Behar 5762

by Eitan Konigsburg

One of the major topics that is discussed in Parshat Behar is the law of Shemittah for the land of Eretz Yisrael. Every seven years, the physical land of the biblical Eretz Yisrael gets a rest, where no one is allowed to work the land, and no one owns property anymore. The fields are open to all those who want to eat from it’s contents, and farmers are supported economically by a double harvest in the sixth year of this cycle.

These laws show us a few important things. First of all, we must realize that everything physical does not belong to us. We come, perhaps control the physical for a while, and then we die. We can’t own anything that endures beyond us. This is especially true for the land. We can use the land for productive purposes, to eat and survive, but it is not permanently ours to keep. What this means is, that we can never have a complete and total claim of land for eternity. At some point, it can be, and might be taken away, or in the case of Israel, lawfully removed from our possession.

This is an important idea for the State of Israel today. Both Arabs and Israelis are claiming rights to a strip of land in the Middle East. However, this idea shows us that the land is never “ours” or “theirs.” In fact, back in Parshat Acharei Mot, we learn the idea that Jews can lose their right to Eretz Yisrael. If we do not follow the laws of Judaism, the land will “vomit” us out, because it can’t tolerate that behavior. And the contrary is true as well, if we merit it, the land is productive and fat. This is literally true. Througout history, it has been only Jews who have been able to make the desert bloom. Satellite images of the Middle East clearly mark Israel’s borders by the green trees. It wasn’t called the “Green Line” for nothing.

A while back, sages in Israel called a fast day as a method to respond to terror attacks in Israel. It is certainly true that we need the introspection to understand our flaws, and to promise our return to Jewish ways, and changing of our actions. Then we can merit the land. Our enemies won’t attack us, and we can live in peace once again. According to Rashi, the purpose of creation was so that a nation of Jews can live in a specific spot, Eretz Yisrael, but only if we deserve it. Now go out, strive to improve your religious life, so we, as a nation can keep the wonderful State of Israel.

Behar 5763

by Avi Mark

It’s that time of year again: spring with summer rapidly approaching. Sure in many parts of the continent we are all still hesitant to say “spring is in the air” but I am not here to talk about the weather. I do know that spring is here because as with every spring I mark this wonderful season every night by counting the Omer.

Counting the Omer, I know it doesn’t seem so extravagant or spring-like, but it is very appropriate for this week. That is because this week’s parsha, Behar, contains the laws of both the sabbatical and jubilee years. Every seventh year the fields of Israel were not plowed but lay fallow for the year, this was necessary to keep the fields healthy give them time to rest and rejuvenate. I know we can all relate to the needs of these fields as it is late in the week and we are awaiting our seventh day, Shabbat, to provide us with our much needed well deserved R and R, rest and relaxation.

The big year for the trees, however, is the 50th year after 7 cycles of Sabbatical years and planting years this culmination year is the “Jubilee” a jubilant year of great joy and happiness. Much in the same way I am currently counting down a cycle of 7 “sabbaticals” of sorts leading up to one day of immense joy and celebration. Behar is really a great parsha that seems to be boring when you look at the vast laws and specifics regarding land and property, it is actually a reminder that we all need a break every now and then. Lucky for us we have a break built in to every week. So while some people look at the omer as a time of mourning and sadness, I remember each time I count “seven sabbatical cycles, until the end of the last week when it will be 50 days,” then the party begins.

So, everyone have a great Shabbat, go to shul, and learn about the land and property rights of debtors, and don’t get bored; love every minute of it, because its your time, your break and remember soon enough it will be Shavuot, and we will receive the torah again, and we will all have reason to celebrate.

Behar 5769

by Bekah Hakimian

May 16, 2009/22 Iyar, 5769

This week, we read the last two parshiot from the book Leviticus. Once again, we are reading a double parsha, and that is Behar-Bechukotai. Behar begins with Moshe speaking to the Israelites about some laws that are to take effect in the land that God will give them. For six years the people will be permitted to plant and harvest from their fields. But the seventh year is to be a year of complete rest for the land. In this seventh year, the Israelites will not be allowed to work their fields, but they will be allowed to gather and to share whatever the land produces. God assures the people that before this year, there will be a bountiful harvest so that there will be sufficient food to tie them over until the harvest of the eighth year. This seventh year of rest is called a shemittah, or Sabbatical year. In fact, the last shemittah was in the Hebrew year of 5768. The Israelites are then told to count seven times seven years – a total of 49 – and to mark the arrival of the fiftieth with a blast of the horn on the Day of Atonement. This year is called a Jubilee year. In this fiftieth year, property is to revert to its original owner, and all Hebrew slaves are to be freed.

This portion is called Behar because it means on the Mount (Sinai). This is the location where these laws were given to Moshe. The shemittah and Jubilee years are unique creations of the Torah. The laws involve the release of slaves, the remission of debt, the redemption of holdings, and the resting and “return” of the land to its one true owner: God. The Rabbis found moral lesions in this practice. Even though a person may “own” fields he is not the true owner. The shemittah year makes a person realize that God is the ultimate owner. Secondly, this puts a wealthy person in a poor person’s place. During this year, the rich have an opportunity to experience the needs of the poor. This sensitizes the wealthy and encourages them to support the poor.

And the second part of this double parsha is Bechukotai, and this begins with a promise and a curse. If the Israelites follow God’s laws and commandments, God will bless them. Their land will be fertile and peace. But if the people do not obey, God will spurn and punish them. Their enemies will dominate them and their land will not produce. At last, those who survive the punishment will repent and God will remember the covenant with Jacob, Isaac and Abraham.

Bechukotai means “my laws,” and is the final portion of the Book of Leviticus. A close reading of the text reveals that observance of the commandments will result in the people receiving many blessings at once, while punishments are to be delivered in stages. This allows the people, by choosing to repent or to continue in their disobedience, to determine the course of events. This brings up the questions what happen when you do something wrong the first time and if you repent the behavior does the punishment change? This parsha is known as the tochechah, warning or reproof. These kinds of biblical passages cause uneasiness to those reading or hearing them. People, usually eager to be honored with an aliyah, were reluctant to be called to the Torah to bless the readings from this passage. Therefore, the custom arose of reading the section of Bechukotai containing verses 26:10-46 with Deuteronomy 28:7-69 as one long aliyah.

Behar 5770

by Scott Greenberg

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oilrig in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico exploded, setting off a massive oil spill that has been going on for over a fortnight. Thousands of barrels of oil spill into the gulf every day, threatening coastlines from SWUSY to Hanegev and the ecological balance of the Gulf. An ecological tragedy of this scale is incomprehensible to many of us – how do we make sense of the incredible damage that continues to be done?

This Shabbat, we read a double parasha: B’har-B’khukotai. For reasons involving the Jewish calendar, we combine the two parshiot together in our Torah reading. One topic that Parashat B’har deals with is the Sh’mittah. The Torah describes how, just as we Jews take one day out of seven each week to rest and not labor, the physical land also needs to rest, one year out of seven. How does land rest? One year out of seven, the Jewish people refrain from agriculture and working the land. This creates something called the Sh’mittah cycle, a seven-year rotation for the land. (By the way, the laws of Sh’mittah are only followed in the land of Israel).

In the second parasha we read this week, B’khukotai, there is a section called the tokheka, in which God describes all of the punishments that will befall the Israelites if they break his commandments. Some of it is very gruesome; you can look up the details at But one verse in the tokhekha connects Parashat B’khukotai to Parashat B’har before it. The Torah has just described how the Israelite people would be exiled to another land, when Vayikra 26:34 says, “Then shall the land be paid her sabbaths, as long as it lies desolate, and you are in your enemies’ land; even then shall the land rest, and repay her sabbaths.”

This verse is pretty deep: it says that if and when the Israelites are exiled, then the land of Israel will “repay her sabbaths.” This is basically implying that one of the sins that Israel will be exiled for will be not letting the land rest during the Sh’mittah year. Then, once they are exiled, the land of Israel will have time to make up for all the Sh’mittah years that were ignored. The Torah is thus making the point that the land will rest, no matter what happens, but the Israelites have a choice – to let it rest during the Sh’mittah year, or to be exiled so that it rests. It’s like a parent who tells their teenager that if they don’t come home by a certain time each night, they’ll be grounded. The teenager is spending time at home no matter what – but they get to choose whether it will be at the right time at night, or whether it will be during weekends and afternoons.

The concept that the earth needs rest is pretty profound. Both Parashat B’har, in a positive way, and Parashat B’khukotai, in a negative way, drive home the point that the physical land cannot be overworked. In the modern age, science has proven what the Torah knew long ago – why farmers in the Middle Ages learned to rotate their crops to keep nutrients in the soil, or why the Dust Bowl of the 1930s drove so many Oklahoman farmers off their land – because we cannot continue to strip the earth of its resources year after year. It’s as if the earth spits us out when it has had too much of us, why the Jewish people were exiled to Assyria and Babylon in Biblical times.

