion in the Book of Leviticus. On leap years we split the two, read a portion called Behar this week, and finish the book next week with 'Behukota'y.' Out text begins in Chapter 25, verse one: "Va'ydaber adona'y el moshe behar sina'i le'mor -- And the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Lord."

 

I am going to date myself: I remember seeing a David Susskind round table discussion on T.V. -- which, I must admit, rather infuriated me as I watched and listened -- about marriages of Jews with non-Jews. There were four men, all of them Jewish and married to non-Jewish wives. There were two women, one an actress and the other a well-known public figure, both of whom were married to Jews. The women said that they were married before, to non-Jews, and they found Jewish men "make better husbands" - they were more considerate, more respecting of their spouses, more willing to compromise and encourage the spouse to realize herself. The men smiled and agreed that they had these qualities. I asked myself: “So, Jewish women don’t deserve these considerations? Should they not have the Jewish men for spouses. And what about the flip side of the coin? Are Jewish wives not every bit as considerate, respecting of their spouses, willing to compromise and encourage?”

Now carry this question to a larger issue: why is it that the Jewish people have been at the forefront of the battle for justice and freedom, for human rights and civil rights and human dignity throughout history. Why were so many of the early revolutionaries in Russia Jews? Why did Ha’yim Solomon practically pay for the American Revolution out of his own pocket? Why do so many of the Nobel Prize winners and film and stage artists and top ranking musicians and authors and college professors all spring from the seed of Abraham? And why is it that our heritage, the Torah and the Tanakh, the Talmud and the great interpretations of the Rabbis from Rabbi Hillel and Akiba to the great late chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Cook, to that wonderful sage, the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel -- all stressed the sanctity of life and the importance of our right to choose -- even if we choose to be heretics, over everything else in Judaism?

Maybe it starts with the very first words of the Parsha: "Vaydaber Adona'y el Moshe behar sinai -- And the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai." The "spirit of Sinai" is the ultimate spiritual connection between God and the Children of Israel. To this day, sages of all religions investigate and speculate about the nature and manner of the experience. Since God is ephemeral and nonphysical, what was it that the Israelites saw -- or even heard. How very awesome it was we can learn from their reaction, when they asked Moshe to have God stop, lest they all perish. "And they said to Moshe, Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die. And Moshe said to the people, Fear not; for God has come to test you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that you sin not. And the people stood far away, and Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was." [Ex. 20:16-18] So Moshe entered the thick darkness, from which he extracted light -- or enlightenment. He spoke to Israel for forty years after the Sinai experience, to make them a unique people who will pursue justice and peace. It is the Sinai experience that made the Jews a kingdom of priests and a consecrated nation, charged with acting as agents of the Almighty.

The unique values taught by the Torah, by which a people were about to establish their new national character, are best exemplified by the command to observe not only a Sabbath day every week, but a "Sabbath year," when the land will lay fallow so as not to exhaust its ability to produce. The rules of the seventh year extend beyond allowing the land to lay fallow -- as we read in Deuteronomy 15, "At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release; Every creditor who lends anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbor, or of his brother; because it is called the Lord’s release." [Deu. 15:1,2] As if this was not a law sufficiently demanding of the people, the Torah extends that demand to "seven times seven" -- the Jubilee year. "Then shall you cause the shofar to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the Day of Atonement shall you sound the shofar throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it; it shall be a jubilee to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family."

The release of the 'seventh year,' the Shmita, was meant to give members of this special society that was formed by the teachings of God at Sinai a chance to level the playing field, so that those who fell by some misfortune may rise and join in the game of life. The Jubilee year was much more profound. At the time of the Jubilee the slate was to be wiped clean, and a new game was to start -- to be sure with new dominant players, as fifty years is a sufficient time for a generation to disappear and another to take its place in center stage of the drama of life.

Some people are, by their nature, doomed to fail - and time after time they will get themselves in debt, in trouble, and into the company of the less fortunate. However, a just society does not punish children for the shortcomings of their parents. Thus the Jubilee year was to create the ultimate justice, the most equitable society where families need not hold grudges from generation to generation, and the young never find themselves so disadvantage from birth as to make it impossble to rise above their ‘inherited misfortune.’ With this lesson of social justice and equanimity, generations of Jews carried on the battle for social justice, the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, for all minorities, care and dignity for the elderly and for children.

