(Thoughts on Behar-Bechukotai 5773/2013)
Lev. 25:1 – 27:34
[I shared the following dvar torah with the congregation on Friday evening 5/3/13, the start of Ben W.’s bar mitzvah weekend.]
This Shabbat we are concluding the Book of Leviticus with the final double-portion of “Behar” and “Bechukotai.” Like much of Torah, these chapters contain some passages of great inspirational value – and others that make us want to hang our heads in shame at the content of our tradition. But as Jews we embrace all of it --- warts and all, so to speak – and view it as the start – not the end – of a conversation that extends across the centuries.
The Torah’s text dates from a time in world history when slavery was rampant. And our foundational story as Jews is about our liberation from the bondage of Egyptian servitude. But this week’s Torah reading seems to draw only a limited, incomplete lesson from that experience. We learn in Leviticus 25 that Israelites may not treat their Israelite slaves harshly, and that such slaves must be freed to return to their ancestral tribal holdings with the coming of the fiftieth year – the so-called Jubilee year. But as for non-Israelites, Leviticus 25:44-46 states –“…[I]t is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other.”
Yukkhhh!!! If only we had just stopped reading after verse 8, which is so much more inspiring when it says –– וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹֽשְׁבֶ֑יהָ / ukeratem deror ba’aretz lekhawl yosh’veha/ “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” Okay, some linguists say that the rare Hebrew word “deror” is better translated as “release” rather than “liberty.” But, still, “Proclaim release throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof” still sounds pretty good to me. Don’t you agree?
How can we not be frustrated and ashamed by the chauvinism and immorality of the later verses of Leviticus 25 that say that this liberty, this release, doesn’t apply to non-Israelites? And indeed, how can we not be frustrated and ashamed by the failure of the Torah to abolish slavery altogether? Wouldn’t THAT have been the more appropriate lesson to draw from the story of Passover and the Exodus from Egypt?
Did not the Torah elsewhere say without equivocation that humanity is created “btzelem elohim”/”in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27) – not just Israelites, but rather all people -- all of whom it portrays as descending from that first Adahm who is created both male and female?
One traditional way of dealing with all this comes from Maimonides, writing in the twelfth century. Essentially, he argues that in a world where slavery was universally practiced, it would be too radical a shift to outlaw it all at once. Rather, God in the Torah starts with regulations that limit slavery among Israelites, with the implicit hope that ultimately this will lead to a world where it can be eradicated entirely.
A more contemporary approach, which resonates more for me personally, is that the Torah, like all scriptures of all religions, is written - so to speak – of the people, by the people and for the people. And people, then as now, don’t know everything. We progress over time in our ethics, in our understanding, in our science, in our technology, albeit not without periodic setbacks. The Torah is our collective spiritual autobiography as a people. Religion comes from the people up not from the mountaintop down.
I believe in God, but I don’t believe in a God who writes books --- whether they be the books of the Torah or the books of the Prophets or the New Testament or the Koran or the sacred books of any other religion.
Torah in particular doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is informed by the cultural environments of the time it was written, by the cultural environments of the centuries through which it has been interpreted, and by the cultural environment of this time and place when we ourselves engage with it.
Really, I guess I could start out every single dvar torah of every single Shabbat with these thoughts I’ve just been sharing with you. And perhaps those of you who have gotten to know me a bit over the last three years already knew all this…
But it feels worth saying it again: Before we get bogged down with arguing in public forums with those who use scripture to justify discrimination against unpopular groups.
Or before we get bogged down with arguing against those who use scripture to justify cruel indifference to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised.
Or -- before we get bogged down with defending ourselves against those who denigrate all scripture as reactionary, outdated, sociopathic drivel.
Pick your issue: Tax policy, gay rights, death penalty, war, immigration, environmental protection. Yes, we have scriptural verses on our side – but so do they have on their side. You can’t look to Torah for a single answer on any political or social question. Rather, Torah is a collection of voices—just as a congregation is a collection of voices. Just as a city, a state, a nation, a world – is a collection of voices.
Ben --- I hope you will find your own voice in the collection of voices that is Torah.
And that is also my wish for every one of us. As we say in the central blessing of the Shabbat Amidah --- “veteyn chelkeynu betoratekha” – “grant us a “chelek” / a “share”/ a “portion” of your Torah.
So, in Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, for example --- the part about it being okay to have foreign slaves – that sure isn’t the “chelek”/ the “portion” the “share” that I claim.
But the part about proclaiming liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof --- that suits me better.
I hope for each of us, that when we literally hold the Torah – as Ben and some of his family members will do tomorrow morning – or when we figuratively embrace the Torah – as when we study it, and speak of it --- when we sit in our house, and when we walk on the road, and when we lie down, and when we rise up --- that we may be blessed with the ability to connect to it as etz chayim/ a tree of life … whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all of whose paths are peace.
And trust me, it gets better --- once we’re done with Leviticus.
(c) Rabbi David Steinberg 2013/5773