So how do we make sense of the recent oilrig explosion? The Gulf of Mexico certainly doesn’t need to rest every seven years! No, I think that the Torah tries to teach us an eternal truth: that humans and nature don’t always mix well, and if we are not conscious of nature’s limits, than nature will make us conscious. Perhaps it has …

Emor 5758

by Ami Schwab

As I sit and ponder what aspect of Parashat Emor to tackle for this D’var Torah, I am realizing how really hard it is to be a Jew. Huh? What does one have to do with the other? Well, as I read over the Parasha, it seemed to me that God expects a lot of us; and He does.

The Parasha starts out with laws of the Kohanim, the priests. They have many laws that only apply to them and they are expected to keep a higher standard than the rest of the Israelites. The Kohanim must remain pure and holy because they do the service of God. The Kohen Gadol, the high priest, has even more laws and restrictions than the regular Kohanim have. Any Kohen who has a physical imperfection may not officiate in the sacrificial service. (So what do these Kohen laws have to do with the rest of us? Keep reading and find out.)

Not only do the people offering the sacrifice, the Kohanim, have to be holy, pure and without blemish but so do the offerings themselves, the animals brought for the sacrifice. God also has many more laws concerning the quality of the sacrifices. Oh boy! God asks a lot from us. Who does He think He is? Does He think He is God or something?

So, what is the reason that God gives us for doing these things? “You shall observe My commandments and perform them; I am Hashem.” (Lev. 22:31) God is essentially saying that the reason for the commandments is because I said so. Many laws in Judaism have reasons given or the reason is implied for why we do them, but what it comes down to is that God commanded us and we must trust him.

How does this apply to us today? We do not offer sacrifices anymore. In the time the Torah was written and in the time of the two Temple periods, the accepted form of personally connecting with God was sacrifices. After the second Temple was destroyed, in place of the sacrifices the Rabbis of the time instituted a new form of connecting with God, which we call prayer. Prayer is a crucial part of Judaism. Our prayers are structured and set so that if we do not know what to say ourselves then the Rabbis have given us the words to talk to and reach God.

If the sacrifices in the time of the Torah and the two Temple periods had to be holy, pure and without blemish, than our prayer should likewise be holy, pure and without blemish. “You shall not desecrate My holy name, rather I should be sanctified among the Children of Israel; I am Hashem who sanctifies you.” (Lev. 22:32) It is our job to sanctify God through actions as well as through prayer because we have a covenant with God. He will stay with us and sanctify us if we follow Him. It is amazing that the Jewish people, even though we have gone through many hardships, has survived over three thousand years. Many times in history we have been taken “out of the land of Egypt” and saved from destruction. When we were in danger of extinction, we turned back to God in prayer for help. Now that we are not persecuted we are forgetting God and forgetting our covenant with him. We are not realizing that we are still facing extinction, but the extinction is a silent one. The number of Jews in the world is decreasing instead of increasing due to assimilation. We are not being oppressed by an outside source anymore, but no outside source really needs to oppress us. We are doing it ourselves.

We, like the Kohanim in the times of the Temples, are expected to be at a higher standard because of our covenant with God. We are a “Mamlechet Kohanim V’Am Kadosh,” a Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation. So these priestly laws do apply to us. It is up to us to sanctify Hashem “among the children of Israel” with prayer and action so that we may keep a place in the world for the “Mamlechet Kohanim V’Am Kadosh.”

Emor 5762

by Wendy Miller

A main topic that is discussed in Parshat Emor is the role of the priests, specifically the requirements of the priests, including who can and can’t make sacrifices. If the priests have any type of disability, then they are not allowed to perform the sacrifices. The Haftorah deals mainly with this topic.

Let me begin by stressing Judaism’s, and the Torah’s, view on the treatment and attitude of people with disabilities. In Vayikra Chap. 19, verse 14, it says: Lo- Tikalal heresh vileephnay evayr lo teetain meekshol vyaraytah me- elochecha ani Hashem. You shall not curse the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear the Lord Your God: I am the Lord. Basically what this is saying is that you need to respect the disabled and not ignore, or abuse them. Not for the reward, or because it’s nice, but because God said so. (Ani Hashem) It’s a rule you don’t question. Whenever you see Ani Hashem, you don’t argue, you just follow what God is telling you to do.