The verse, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants thereof,” from today's Torah reading, is impressed upon our Liberty Bell, and deserves credit as the motto, the creed and the inspiration of the drive to equality and suffrage that created our nation and molded it in its finest and most idealistic form, that of a nation “under God, with liberty and justice for all.” Amen.

 

 

 

5761

 

This Shabbat we read in the Torah the last portion in the Book of Va’yikra, Leviticus, a double (or combined) portion called Behar – Behukotie. The text begins in Chapter 25, "Va’ydaber adona’y el moshe b’har sinai lemor - The Lord spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard." The second part begins in Chapter 26, verse 4, "Im bekhukota’y telekhu ve’et mitzvota’y tishmeru va’asitem otam - If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit." Of course, this double portion deals with the priests’ offerings in the "portable sanctuary" - the Tabernacle in the desert. But The combination of the two words in the name of the portion is a great trigger to my talk this evening.

There was never before or after as great a moment for the Jewish people as when "Va’ydaber adona’y el moshe b’har sinai lemor - The Lord spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai," - as we read in the very beginning of our portion today. You would think, would you not, that the Jewish people would make Sinai the center of their faith, the center to their nation - the center of their existence. Yet, they did not! That role was reserved for another place, another mountain - and maybe not one mountain but a collection of them: Zion, Moriah, Scopus. I am referring, of course, to the apple of our eye, our ever precious capital, Jerusalem. There is a midrash that explains why it is that this city which David, psalmist and king, conquered from the Jebusites to make his capital, is more important to the Jews than Sinai, where the Glory of the Holy One, Blessed be He, descended and was revealed to the entire House of Israel. Sinai, the midrash says, was a place God chose to present Himself and His Torah to His children - but Zion, and Moriah, is the place the Israelites chose to glorify Him and establish His House. This matter, choice, is the subject of the second half of our portion! ""Im bekhukota’y telekhu ve’et mitzvota’y tishmeru va’asitem otam - If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully" - you always have a choice, even though one path may lead to trouble and travail.

I am a child of Jerusalem, as was my father before me. My grandfather, whose name I bear, wrote the following about his relationship with my home-town: "There are two things for which I am sorry, and for which I can find no consolation: I was not born in Jerusalem, or even in the Land of Israel, and the first words I spoke were not spoken in Hebrew." [E. Ben-Yehuda, prolegomena to Thesaurus & Dictionary] He tried to redress the wrong by publishing his books and dictionaries with the legend "by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, of Jerusalem;" and by instructing his wife that on his grave-stone the same words should be etched, to bear witness "forever!" As a child I grew to know the highways, byways and boulevards, the alleys, dusty footpaths and trails of Jerusalem, both old and new. My grandmother Hemda told me stories of rogues and rich men, great ladies and street urchins, newcomers and landed gentry who populated old Jerusalem, when water was brought in and sold in five gallons tin buckets, donkeys were the only mode of transportation - and the gates of the walled city where closed from sunset to sunrise.

She also taught me the ‘Jerusalem scriptures.’ Did you know that nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tanakh, will you find the name "Yerushala’yim?" That is quite so! The spelling is always, but always, without a ‘yod’ - so that it spells Yerushalem. However, it is read "Yerushala’yim." Further, I was taught, the first time, the very first time that the name "Yerushala’yim" is mentioned in the Torah is... Never!

The first time the name "Yerushala’yim" is mentioned is in the book of Joshua, where it is mentioned in four different chapters a total of eight times. All three "major" prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel spoke of Jerusalem, as did six out of the "twelve" so called ‘minor’ prophets: Yo’el, Amos, Ovadiah, Mikha, Tzefania and Zekhariah.

