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Behar – A thought for the week by Michael Lewis

This week we read a Sedra that is most often conjoined with its successor, Bechukotai, in non-leap years. We are being reminded of the fundamental ways we are attached to the land and to our relationships with our fellows. The instructions literally come from Sinai, “behar”, from the mountain.

We learn about the shemittah years which occur every 7 years and the “yovel”, which occurs every 50th year. The first of these requires the land to lie fallow at the seventh year whilst the “yovel” is introduced by a shofar sounded on Yom Kippur. It redeems not just property but ends slavery. It is a distinctive part of Judaism that we are concerned with moral issues as well as practical economic affairs.

The word “Jubilee” is commonly used to describe a joyous event such as the upcoming platinum jubilee for the Queen. Why is the “yovel” called the “jubilee” year in English? Not for the first time it was a translator’s error from Latin. In the King James Bible of 1611, using the word “Jubile” (the old spelling of Jubilee), was an attempt to link the word with a celebration.

Behar is a remarkably practical document. The three-field crop rotation system, which has a long history, may possibly be an echo of the shemittah year. It is underpinned by the idea that allowing the soil to rest, to lie fallow, is beneficial to the health of the land. We do not own the land, we are temporary tenants. As we recite in the Yiskor service

אֱנוֹשׁ, כֶּחָצִיר יָמָיו; כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה, כֵּן יָצִיץ.
As for man, his days are as grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.
כִּי רוּחַ עָבְרָה-בּוֹ וְאֵינֶנּוּ; וְלֹא-יַכִּירֶנּוּ עוֹד מְקוֹמוֹ
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof knoweth it no more

The parashah also understands the reality of life at the time. It is offensive to us today to know that slavery existed at those times, but the Torah does not ban slavery. It understood the realities of society at those times, but it does both limit and attempt to mitigate matters. It gave us thought to consider slavery as wrong. Human dignity and the bonds between our fellows and God underpin freedom and equality.

In the past week we remembered Lag b’Omer, the death of Shimon bar Yochai and the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire. At the end of the Sedra are the commands to keep from idol worship and to keep Shabbat. Throughout the centuries this balance between the practicalities of our day to day lives and morality, based on our history and teachings, has been a constant thread for us as Jews.

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