21st Century P’shat: 1-2 minute divrai Torah for each aliyah

Behar-Bechukotai

  1. This reading states: “You shall return, each man to his achuza, and you shall return, each man to his family…” Achuza is not the same as property – it is inheritance. Because the property is assigned to families, the timelessness of the family is preserved by the inheritance of the Jubilee.
  2. If the sixth year is to be so great, why would we worry about the seventh? In fact, the sixth year is made great because of our intent to adhere to the seventh. Our trust in Hashem gives us the opportunity to rest in holiness. This is almost quantum holiness – where the effect can drive the cause.
  3. While the Torah refers to an inheritance, it does not refer to land ownership. Why? We only inherit the relationship with Hashem – because of that relationship we have effective title to the land. But absent of that relationship we have no claim. We return to our inheritance and we return to that relationship and an understanding of the timelessness of Hashem. In this world, loss is undone.
    1. Why can property in walled cities can be owned in perpetuity. Because cities are far more ‘man made.’ They do not offer a connection to the timeless in the way that land does. So there is no need to treat them as connectors through time. In a city, you can create wealth and lose wealth – but as we know families very rarely maintain title to things for generations. On the other hand, the cities of the Levites retain a holy character and can not be sold. In part, this is because for the Levites these cities are an inheritance in Hashem.
    2. The price of farmland is worked out by the value of its crops – with no discounting for time. Risk is ignored in the sale of land. This is a sign of our outright obstinence in the face of a ‘fallen’ reality. But city land can be sold in perpetuity – because it is not infinitely expensive it is clearly discounted for time. Risk is included. Why? Our relationship to Hashem must be approached as ‘risk-free.’ But the creations of man need not be treated in that way.
  4. Slaveowners in the South used verses 44-46 as justification for owning slaves. For me, this makes it one of the most troubling sections in all of Torah. Non-Jewish slaves are distinct in three ways: One, they can be worked with rigor. Two, your children can inherit them/their families. This reminds of the movie The Help, where the cleaning lady is inherited. But these pesukim never say you can sell a slave. While you may acquire them and they may serve you for generations, you are commanded to hold on to them. In fact, it never calls them property – it calls them an inheritance. The relationship to the slave’s history becomes part of your relationship to your own history and to Hashem. You are not free to break this connection or to pretend that you have actual title.  In many ways, rigorous labor or not, this slavery represents a far softer form that that practiced by the other nations or by foreigners in Israel; after all, they sold their slaves to you.
    1. In fact, the redemption from Egypt wasn’t a redemption of slaves per se – it was a redemption of the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov.
    2. The Industrial Age opened up a great moral opportunity to societies everywhere – they could live well without slaves. A man can produce about as much energy as a lightbulb uses – just imagine how many ‘slaves’ we have at work in our homes today. In a world where slavery is an almost totally necessary reality, can we see the form commanded here as moral?
  5. I’ve always read the land as getting back its missing Sabbaticals by not being farmed. But in fact the land is abandoned by the Jewish people and its Sabbaticals run away. Without the work, there is no Sabbath.
    1. At the end of the curses, Hashem will remember his covenant. In order to fulfill it, he must rescue the people. But he will also remember the Land. What covenant is there with the Land? There is one covenant with the land – the rainbow and the promise that there will be no flood to destroy the earth. If we think of the Jewish people as a seed to raise up our world to be ‘Better than Eden,’ then perhaps if the Jewish people are not remembered and do not bring the Sabbath to our land, then there will be no purpose to the Earth and Hashem’s covenant with it would also be undermined.
  6. This starts with the description of a strong pledge: “I pledge my Life to Hashem.” Rather than holding a man to such a promise, the value of that life is assigned. It is an escape valve limiting the negative impact of such a pledge. In this context, the different valuations of men, women, children and the elderly can be understood. A child or woman or old person has less opportunity to fulfill such a vow or (if they were vowed by someone else), less opportunity to help. Their inability should reduce the cost of such a vow – it represents the power they have to commit to it.
  7. What is this section about? Why does it matter what the consecrated land is valued at? I think this is of a piece with the previous reading. The question is, what does it cost to go back on such a permanent decision/donation. And the answer is given here. And until the year of the Jubilee, such a decision can be reversed. Why reduce the value as time passes? It is not because the land is worth less or more – if the Kohen keeps it forever it is worth basically the same amount. It is because if there are only a few years to reverse the choice, it has to be cheaper to walk it back. But if you have 49 years to take back such a decision then the cost can be higher.

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