When discussing the disabled, the word normal comes up a lot. The term normal is not a correct term to use. For example, Isaac was blind, Moses was speech impaired, Jacob had a lame leg, and Leah had weak eyes. They were not what you would call “normal”.

Having summed up Jewish attitude and treatment of the disabled, I now turn to the role of people with disabilities within Halacha. Specifically how Halacha deals with deafness and blindness. For example, is the deaf person, the heresh, obligated to say the Sh’ma? The Sh’ma states HEAR O Israel the Lord our God, The Lord is one. The key word here is that makes this an issue is the word, Hear. In the Mishnah there is a disagreement over the validity of a deaf person reciting the Sh’ma: If one recites Sh’ma without hearing what he says, he has fulfilled his obligation. Rabbi Yossi disagrees. A long discussion follows where we find Rabbi Meyer countering the argument by quoting a later portion of the same paragraph which says “And the words shall be on your heart”. Therefore, according to Rabbi Meyer, the intention of the heart, and not the ability to hear establishes the validity of the Sh’ma. The Rabbinic view of the deaf is based on their ability to communicate and make themselves understood.

Now we turn to the blind, the suma, and the Halachic issues involved with the fulfillment of the Mitzvah “Kriat Torah,” reading torah. The key word here that makes this an issue is “Kriat,” reading. The rabbis of the Talmud established the following principle: The written Torah must not be recited by heart. The Talmud also says “A blind person may not read from the Torah because it is forbidden to read even one letter by heart.” However, a blind person may have an aliyah. This issue has not yet been resolved, but there have been changes made. In some synagogues, if there is someone who is blind and wants to fulfill “Kriat Torah” then the parson can chant, while someone follows along in the Torah with a Yad.

As you can see, it is an extremely complex situation regarding the disabled and Halacha. Parshat Emor discusses these views in terms of the priests, and those issues are still prevalent today.

Emor 5763

by Anna Hutt

Parshat Emor, the third to last parsha in the book of Vayikra, begins with a listing of special laws for the Kohanim, the priests of the Children of Israel, concerning limitations on marriage and requirements for offering sacrifices. Next, Hashem instructs Moses to address the entire nation of Israel and set out for them the holy times that He has sanctified: Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The last part of Emor, which I found the most puzzling and interesting, deals with the topic of justice.

In chapter 24, verse 20, we encounter the famous line, “Shever tachat shever; ayin tachat ayin; shen tachat shen-A fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

I have heard this verse quoted many times before, and it has always struck me as such an extreme example of justice. In today’s society, do we live by this law? After all, if we really punished wrongdoers by inflicting the exact same crime upon them that they committed, wouldn’t we ourselves be criminals? (This is one of the main arguments used in debates on the morality of capital punishment.)

To relate the concept to a more common situation, say that an angry friend refuses to speak to you. If you decide to punish your friend by, equally, not speaking to him, it might make you feel better temporarily. But does it accomplish anything? More likely, it would throw you and your friend into a cycle of revenge.

While searching for commentary on this verse, I found one interpretation that satisfied my question. According to Bava Kamma 83b-84a, this verse is “perhaps the most misunderstood passage in the Torah.” (So apparently I fell into the same trap as many people.) This commentary says that the phrase was never meant literally. Instead, criminals were expected to make amends for their sins monetarily. For example, if a man killed an animal, his own animal would not be killed in restitution; rather, he would give the animal’s owner the amount of money that the dead animal would have brought in from the market. This interpretation consoled me; it seemed like a more reasonable form of justice.

Another twist I personally saw was the advantage of turning the law inside out. An injury for an injury…so why not an act of kindness for an act of kindness? Often I think we forget that justice isn’t only about punishing sinners-it is equally about rewarding those who make the world a better place.

To put the idea of positive justice together with the Bava Kamma interpretation of monetary justice, we arrive at what I felt was a perfect explanation for one of the cornerstones of our organization: SATO. Through conventions and chapter programs, fundraisers and community service events, we attempt to better our world through Tikkun Olam-raising money for tzedakah-and Social Action-making the world a better place by giving underprivileged members of our society the things that they lack and justly deserve. “An eye for an eye” doesn’t have to give us the image of a bloody, blinding battle of revenge. Instead, it is the image of what SATO and USY are all about-doing our part with both our money and our efforts to make the world a more just place.

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