Was there a Jerusalem in the days of our father Avraham? Torah scholars tell us that there is a reference to "Malkitzedek melekh Shalem" - king of Shalem, which is (interpreted to mean) Yerushala’yim. However, that is not very likely, because if there had been a town there, how could Avraham have offered his son Yitzkhak on Mount Moriah, where the city center should have been? And why don’t we read about it in the story of Yitzkhak and Ya’akov? It would seem that Jerusalem was established on mounts Zion and Moriah after the last patriarch and his sons began their sojourn in Egypt. And then Israel came back, and David made the city his capital. The King’s lyrical ode to his city spans many verses, from "Do good in your good will to Zion; build the walls of Jerusalem." [Psalms 51:20] to "Your God has commanded your strength; strengthen, O God, that which you have done for us. Because of your temple at Jerusalem kings bring presents to you." [Psalms 68:29,30] to "I will pay my vows to the Lord now in the presence of all his people, In the courts of the Lord’s house, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem. Hallelujah!" [Psalms 116:18, 19] and, one of the most beautiful hymns to the city, "Shir hama’alot ledavid, samakhti be’omrim li beit hashem nelekh. Omdot ha’yu ragleynu bishe’ara’yikh Yerushala’yim; Yerushala’yim hab’nu’ya k’ir shekhubra la yakhdav. A Song of Maalot of David. I was glad when they said to me, Let us go into the house of the Lord. Our feet shall stand inside your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem is built as a city which is bound firmly together; There the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. For thrones of judgment were set there, the thrones of the house of David. Seek for the peace of Jerusalem; those who love you shall prosper. Peace be within your walls, and prosperity within your palaces. For my brothers and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace be within you. Because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your good. Sha’alu shlom Yerushala’yim yishla’yu ohava’yikh. Yehi shalom bekheylekh, shalva be’armnota’yikh; lema’an akha’y vere’a’y adabra na shalom bakh. Lema’an beit eloheinu avaksha tov lakh." [Psalm 122]

When the Jews were first exiled from Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah uttered the famous vow, "Im eshkekhekh Yerushala’yim tishakakh yemini — If I forget you, O Jerusalem, May my right hand forget her skill. May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy." [Psalm 137:5,6] The memory of the sovereign Promised Land, and of Jewish independence, has always been distilled and focused on David’s Capital, the city where the Temple once stood. It was father Abraham who said of Jerusalem, "This is the place where God is seen." [Gen. 22:14] The Talmud says that Jerusalem was named by God. The name has two parts: Yira, which means "to see," and shalem, which means "complete," or "shalom" – which means "peace." Jerusalem, according to our tradition, has seventy names, each more beautiful than the previous one . "There are ten measures of beauty," says the Talmud, "nine were given to Jerusalem — and one to the rest of the world."

The connection of the Jews to the city is not merely a historical association alone. Jerusalem is linked in some mysterious way to our current vigor as a people. Next Monday we will celebrate Yom Yerushala’yim - and who amongst us who was alive and aware at the time does not recollect the reverberating current of excitement that swept through the Jewish world on hearing, in June of 1967, the fateful words, "Har haba’yit be’yadeinu - Temple Mount is in our hands." Rabbi Shlomo Goren, chief military chaplain, came hurriedly to the wall, shofar in hand, to sound a "Tki’a gdola" - a great blast of the horn - the sound of the beginning redemption.

Yes, who can explain, in the beginning of the twenty-first century, with religion losing ground and skepticism on the rise, the mystical attraction of this town? From the queen of Sheba to Pope John Paul II, the mighty as the frail are drawn nigh. What is in the memory of Jerusalem that makes it so important to us — and to our detractors and foes as well? What does this city contribute to our personal existence, to our understanding of who we are? Surely it is not merely the "historical" aspect of our connection — it is not David, or Solomon, or the Maccabees. If it were, would we not feel a similar connection to Bethlehem, David’s birthplace, to Hebron, the Patriarchs’ burial place, or Modi’in, Yehuda the Maccabee’s hometown?

I would like to suggest to you that Yerushala’yim is connected to the very essence of Jewish being, to our endurance and perseverance - which is to say to our communal and personal memory. It is connected to our roots, which are with God. Elsewhere, God is a theory, but in Jerusalem, God is seen, and felt: He is a tangible presence. In Jerusalem we reach beyond the frailty and vulnerability of our lives, and we sense and strive for transcendence. Elsewhere we grope for insight. Here we tread a path traveled by prophets, seers and mystics. In Jerusalem we anticipate clarity. London has its fog, Amsterdam its canals, and Moscow has Red Square. New York is home to the United Nations and the twin-towers of the World Trade Center. Paris, with its Rive Gauche, may be the place for lovers. Our capital, Jerusalem, is a place for dreamers and visionaries. The Talmud says that creation began in Jerusalem, and that the whole world was spun, as it were, outwardly from this place, like a huge crochet piece. Medieval maps show Jerusalem at the very center of Asia, Europe, and Africa. The world flows in and out of this spot, and all of life’s forces radiate from it. From this place, the whole world was cast into its proper place, to be fixed in orbit in the scheme of things in the universe. Yes, nothing less than that!

