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Parshat Behar (Bechukotai): What sits at the heart of an ethical society?


The parshiot of Behar-Bechukotai are often read together, but as this year is a leap year they are read separately. However, there is a deep connectivity between the two that speaks to our current historical moment. Behar speaks about the creation of a state; Bechukotai describes the threat of its annihilation.  Parshat Behar details laws pertaining to the land of Israel including the mitzvah of Shmitta. Parshat Bechukotai describes the devastation and exile from the land that will occur if we fail to uphold our covenantal duties. One is a narrative of growth and creativity, the other an account of destruction and devastation. The two are forever intertwined. Our history is full of moments of innovation, growth and progress coupled with destruction, annihilation, and suffering. At the centre of this dialectical existence sits the concept of shmitta (leaving the land fallow in the seventh year). The question is why is shmitta the first command we are mandated to keep upon entering the land?

 

The Torah defies categorization of a genre and though it discusses the creation of a nation state it is not a calibrated political philosophy. Using law, narrative and storytelling, it conveys what we might call ‘first principles’ that underpin the ethos of the kind of society to which the Torah is committed.  Shmitta represents one of these ‘first principles’ by showcasing what covenantal existence looks like. Covenant ensures a balance between the interests of solitary individuals and the common good of the whole. It mandates the human need for progress and development through private land ownership, but not at any cost. The stipulations of shmitta (the land must lie fallow every seven years and its produce offered to anyone who needs) remind the farmer and land owners that they are part of a covenantal society which means growth and individual wealth must be coupled with responsibility for ‘other’ less fortunate members of society – the convert, the orphan, the widow. Shmitta forces us to stop and step off the treadmill of productivity. To look beyond the creation of individual wealth at the face of the ‘other’ who is not my equal. To meditate on the source of our successes (God) and engender a sense of humility. To cultivate a mindset of gratitude. It reminds us that living in covenant means moving beyond the ‘I’ of my own parochial existence. But acknowledging the complexity inherent in balancing individual freedom and societal equality it mandates a system that upholds both. And yet the laws of shmitta are very difficult to keep in today’s democratic modern state. Both shmittat karka (leaving the land fallow) and shmittat ksafim (renouncing all debts) are not observed today in full, having been neutralised through heter mechira and pruzbul. However, they remain central in the minds of many living in Israel (even in the secular community). It seems that people feel an intuitive duty to aspire to keep the law according to its original intent as much as possible - which might reflect a deep Jewish desire to repair the dissonance between social justice and public interest. This aspiration touches at the very heart of why the Torah, which is usually very careful to heed man's nature and circumstances, would dictate an almost 'impossible' requirement on Man (the laws of shmitta).   

We began Sefer Vayikra by discussing the gap between the ideal and the real, and in many ways, we end the book by touching on a very similar theme.  In entering the land, God commands us that the 'ideal' society is one in which we lend money to others with no thought of when or even if it will be returned. A society in which farmers open their fields to the poor and put aside their natural proclivity towards productivity and safeguarding in order to let the land, animals and workers rest. But since society is built in the real and not always the ideal, the Torah gives us the ‘first principle’ and allows us to interpret it according to our circumstances and contextual constraints.   

Today the fact that the shmitta year still exists - and that there is constant debate even amongst the secular sectors in society as to how to make it viable - is testimony to the fact that as a people we continue to strive towards an 'ideal' construct of society, continuously and incessantly searching for ways to improve and move forward in every sphere. 

Shmitta is mentioned twice in the Torah: in the book of Shemot and here in Vayikra. In Shemot it emphasises the socio-moral context – the man-to-man relationship. In Vayikra the emphasis is on the God-man relationship which nurtures a sense of God consciousness, an awakening to the call beyond self. A.J Heschel called this 'radical amazement'; to be attentive to the Divine patterns in nature and human existence. An awareness that affords ultimate ownership of the land to God and sees human achievement, successes and triumph in the framework of covenantal living – a partnership between heaven and earth. 

 

In a fascinating parallel, Parshat Ki Tavo in Sefer Devarim (26) begins with an identical phrase to our Parsha - 'When you enter the land'.  There we are told that the first thing we must remember to do when we enter the land is to bring our first fruits - the Bikkurim - up to the Temple to sacrifice to God. When presenting them to the Priest in the Temple we recount the story of our people and acknowledge the Divine role in our national history and our private moments of success, such as the farmer who has reaped the product of his labour. Once again, we are commanded to share our produce with the less fortunate in society. Returning to ‘first principles’ we find that rather than mandating a fixed political philosophy, the Torah cultivates a ‘mindset’ of covenantal living that will organically produce the kind of value system needed for any ‘form’ of political society to flourish.

 

Parshat Bechukotai is juxtaposed to Behar with reason. It threatens the assumption of safety and guaranteed prosperity in our land. Behar is humanly created order whereas Bechukotai is Divinely ordained chaos.  And the laws of shmitta teach us that society must constantly grapple with the tension between social justice and public interest, between private wealth and civil responsibility. Contrasting the comfortable and prosperous note of Behar, Parshat Bechukotai reminds us of the contingency of our imagined stability. It reminds us of the danger inherent in ‘forgetting’ God and abrogating our covenantal duties and mindset. Employing the leitmotif of ‘keri’ -  וְאִם-תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי,   - if you walk with me by happenstance (Vayikra 26: 21-41), God warns the people that by treating reality as chance or necessity and seeing our success as a right rather than a responsibility and Divine partnership, it will indeed become a reality of chance where circumstances follow the randomness of the universe rather than the transcendent plan of God.

 

There is no secret formula for the creation of a society where all ideals are balanced in a beautifully calibrated whole. It is instead, like most human endeavours, a continual dance between contrasting values where at times one value will champion the other. However, by adopting a certain posture and aligning ourselves with some first principles that we learn in Parshat Behar, we will be able to navigate a path towards building an ‘ideal’ society.

 

Shabbat Shalom

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