Parshat Behar 2019
Behar means “on the mountain”. A mountain can represent both spiritual enlightenment and elevation (through personal spiritual journeys) or a monumental obstacle, a place that is simply too high to traverse, says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky. Which meaning of mountain our har in Behar represents, remains to be seen.
Slowly, inexorably, the book of Vayikra is completing its mission of defining what holiness entails for the Israelites. It began with sacrifices, purely ritual ceremonies performed by the priests to help people to atone for all sorts of sins, misdeeds, and transgressions. It then expanded to include the foods we eat, the words we say and their effect on our bodies, clothing and home, our intimate relations with others, and finally, our general behavior. In today’s parsha, the next to last in Vayikra, we come down to our relationship to the land, to business and to economic strata in society.
The directives in the parsha would be excoriated in certain circles as “socialism”, where that is as dirty a word as “lefty” is in Israel. But is it really socialistic? Let’s examine some of the points.
Several messages can be learned from the first parts of the parsha, with reference to the shmitta year and the yovel, the jubilee. One of the most important is humility. We aren’t the owners and we aren’t the bosses. We don’t own the land, we’re only leasing it, from its maker, and one of the clauses of the lease stipulates a rest period for the earth. And if we purchased the land from someone else, after 49 years it reverts to the original owner. And it doesn’t really belong to him either!
Hebrew servants can be indentured for six years, and in the seventh they go free. And even during those six years they have rights because no one is a slave to any other person. All are servants of their maker. As I said – humility. Proportion.
The parsha also insists on correct business dealings. Don’t cheat, don’t use false weights, don’t give the appearance of buying something when you don’t intend to, don’t price gouge. What happened in the Tel Aviv area as Eurovision time approached and prices for hotel rooms, Airbnb rooms and even closets pretending to be rooms soared to astronomical heights – is against the Torah. As is what Teva allegedly did with the prices of generic drugs. Oh, but you say, that’s business, you use whatever advantage you can. But there’s also a law against pigs. Here it boomeranged. The prices were so high that many potential visitors decided they could live without Eurovision. Result: prices have plummeted by 30, 40, 50, 60 and even 70 percent. And Teva may have to pay out billions in fines.
One of the main concerns of the parsha is the person who doesn’t succeed. He has to sell his apportionment of land to pay off debts or to live, or he lives at basic subsistence level. The main source of his redemption is his family – brother, uncle, anyone from the family who can, is expected to step in and help the person back on his feet.
The parsha also emphasizes that helping someone when he just begins to stumble is more useful than waiting until that person is flat on his face. Rashi and other commentators draw our attention to the imagery the Torah uses to describe the process of becoming poor and the recommendations for halting it–“sinks down,” “his hand slips,” “grab hold of him”–these are images of someone who is “with you” and is in danger of slipping down into an existence that will not be “with you,” and from which you must save him. The distance a person has to cover from almost failure to equilibrium is much shorter than from total failure to economic equilibrium.
It would seem that some of the ideas of this parsha have been adopted in our society, albeit with certain twists. For example, if a person borrows two billion shekels from several banks for his business ventures and whatever happens – happens, and he is unable to pay back that money, the banks very magnanimously allow him to pay back only a small portion of that vast sum, the rest being “shaved off.” This lost money is usually recouped from the simple folk who would not even get a two thousand shekel loan from the bank.
Our government seems to be intent on implementing another aspect of our parsha. Instead of releasing a person after six years of servitude or in the jubilee year, the government would like to ensure that certain (well connected) persons accused of alleged misdeeds be freed from having to stand trial or serve – time – altogether. That is definitely in keeping with our parsha. A person who is brought low should be brought up higher. In our local version, a person should not be brought low in the first place, so that he can go higher and higher without having to suffer or to face shame.
Since there seem to be objections to this policy, perhaps because it is limited in scope, I would like to make a modest proposal. Perhaps the policy should be expanded so that most people would not be brought to trial altogether. This would obviate the need for many of the courts and judges, it would help to relieve overcrowding in the jails, and at the same time it would provide equal allegedly illegal opportunities for all.
This then is the message, short and sweet. Care for others and care for the earth and everything will turn out just fine. That’s the “har,” the mountain. Is it going to elevate our spirit or become an untraversable obstacle? You pays your money and you takes your choice.