Jerusalem, the center, the core, the essence, the heart, gives perspective to the rest of the world - even to the eternity of God Himself. Visit this metropolis, spend a night there, and you will realize that this town is where God starts the day. Jerusalem the complete (even with its ruins), the completing (even with its contentions). Humanity has long understood that he who controls Jerusalem controls the world’s memory: he controls the way God is perceived, the way He is announced. He controls the way life’s forces are cast into perspective. He controls the way we, individually and collectively, see ourselves, our history - and our future.

The vision of life’s promise is a memory of things yet to come, an eye fixed on the promise of tomorrow, giving us the energy and the will to live. In exile for two thousand years, Jews recited and repeated daily, "next year in Jerusalem!" In poverty and persecution they never lost their hope. They preserved the lofty ideal of a world in which love and justice, not politics, power and self-interest, would be the currency men live by. Since 1967, Jerusalem has been the capital of the renascent Jewish commonwealth. We have built it and opened it to all creeds, nationalities and persuasions. As we celebrate Yom Yerushala’yim let us renew our ancestors’ oath: "Im eshkekhekh Yerushala’yim tishakakh yemini — If I forget you, O Jerusalem, May my right hand forget her skill. May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy."

Amen.

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5762

This Shabbat the Torah portion we read is the last one in the Book of Leviticus (which is also called "Torat Cohanim" - the Priestly teaching), a double portion called Behar -- Behukotie. The text begins in the 25th Chapter, "The Lord spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard." The second segment begins in Chapter 26, verse 4, "If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit." This is a very interesting pair of quotes, for it demonstrates the unique values taught by the Torah.

The last reading in "torat Cohanim" - the teaching of the priests, those who serve God - which by extension is all of Israel - begins with a reminder of our source. "The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai" - earlier in our travels, but we wish to recall it now, to know that we were there, that we saw and we heard, and we witnessed the revelation, and therefore we are forever committed to live by the Master's teaching, by His plan. God invokes the memory of Sinai to put things in perspective for us. At Sinai God gave us a ladder of mitzvot that we can climb to reach up to His lofty heights. The more we learn, the more we can understand and fulfill - and here we are taught the lesson of respect for the land. The "seventh year ... shall be a sabbath " to make us aware that even the earth which God created is a "perishable" commodity. A people who do not respect the ground they live on and who despoil the land will perish, since the land will stop giving produce. But more important than the agrarian issue is the social/human issue. The seventh year was a "great equalizer" time, when slaves were set free and loans were forgiven. And every seventh "release" was an extra special one - a Jubilee year.
The text in the Torah should be familiar to all: "And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it; it shall be a jubilee to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family." [Lev. 25:10] This is the great time, when all losses were to be erased, property was to revert to its original owners, all debts were to be forgiven, and a new "age" was to begin. Frankly, I doubt if this Jubilee concept was ever fully accepted and practiced by the Israelites. It requires a very idealistic and sophisticated society to carry out such an amazing social revolution. However, the very concept is magnificent, and well worth the honor and exultation of God which we give him day by day. We have been given a blueprint for a noble and rich life in a society of men and women who are equal in every way as they were created by their Maker. How grand that He has seen fit to teach us to level the playing field - and may the day soon dawn when His will shall be done, and liberty shall be proclaimed and established forever.

