Week by week, we engage with Torah, looking through the symbolism of its language. We read and try to assimilate those rituals and rules designed for a life we have never experienced.
From the very beginning, God is speaking the world into existence in a mere seven days. The morning liturgy has a beautiful prayer, a birthing song, Baruch She’amar: The Holy Blessed One spoke and the world appeared. The tradition says God wrote a book, the world, and Torah is its commentary.
At Sinai, the Ten Commandments are referred to as the Ten Utterances, again words to live by. Early commentators believed the mouth was a weapon that could plant the earth and turn a wilderness into a Garden of Eden.
Very recently, parasha Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, broadcast a divine list of ritual, ethical, social and spiritual mandates identifying not just what the ancient Israelites should do, but what a Jewish tradition should become. It contains the fullest list of sacred times found in the text. It is the first reference to Counting the Omer, the mandatory obligation to count seven weeks between the second day of Passover and Shavuot. This agricultural festival having no fixed time in the Jewish calendar is forever connected to Passover. Passover is connected to Sinai. Shavuot became the appointed time for studying Torah.
Counting the Omer has lost its significance for many. The word Passover evokes memories of redemption, liberation, obligation, and a willingness to wrestle with our own hardened hearts and resistance to accepting what the rabbis called the Yoke of Heaven. Israel was elected to become a disciplined deployment for change. We accepted that invitation at Sinai.
We meet Sinai again in Behar. It begins with God speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai. The word Behar, on the mountain, transports us out of the Book of Leviticus, with its rules about ritual practices and ethical mandates, into the Book of Exodus and the occasion of Mount Sinai.
The rabbis wonder why the story suddenly moves from priestly time to revelation. Behar opens with two commandments pertaining to Israel’s relationship to the land followed by prohibitions about financial and verbal oppression, deceit, usury and regulations about restoring dignity to safeguard against emotional impoverishment.
Using the significant number seven as it connects to creation, we read that every seven years, there is a Shabbat for the land called sh’mitah. Some understand sh’mita as a cycle of renewal for the earth and/or a return to the ideal of the Garden of Eden. The land returns to its natural state where both humans and animals share in its bounty.
On a deeper level, the obligation is to equalize the distance between those who have ownership and power and those who do not. The return of the land to a natural state allows those who have only gleaned at the borders to now claim their sustenance without distinctions. The obligation to refrain from buying, selling, tilling, harvesting or otherwise tending something that is owned is a compelling reminder that all are cast in the role of a sojourner, passing through an impermanent world.
Behar next tells us to count seven cycles of seven years. A Jubilee (Yovel) is announced for the 50th year. Once in a lifetime, there is a directive to “proclaim liberty throughout the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
D’ror, the Hebrew word for liberty, used here is not the same as cheiruteinu, the freedom word used in the Passover story. D’ror brings to mind the ideals of restorative justice and supports an ethical acquisition and distribution of wealth. The Jubilee always began on Yom Kippur called the Sabbath of Sabbaths. While the practical implications described in the commandments for the Jubilee were difficult to manage, the values it supports are threads of continuity throughout the language in the text.
The numerous sevens found in Behar draw our thoughts to creation. The mentioning of Shabbat further solidifies an attachment to its function as restorative time out. Shabbat was the Israelites’ first encounter with freedom after the exodus. Shabbat is not only a day of the week, but a time of year dedicated to reflection, change and creating new beginnings.
Rav Avraham Isaak Kook (z’l) tells us that during the Sh’mita year, the human heart is refined to recognize the connection to all creatures. The Jubilee reminds us to refocus our behaviors in our foundational beliefs about justice, compassion, responsibility and to sensitize ourselves to the eternal summon of Sinai.
Behar is read on the 35th day of the Omer, the beginning of the sixth week. In Kabbalistic thought, it is a week of spiritual strengthening. It is the week we seek our divine purpose. The gift of Torah invites us to be part of the dream assembly who promised to make a difference.
Rabbi Dale Schreiber is a chaplain providing Jewish care coordination for Pathways Hospice and Palliative Care, and has a private practice, Renewal-in-Action, specializing in resiliency, spiritual development and compassion fatigue recovery. Schreiber is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.