Parashat B’har-B'hukotai Leviticus 25:1-27:34
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Questions for Young Children

• Why does land need a Shabbat at the end of every six years?
• If your family needed help to get food on the table, where would you go? Who did the Israelites ask for help if they were needy?
• What do you think the Torah would have to say about taking care of the environment?

 Questions for Older Children

• What do you think of a national system that has all land lie fallow in the seventh year? What are some advantages? Disadvantages?
• What is a person’s responsibility for his relative (kinsman)? Do you know of a story of someone in your family helping out another family member?
• What is the reason this parasha offers for not keeping an Israelite a slave forever? (see Leviticus 25:39-43)

Questions for Teens and Adults
• Biblical references to agriculture and the Torah’s image of God as responsible for the rain in its seasons hark back to a very different time. In what ways are we dependent on the agricultural sector of our economy for our own sustenance? Are there other areas of the economy where forces we can’t control determine whether we have a prosperous year or not?

Leviticus 25:10 is the famous verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell:

“Proclaim liberty throughout the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof.” (See the Dash of Hebrew below for a discussion of the Hebrew word that is translated as liberty in the verse). The Liberty Bell was commissioned for the colony of Pennsylvania before independence was gained from the British and before the Revolutionary War. How would you react to the bell’s inscription as a British citizen? As an American slave? As a Revolutionary soldier?
• What do you think the Torah would have had to say about the foreclosure crisis that bedeviled Americans in 2010?

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Parashat B’har harks back to our agricultural past in Eretz Yisrael and sets up rules for the Israelites when they arrive. There is a strong conservationist theme with mandated years for fields to lie fallow and trees to remain unpruned. Fruits and vegetables have their own Shabbat—the seventh year and the Jubilee year. Land may not be owned but only possessed temporarily by the Israelites. The land belongs to God, God is our land-Lord(Lev. 25:23). Although the Israelites may not realize it yet, their lifestyle in Eretz Yisrael will differ radically from their days of wandering in the desert. More importantly, their lives will differ significantly from the indigenous Canaanite tribes. God gives ample warning about not succumbing to the temptations of assimilation and imitation by creating carved images.

The epilogue of the book of Vayikra, Parashat B'hukotai concludes with a reminder of our own free will as well as the connection between our behavior and reward and punishment. Laws are the guideposts that help us understand which behaviors will be rewarded and which will be punished. Leviticus 26:46 (“These are the laws, rules, and instructions that the Lord established, through Moses on Mount Sinai, between Himself and the Israelite people) seems like it should be the end of the book, but chapter 27 continues with a new topic—vows and gifts.

God promises if the Israelites faithfully follow God’s laws, they will enjoy bountiful harvests from the earth and from the trees.

Find the food connection…

וְאָסַפְתָּ אֶת-תְּבוּאָתָהּ
…you may harvest the produce [of the land]
-Leviticus 25:3b

Local produce!

The Side Dish

I’ve always liked reading law codes. For me they are a window into a society’s problems and their attitude towards finding solutions. I just completed reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. She makes a compelling argument that the current structure of law and order unfairly targets young black men. Even after serving time for a felony, one is not allowed to vote, live in public housing, and must state he/she is a felon and cannot earn a living. When I finished the book, I saw the war on drugs in a completely new light and it’s not showing the United States at its best.

Parashat B’har’s laws hit at the bedrock issue of all societies---how do we treat the least fortunate among us and how do we treat our environment? Although laws regarding the sabbatical year and jubilee year seem to focus on environmental concerns, there is a strong concern for the underclass. I am always impressed that the Torah has a provision for debt release in the seventh year. How long did it take more modern societies to learn that debtors’ prisons created more societal issues without removing the initial debt? The message of the sabbatical for me is that people need a second chance. They also need sustenance when they have nothing and laws in the Torah provide for poor to receive the gleanings of the field. Shaming is not part of the system; those who give to the poor are simply performing a mitzvah that God commanded.

I’ve been bothered by Alexander’s book because she so clearly explains the systematic erosion of offering people even a first chance, much less a second chance. Even though we know from the Prophets that Israelites did not always behave as commanded in this parasha and others, the offenders weren’t off the hook. Prophets excoriated those who exploited the helpless.

I invite you to read through B’har-B’hukotai with today’s world in mind. How do you think we measure up to the ideals set in this week’s double parasha?




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A Dash of Hebrew

Is Freedom Just Another Word?

In Leviticus 25:10 the Hebrew word used for liberty is d’ror. If you ask a Hebrew speaker to translate the English word freedom to Hebrew, the response will likely be herut. So are the two words synonyms? Probably not. D’ror is probably related to the Akkadian word anduraru which is used in Babylonian legal codes to signify release from debts or indenture. Herut is the word we would associate with freedom and liberty.

Another Dash of Freedom (D’ror)
In some families it’s customary to sing special Shabbat songs (z’mirot) during and after the meal. If you attended Jewish summer camp, you’ve experienced the beauty of that tradition even if it’s not part of your own family practice. To me one of the most beautiful z’mirot Shabbat is D’ror Yikra. The title means He [God] will proclaim freedom. What a good Shabbat to listen, learn, and sing this Shabbat poem written by Dunash ben Labrat ca. 950 CE in Spain. This was certainly a time and place where d'ror for Jews in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) seemed remote.

A Dash of Contemporary Observance
Wondering how Israel observes the Yovel (Jubilee) and Sh’mita (Sabbatical Year) these days?
The Yovel is not observed. In Sifra Behar 2:3 the rabbis point to the word yoshve’ha (all of its inhabitants) as a proof text that the yovel cannot be observed until all the tribes inhabit the original land they were given.

Sh’mita (the sabbatical year) will next occur in 2021. The Israeli government does not mandate sh’mita and the majority of Israelis are probably unaware of the sh’mita year. Rav Kook argued for leniency in observance of sh’mita when he was chief rabbi of Palestine (1921-1935). Today the observance is overseen by the Chief Rabbinate which employs a system called Otzar Beit Din dating back to 1910. The rabbinate pays non-Jewish workers for their labor but not for the produce itself. There are other complex laws that govern halachic farming in the sh'mita year. The Biblical provisions for debt release are largely ignored, but if both parties to a debt agree to cancel it during a sh’mita year, the courts honor the annulment. The Masorti Movement has ruled that the sh’mitah rules are not required but a middat hassidut, an act of piety.

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Spring Snow Pea Salad with Ginger Vinaigrette
Pareve--serves 4 to 6

Ingredients for dressing

  • 3 Tbsp. lemon juice  rsz 09 bhar snowpea salad copy copy
  • 1 Tbsp. honey
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. dark sesame oil
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped crystallized ginger (available in the Asian food section)
  • ¼ c. vegetable oil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

Ingredients for salad

  • 1 lb. fresh snow peas, stemmed and halved (or use asparagus if you can’t find the snow peas)
  • 10 radishes, thinly sliced
  • 6 cups of greens—mesculun works well
  • ¼ c. chopped cilantro
  • 3 green onions, thinly sliced

Directions for salad dressing

  1. In a small bowl or food processor, combine the lemon juice, honey, soy sauce, sesame oil, and ginger.
  2. Gradually add the oil and season with salt and pepper.

Directions for salad

  1. Cook the snow peas or other vegetables in boiling water until tender-crisp, 1-3 min. Drain and cool until ready to serve.
  2. Toss the snow peas, radishes and half the dressing.
  3. Place the greens in a salad bowl or on individual plates and mound the peas and radishes on top of the greens.
  4. Drizzle with remaining dressing and sprinkle the cilantro and green onions on top.

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