Parshat Behar-Bechukotai (5770)

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An avowed atheist was out hiking alone one day, when he slipped and fell. As he tumbled down a steep incline, he was just able to reach out and grab a small branch. It held his weight but would give way at any moment. His life flashed before his eyes and he realized there was only one solution.

Looking heavenwards he shouted:
OK, I give in, if there is anybody up there please help me! – A majestic voice boomed from the heavens:
I will help you, my son, but first you must have faith in me.
Yes, yes, I now have faith! – cried the man.
Then let go of the branch – boomed the voice. There was a long pause, and then in a hesitant voice the climber calls out once more:
–  Is there anyone else up there?

The Torah reading this week is really about a defining attribute of the Jewish people – the attribute of faith. A deep-seated emunah in G-d, a firm belief that there is a Master to this world and that He has given us a book of instructions to follow. Follow the instructions and we are rewarded, ignore them and we are punished.

In the second parsha we are told “Im bechukotai teleichu …  If you follow My commands … ” then we are rewarded with rain in the right time, blessings, peace, security, season tickets to the football, and much more. On the other hand, if we do not listen there is a horribly long list of unpleasant events which will afflict us (G-d forbid), getting progressively worse if we keep ignoring the rules.

And all of these are signs that G-d exists, that G-d cares about the small details of our lives, and whether we do good or the opposite of good. The world has not simply been created and left to its own devices, there is a constant monitoring of our behaviour and a robust system of reward and punishment.

However there is one particular mitzvah in the Torah which stands out from all the rest. It is this one mitzvah which really tests our faith in G-d, in a test visible to all. This mitzva is that of shemittah– letting the land lie fallow for one out of every seven years. Now this mitzva might make sense to a farmer who is alternating crops and can let one field lie fallow while he farms the rest – but the mitzvah of shemittah is total and absolute. Every farmer in the land of Israel must leave every piece of land untilled and unfarmed for the whole of the seventh year. This is something incredible.

Imagine yourself owing an orchard of fruit trees. This is your life’s work, you have bought and worked the land, and you have ploughed and sown, pruned and watered until you have an orchard you are truly proud of. You hire security to make sure no one can enter without permission and you harvest and sell the crop to make a good livelihood. It is yours. And then the shemittah year arrives – and what are you commanded to do? To remove the security guard and the lock on the gate and allow full access to anyone who wants. They can enter your property and eat your fruit with impunity, with your full permission.

Imagine having to allow full access to the public to your office for a full year, one out of seven. An office that you have worked to buy, furnish, maintain and use. How easy would it be to allow strangers in?

In addition to that, take a look at the chaos caused when one sector of society goes on strike, and imagine the chaos which should have ensued when an entire society of people living and working the land downs tools for a full year! Yet this happened on a regular cycle, once every seven years in an amazing display of faith.

What does this mitzva do for the people of Israel? It burns into our consciousness certain important values that we tend to forget in the daily rat-race of life: That the land and all upon it belongs to G-d and that the things we have are not necessarily ours – we are just allowed to use them during our lifetimes.

They tell a story of two men who were arguing over the ownership of a specific piece of land. They asked Reb Chaim Volozhiner to decide. He listened to both of them then put his ear to the ground and listened. The two men looked at each other and started to laugh. “Rabbi, does the ground really talk?” asked one of them. “Yes,” – replied – “The ground finds it amusing that the two of you are having such a heated argument over who it belongs to. It is telling me, ‘This one says I belong to him, and that one says I belong to him. But the truth is that eventually they will both belong to me!’”. And when we achieve that incredible level of faith required for observing shemitta – to be able to down tools, unlock the fields and not touch our fields and orchards for a full year – then G-d rewards us with an abundance of crops, prosperity, and a guarantee of safety and security from man and beast.

Nowadays it takes Icelandic volcanoes to remind us that we are not running the show – that we are merely visitors to the land we inhabit, but in the times when the shemittah rules were observed it was crystal clear to all around that the blessings we receive come only from the One Above.

photo by Robert Pass

This week we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, a day of celebration for the entire Jewish people, as we remember the miracles that G-d wrought for us in those short six days.

Those types of miracles are the ones we are promised in this week’s parsha – when we follow the rules of shemitta, and accept that our sustenance comes from Heaven.

Similarly, that if we refrain from doing business on Shabbat and Yomtov, not only will our income not suffer, but that G-d will reward us in more ways than we can imagine.

On June 7th 1967, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan declared: This morning, the Israel Defense Forces liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel and we have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again.

Let us pray that we merit to once again observe the mitzvot of Shemitta and Yovel in the Holy Land – eternal home of our People, and may we merit to see the hand of G-d in everything we do.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Zalman Lent

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