by Alex Krule
This is a very exciting week in terms of Torah readings; we begin the fourth book of the Torah: Bamidbar. The English name for Bamidbar is “Numbers,” but this never made any sense to me. In Hebrew, bamidbar means “in the desert/wilderness.” Now, this has no significance at all to the English word “numbers,” so I was naturally perplexed as to why anyone would translate bamidbar this way. The truth is, the English name did not come from this Hebrew name for the book. Actually, the book of Bamidbar has another name – Humash Ha’Pkudim, or Humash of the Counting/Numbers – and it is from this name that we derived this English name of “Numbers.”
But still, after looking at the first aliyah of the sedra, it appears that the name of this book ought to share that of the second book of the Torah – Shmot (Hebrew for “names”) as we read the names of the leaders of the 12 tribes. However, the next aliyot explain why this book was once called Humash Ha’Pkudim; we read about an intricate national census. Instead of listing the individual numbers for each tribe, I will cut to the chase and let you know that at the end of this census, there was a whopping 603,550 men above the age of 20 (but don’t forget women, men under the age of 20, or the Levites!). Though common reasoning behind this census is to determine exactly how many able-bodied men were available to fight in battle, I believe that there is something more to this census – or any other census for that matter. The objective of this census is to take into consideration the magnitude of the individual pieces that, together, make up the larger nation and its greatness.
While this idea of the census provides many great historical facts, we now see many implications today. I could point to the obvious – the 2010 U.S. Census (for those of you living in Canada, you get to share the excitement in November) – but I think that there is a connection that is closer to all of our hearts: USY Membership Reports.
Every month, the Regional Membership/Kadima VPs receive what we would consider the “USY Census” – or the Monthly Membership Report. Instead of once every few years, we in USY have our census every month. You may find yourself asking why we don’t just have one Membership Report at the end of every USY year. The reason is that we in USY genuinely care for and think about each and every one of our members. Each month, we encourage our chapters to reach inward and outward to perpetuate involvement already existent and to attract more people to become involved. Each month, we see where we can improve ourselves, where we have done a good job, and from whom we can learn. As we finish up the 2009-2010 “USY Census” and reread the ancient census of our ancestors, let us think about the individual USYers who make our experiences so great and where we would be, if anywhere at all, without them; let us think about how the sum of those individuals makes a population of strong Jewish youth, committed to improving the world and supporting Israel while maintaining and showing our pride in the core values our faith.
by Rachel Slutsky
This week’s parasha, Bechukotai, discusses keeping God’s laws, the rewards if we do so and the punishments if we refuse to do so. If we do as Hashem tells us, nature will work in our favor, yielding plentiful crops and rain, food, safety, peace and triumph over our enemies. We will multiply and the brit (covenant) will be kept. God will dwell among us in the mishkan (tabernacle). If the Israelite people choose to disobey God’s laws, we will be stricken with terror and disease, defeated by our enemies, our cities will be destroyed and we will be hated by Hashem. The parasha goes on in great detail about the extent of demise that shall be brought upon us if we are to disobey God’s commandments. It then goes
on to describe the tax that was collected to support the mishkan — either a monetary amount in shekels, or an animal sacrifice.
This parasha teaches us the important lesson that good is ultimately rewarded whereas evil is punished. This applies to every aspect of our daily lives. Though we are not usually punished as severely as the descriptions in the Torah indicate, we are always punished (in some way) for our misdeeds. For instance, Lashon Harah (literally the evil tongue) or gossip is always punishable. Though we may not realize it, what goes around comes around. If I spread a rumor about you, it’s a safe bet that there will be rumors about me coming around soon.
Another interesting thing about this parasha is that it does not specify any laws in particular, yet it is intricately specific about the rewards and punishments for our decision as to whether or not to follow them. One may take it to imply that means we must follow all the laws.
This parasha was not meant to be taken as a threat, but as a lesson. In our lives as Jews, we should keep this in mind. Even if it is impossible for us follow every single law, we still must try. If we break a law, we most likely won’t be stoned, but we should always try to act as dugma’ot (examples) for the entire community.
by Kenny Gold
It is quite coincidental that memorial day weekend, the unofficial close of the USY year coincides with Bechukotai, the last Parsha of the Book of Vayikra. Just as we close out our year, the Torah closes out yet another portion of its “story.” But it is what is in the story that allows us to learn and move on to the next part of the Journey.
The Parsha opens up with the Jewish people learning of the blessings they will recieve if they faithfully serve God and fullfill his commandments. However, we also learn of the curses that will be placed upon us if we do not live up to God’s expectations. According to Rambam, our covenant with God comes from the meeting we had with God at Har Sinai, and it is from that point on that we must serve him.
So although not every USYer will be on a USY summer program and the amount of times we see one another throughout the summer will not be as often, still continue to be strong Jewish leaders, in an effort to prepare for the year to come. It is the hope that next year we will strive to make ourselves better people, by following in God’s ways and spreading the love and honor that God shows to us.
It is my hope that everyone has a wonderful Memorial Day Weekend/Shabbos and a healthy fun filled summer!
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.
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.
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.
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 www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0326.htm. 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 …
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