Unity and Responsibility
Rabbi Paul D. Kerbel
This week’s Torah portion, Behar Sinai, is usually read with next week’s portion, Behukotai. The people of Israel are still at Mt. Sinai. Only when we reach the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, in Numbers Chapter Ten, do the Israelites begin their 38 year journey toward the land of Israel from the Sinai Desert.
Behar focuses on two concepts for which the people of Israel do not have the opportunity to actualize: first, the sabbatical year, commanding a year of rest for the land after every six years of cultivation, and a related yovel, a jubilee year, every fiftieth year and second, the idea of taking care of the poor. The Israelites do not yet live in the land of Israel and have not yet set up an economic and civic infrastructure on which to adhere and follow these two mitzvoth, but God teaches them anyway. Why?
Throughout the Torah, before the people ever enter the land they have been promised, the Torah speaks about the importance of unity and responsibility. Each individual and tribe must help each other in times of military battle, each person must welcome the stranger, and, each person must help the poor.
The Holy Land, like the holy people who will soon inhabit it, needs a Shabbat to rest and replenish the soul, the land, like human beings, needs a year to rest and replenish its soil. Together these mitzvot teach us that it is God who owns the land, not us and it is God who created us and to whom we show gratitude for all of the blessings we receive.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel’s most spiritual and mystic rabbi and Israel’s first Chief Rabbi taught that the purpose of the Jubilee year was primarily spiritual, not economic. He viewed it as a chance to restore a sense of unity to the people who became separated by priestly classes and economic success or failure. The Sabbatical and Jubilee years was intended he thought to restore a sense of hope and self-respect to those who had sunk into poverty and a sense of failure.
That same sensitivity in Biblical times should concern us today. In the United States and in Israel, the numbers are pretty similar. Approximately twenty percent of the population lives below the poverty line. There is homelessness and food insecurity. A story this week on the news talks about college students who do not eat well, even if they are working while they are studying, as they do not earn enough to pay for college, rent, food and supplies. One university recently opened a food pantry for its students.
Parshat Behar urges us to care about those in need and to help eliminate food insecurity and the depths of poverty. It is a religious and moral imperative.
Rabbi Paul D. Kerbel