Amen

 

 

5763

Last week we read the portion of Emor, in which we were told about the "Festivals of the Lord" – and there was mention of the counting of the sheaves, the ‘omer.' I spoke about that and explained how we need to "count our days."
This week we read the portion called "behar" – which is taken from Va'yikra 25 and 26, verses one and two. Listen to the text: "And the Lord spoke to Moshe behar Sinai – at Mount Sinai, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruit; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest to the land, a sabbath for the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. That which grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of your vine undressed; for it is a year of rest to the land. And the sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you; for you, and for your servant, and for your maid, and for your hired servant, and for the stranger who sojourns with you, And for your cattle, and for the beast that are in your land, shall all its produce be food. And you shall count seven sabbaths of years to you, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty and nine years. Then shall you cause the shofar to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the Day of Atonement shall you sound the shofar throughout all your land." [Lev. 25:1-9]
This passage is a radical socio-economic departure from the norms of society in antiquity and even in modern times. It goes way beyond the Christian and Moslem prohibition of money-lending with interest on the repayment of the loan. This passage states that the land the Israelites come into to possess shall not be one hundred percent theirs, to do with as they please. They will own it, and they will reap the harvest of the land – but for six years only. On the seventh year, the land shall lie fallow, and whatever it yields shall be shared by the owner with all who wish to partake – the servants and the strangers even as the master and his family. This concept is an expansion of the teaching that was done at Sinai immediately after the revelation of God and the giving of the Ten Statements, when we read, "If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing." [Exodus 21:2] We are given to learn that we are all God's servants, and therefore we can't enslave one another; and here we learn further that "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." [Psalms 24:1]
But our text does not stop with the "Year of Release." Oh, no, this is not the end of the revolution - it is only the opening shot! The text continues and tells us that we must count from one Shmita (release) to another a "week" – which is to say seven, and after that seven times seven you reach the ultimate release, the fiftieth year, the Jubilee.
How very interesting and intriguing to read of the symmetry between the counting of the days after the Night of the Passover, "And you shall count from the next day after the sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete; To the next day after the seventh sabbath shall you count fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal offering to the Lord." [Ibid. 23:15,16] and the Sabbatical year "week" – which leads to the Jubilee year, "And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it; it shall be a jubilee to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family." [Ibid 25:10]
What do we learn from this Torah passage, all by itself or wedded to last week's portion?
I believe that we learn a most important lesson about life and how we need to look at it. We live in constant and unnecessary tension from day to day, from year to year, throughout our lives. We need to gain an "out of body" perspective that will make us realize that life is really too short not to learn to enjoy and celebrate. The Torah, inspired by God Almighty, the infinite and ever-present One, speaks of time from His perspective. One moment it is "and there was evening and there was morning, one day..." [Genesis 1:5] Another moment, it is "And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it; it shall be a jubilee to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family." [Lev. 25:10] To us, there is a difference of forty nine years and three hundred and sixty days, give or take a few days... For God, who is infinite, however, it is all a blink of the eye!
What is important, Ecclesiastes tells us, is to understand that "One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides for ever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to its place where it rises again. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north; it whirls around continually, and the wind returns again according to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; to the place from where the rivers come, there they return again. All things are full of weariness; man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing." [Eccl. 1:4-8] We need to gain a sense of proportion about life, and recognize, that "no man can find out the work which God has made from the beginning to the end." [Ibid. 3:11] And further, we are taught, "nothing is better for them, than to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that it is the gift of God that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labor." [Ibid. 3:12,13]
God has created this world, and He has given us a roll to play in the great drama of history. We come on stage, we apprentice in childhood and youth, and we play our part during our allotted time. It is important to do out part well – but it is every bit as important to preserve the "set" – God's wonderful creation, this relatively small and very precious "spaceship earth." The counting of the omer reminds us of the importance of each day – and the Jubilee teaches us the insignificance of life unless there is freedom – freedom for each and every one of us, freedom for all of us. Proclaiming liberty does not come with a declaration – it comes when we give of ourselves, when we release the bound, free the oppressed, care for the frail, the damaged, the lonely.
If life is not precious to all, it will not be safe for any. Learn to love, to accept others for what they are, for who they are, and recognize that we do not ever learn the whole script. We live by our wits, and by faith. Wits provide our daily sustenance, faith allows us to gain immortality.

