In leap years, parshat Behar and Bechukotai are separated and read over a two-week period. Otherwise, they are read as a double portion, and when read together, as they are this year, we look for some connection between the two narratives.
Behar begins with the laws regarding the sabbatical year — the seventh year when cultivated land should lie fallow. It continues with the laws for counting seven times seven years, after which the 50th year is proclaimed a jubilee year beginning with the blast of the shofar on Yom Kippur.
During the jubilee year, land would return to the original ownership, debts were forgiven and slaves would be set free, in addition to the fields not being planted. It was a rebalancing for society as well as for soil.
In parshah Bechukotai, God gives the Israelites a promise that they will flourish on the land if they obey God’s commandments, but will suffer if they stray from a righteous path.
Fertility for observing the commandments and failure for avoiding the mitzvot follow the rules of the sabbatical and jubilee year. If landowners do not observe the shmitta year each seven years and let the fields lie fallow, then the earth will make up for those sabbaticals and will not yield produce. “But if… you disobey Me and remain hostile to Me, I will act against you… and will discipline you sevenfold for your sins” (Lev. 26:29).
We choose seven years of acting in a conscious way or we will be beset with a sevenfold punishment. “Seven” resonates as the number signifying creation in the natural world.
Another connection between the two parshat is the assertion that no one should be a slave for their whole lives, but rather should be freed after a certain amount of time. Despite any divine punishments, God will always remember the people since “with a mighty hand God and outstretched arm” the Holy One had freed the Israelites from oppression in Egypt. The purpose of the Exodus was to attain and maintain freedom but with responsibility.
These portions also influence modern life:
Behar’s words of freedom and liberty, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land,” (Lev. 10:25) are inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
It is an accepted practice in agriculture to rotate planting of fields — although the counting of seven years as a total sabbatical for all fields in the Land of Israel is specific only to that area and is followed with some adjustments in Israel today.
When a professor or clergy person is awarded a sabbatical, it is on this principle of allowing the fertile mind to lie fallow and pursue new opportunities to learn and to be released from the intense routine of the past six years.
In some strange way, this past year with COVID has been a forced sabbatical year for many people around the world, because we had to turn inward rather than go about our usual activities of socializing, work and recreation. Our intimate relationships were intensified, our inner resources had to be developed and we learned new ways of connecting virtually with others that we could not have imagined previously.
There was a letting go of normal routine. And yet, many people found unexpected ways to study, to meet, to cook or to do projects that they would not have had time for before the pandemic’s restrictions.
Already as we slowly begin to emerge into renewed, if limited, contact with family and friends, we are continuing with some of the habits we have learned such as increased awareness of washing hands, wearing masks and limiting exposure to crowds. In addition, we are feeling a new sense of gratitude for encounters such as sharing a meal with a few friends or being able to hug our children and grandchildren — freedoms that previously we took for granted.
In the Haftorah for Behar (Jer. 32: 6-27) and Bechukotai (Jer. 16:19 – 17:14), the themes of faith in God as refuge and redeemer are reiterated, along with the consequences of disregarding the mitzvot through injustice and abandoning care of the land. The message is that the people should have faith and hope, as Jeremiah did by buying land in Israel despite the expulsion of the Jews to Babylon.
Despite our own losses and weariness over these past months, we too can gain a sense of hope in the future when our communities can function as before, with a renewed sense of conscious appreciation of the bounty of the earth and the gift of renewed freedom. JN
Rabbi Alicia Magal serves as the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley.