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Parshat Behar-Bechutotai 2017
Is Shmitta, the fallow year, the most important mitzvah in the Torah? The question arises because Behar, our first parsha, begins by mentioning Mount Sinai, where the law was given. But all the other mitzvoth were given on Mount Sinai too! So why the special emphasis?
Many answers are given. It’s just an example (so why THIS example?). It emphasizes the parallel between our Shabbat and the Shabbat of the land of Israel. It emphasizes that Israel as a land is special and special rules apply, including the ability to produce enough in the sixth year to suffice for three years (the sixth, the seventh shmitta year and the eighth, when planting begins again but crops have not yet grown). All are acceptable, all are logical, but all somehow miss the mark.
But what if we connect our parsha to last week’s parsha, Emor, and the final issue it dealt with – the blasphemer? Can we find a connection? Hayim David Mimran of Bar Ilan University thinks we can and offers an interesting alternative.
Last week, you remember, a half-Israelite half-Egyptian man got into a tiff with a full Israelite and cursed God’s name, for which he was later stoned. Today’s reading begins with shmitta, immediately after the stoning. Here’s how Dr. Mimran connects the dots.
If we assume that verbal or physical violence is usually the result of either a person’s predisposition to such behavior or of situational factors that make a person lose control, then the case of the blasphemer is a volatile combination of the two.
Being half-Israelite, like being a half-breed of any sort, often entails a predilection for a problematic character. Half-breeds have identity problems throughout life which may make them prone to violence.
But the situation is also a problem. Without any clear indication of why the fight broke out, Hazal conjecture that it was generated by the half-breed’s demand for an inheritance within the tribe of Dan, his mother’s tribe. But inheritances were determined by patrilineal descent so he had no inheritance. Moshe upheld the ruling that he was not entitled and this, Hazal say, is why the man cursed God.
How did Hazal jump to this conclusion? Probably because the mother’s name and tribe are given (why?), and because the following verses in our parsha harp on caring for one another, treating the ger, the stranger or newcomer or convert with compassion, assisting others before they fall.
Thus, Hayim Mimran says, the half breed’s cultural background and the specific circumstances converged to spark his extreme reaction. And our parsha, coming right after the stoning of the blasphemer, can be taken as implicit criticism of Israelite society that created the conditions that could incite such anger.
What were the conditions? In a word – tribalism. This half-breed could not have been an isolated case. Hundreds maybe thousands of Israelite-Egyptian children were probably born in Egypt. What was or could be done with them? If their fathers weren’t Israelites, they were personas sans patria – persons without a country. They could not inherit and no tribe would want to take in an outsider, if only because that would reduce the size of the inheritance of the other members of the tribe.
And the tribes themselves were often very insular. We read in the book of Judges how an attack on one tribe did not necessarily affect the others unless there was a severe threat to the other tribes. In this parsha, Israelite society is being asked to eliminate the fertile ground on which evil and anger can sprout. The obvious question is – how do shmitta and the other laws in this parsha do it?
We know that the tribes will inherit the land. We know that each tribe will divide its inheritance among its families. But, our parsha says, this is all a bluff, an illusion, a game of make-believe. I, God, am giving you the land but remember – it’s only on loan. I’m the landlord who sets the rules, and I’m telling you – every seventh year it has to rest. And every 50 years it goes back to the owners who first received it, from ME, God.
Then come the other social laws in the parsha which make it clear that for us, the ultimate master is God. “For the Children of Israel are MY slaves, whom I took out of Egypt.” Therefore, don’t think you are independent. And if you are not independent, it is important to take responsibility for those around you too, be they family or friends or ger or half-breeds. Don’t let your neighbor sink into an economic morass. Prop him up, help him early so that he doesn’t collapse. Remember, a stitch in time really does save nine. Small scale assistance is sufficient to help an unsteady person back into balance. Getting a person back onto his feet from flat on his back is much more difficult, costly and time-consuming.
And when we get to the second parsha, Bechutotai, with the tochecha, the warning, we see what will happen if we don’t follow the landlord’s rules.
Behar is one of the most socio-economic parshot of the Torah. It offers advice in the form of laws which, if implemented, would help create a much more egalitarian society.
This emphasis on helping others, on being your brother’s economic keeper in times of need, of redeeming a person’s property when he has a run of bad luck, includes taking care of the strangers in our midst. And this can be taken as a remedy to preclude a situation where a person has to overturn tables, smash windows, threaten to blow up the bank or resort to other forms of violence in order to get some attention.
There are important lessons to learn here. Even our religious parties don’t bother to follow most of them. So why expect more from the non-religious parties?