Amen

B’har


This week we read in the Torah the portion called "behar" – which is taken from Va'yikra, Leviticus, chapter 25 plus the first two verse of 26. The text begins with the following words, "Va’ydaber Adona’y el Moshe b’har Sinai lemor – And the Lord spoke to Moshe behar Sinai – at Mount Sinai - saying, Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruit; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest to the land, a sabbath for the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. That which grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of your vine undressed; for it is a year of rest to the land. And the sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you; for you, and for your servant, and for your maid, and for your hired servant, and for the stranger who sojourns with you, And for your cattle, and for the beast that are in your land, shall all its produce be food. And you shall count seven sabbaths of years to you, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty and nine years. Then shall you cause the shofar to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the Day of Atonement shall you sound the shofar throughout all your land." [Lev. 25:1-9]
It is very important to read this text and understand not only the words of the text but also the ideas behind the text. We must realize that we are told here that the land the Israelites come into to possess shall not be one hundred percent theirs, to do with as they please. The Israelites will actually own it, to be sure – and they will reap the harvest of the land – but for six years only. On the seventh year, the land shall lie fallow, and whatever it yields shall be shared by the owner with all who wish to partake – the servants and the strangers even as the master and his family. This new rule given to Israel is actually an expansion of the teaching that was done at Sinai immediately after the revelation of God and the giving of the Ten Statements, when we read, "If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing." [Exodus 21:2] We are given to learn that we are all God's servants, and therefore we can't enslave one another; and here we learn further that we can’t “enslave” the earth, either, because "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." [Psalms 24:1]
A little later in God’s teaching, in the fifth book, we read the next stage of the social revolution God has initiated for the community of His flock: “at the end of seven years you shall make a release. And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor that lends anything to his neighbor shall release it’ he shall not exact it of his neighbor or of his brother...” [Deuteronomy 15:1,2]
Going back to our portion of the week, we examine the text and discover that “release” is only the beginning of this new “fraternal” social order. The "Year of Release" it is only the opening shot! The text continues and tells us that we must count from one Shmita (release) to another a "week" – which is to say seven, and after that seven times seven you reach the ultimate release, the fiftieth year, the Jubilee.
This strange manner of counting time – seven years making a “Shabbat” for the earth, and the “week” of years of release bringing about the fiftieth year, the “grand release” – has an intriguing symmetry to the counting we are in the midst of right now: counting of the days after the Night of the Passover, as the sheaves were prepared for the harvest, "And you shall count from the next day after the sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete; To the next day after the seventh sabbath shall you count fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal offering to the Lord." [Ibid. 23:15,16] and the Sabbatical year "week" – which leads to the Jubilee year, "And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it; it shall be a jubilee to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family." [Levn. 25:10]
We live in constant and unnecessary tension from day to day, from year to year, our whole life. We need to step outside our bodies to gain perspective and realize that life is really much too short to take too seriously. To give life meaning we must learn to enjoy and celebrate. The Torah, inspired by God Almighty, the infinite and ever-present One, speaks of time from His perspective. One time it is "and there was evening and there was morning, one day..." [Genesis 1:5] in a blink of an eye, before we realize what is happening,, it is "And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it; it shall be a jubilee to you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family." [Lev. 25:10] To us, there is a difference of forty nine years and three hundred and sixty days, give or take a few days... For God, however, it is very same instant! All time, all existence, to the All Merciful Creator, is a fraction of a second.
The counting of the omer reminds us of the importance of each day – it tells us to make every day count for something, so we don’t end our lives with sorrow for what we have missed, what we did not do, what we failed to achieve. The Jubilee year teaches us the insignificance of life when there is no freedom – freedom for each and every one of us. There can be no freedom for any, if there is not freedom for all. In a world of slaves and masters all live in fear of being enslaved. Freedom must be the same for all of us.
Each one of God’s creature has a roll to play in the great drama of the completion of God’s creation. He has created this world, and He has assigned each of us his part in history. We come on stage, we “do” our part during our allotted time, and we hope that the “critic” will give us a good review. The author of the event has given us a great role, and instruction how best to “do our part.” Doing our part, proclaiming liberty, does not come with a declaration – it comes when we give of ourselves, when we release the bound, free the oppressed, care for the frail, the damaged, the downtrodden and the lonely.
If life is not precious to all, it will not be safe for any. In the "Oral Teaching" - Mishna - we read the famous lesson that sums up the lesson of this week's Torah lesson: "Im eyn ani li, mi li? - If I am not for myslef - who shall be for me? Ve'im ani le'atzmi - ma ani? - and if I am for myself alone - what am I? V'im lo akhshav - eymata'y? And if not now - when?" Good words to keep in mind as we learn, internalize and live by our God's words.
Amen


 

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