Naso: Finding grace

If anyone…explicitly utters a Nazirite vow, to set himself apart for the Lord, he shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant…no razor shall touch his head…he shall not enter where there is a dead person, even…his father or mother, or his brother or sister…(B’midbar 6:2-7).
May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the Lord shine His face on you and deal graciously with you! May the Lord turn His face to you and grant you peace! (B’midbar 6:24-26)

A dark cascade of flowing locks surrounds your austere face
and passers-by regard you with both wonder and with scorn.
You have undertaken solemn vows – you may not tend the dead.

As you miss those closing moments, the truly righteous action
of accompanying your loved ones as they make their final way,
do you battle with your tears, and hope your sacrifice finds favor?

Do you believe that you are blessed, exactly as you are:
hair cropped or growing wildly, and drinking wine with relish?
You can become impure, and then be purified again, and
regardless, God will turn to you and grant you unearned gifts.


Parashat Naso details the controversial institution of the nazirite. The nazirite could be a man or a woman, but in the latter case needed the acquiescence of her father or her husband. This person took on, under vow, extra stringencies. He or she eschewed the drinking of wine or any other intoxicant (avoiding all products from grapes), abstained from cutting his or her hair, and was forbidden to approach the dead, even if it was a close family member (parent or sibling). This description addresses the temporary and not the lifelong self-imposition of nazirite status (like Samson). The minimum time period was 30 days, while the maximum was seven years.

In a blogpost on Parashat Naso in 2011, http://www.rebjeff.com/blog/naso-two-ways-of-seeking-gods-face, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser addresses the interesting proximity between the laws of the nazir and the priestly blessing of the people which follows immediately after. Reb Jeff wonders whether these might be two answers to the same question: How do we come to see the face of God?
Reb Jeff considers the burden of extra piety which the nazir takes upon himself. He suggests that if that is one way to feel closer to God, a more modest approach follows immediately with the priestly blessing. He says, “This is the other way of seeing God’s face. There is no need to make elaborate vows or to punish yourself with severe restrictions. All it takes is the willingness to be blessed – to allow God’s face to shine upon you graciously with no questions asked and no extraordinary demands made.”

An unattributed comment in Itturei Torah by Aharon Ya’akov Greenberg on the concept of grace in God’s blessing says, “He will be gracious – with an unearned gift, as it is written in Psalms 123:2, “So our eyes look to the Lord our God until He will be gracious to us.” ”
And the Chafetz Chaim used to say, “Lord of the World, even if, heaven forbid, Your children are not worthy of Your kindness, there is the aspect of grace “Vichunekha – He will be gracious to you” – give them an unearned gift, for that is Your special quality.”

In a commentary on the Parasha, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5502, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, notes that the Torah presents a “hierarchy of holiness” in three strata: the priest whose spiritual duties are described at length and include maintenance of the Mishkan and offering sacrifices; the Levite who also played a part in the service in the Mishkan; and Rabbi Shavit Artson wonders what of the “ordinary” Israelite? He asks, “How, in the biblical period, could an average Jew who was motivated by a burning piety, find a way to express that devotion and faith? Granted, the festivals were available to all, and the pilgrimages they stimulated were high points every year. But many of the rules of the Torah pertain only to judges and to the administration of the sacrifices by the kohanim.
“What of the Jews who wanted to do more, who wanted to make of their lives an offering of love to God, a symphony of holy deeds in the face of the sacred? For such a tzaddik, the Torah provides the institution of the Nazir. Noted scholars have commented on the parallels between the kohen and the Nazir, how both cannot touch alcohol during their moments of kedushah (holiness), how both are described as “holy to the Lord.” Neither can expose themselves to the remains of the dead, and in both instances, the head is the focus of sanctity.”
So Rabbi Shavit Artson suggests that becoming a nazirite was the way a biblical Jew might express his or her yearning to come closer to God.

The nazir has always been a source of great controversy. The Torah itself instructs us later that at the end of the period of the vow, the nazir must bring a purification sacrifice which implies some wrongdoing. Some commentators regard the nazir as a saint, aspiring to greater levels of holiness than the average person, while others portray the nazir as over-zealous. The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that Simon the Just, a High Priest in the time of the Second Temple, refused to partake of the offerings brought by a nazir, deeming the vows to have been made in a rash moment of excessive guilt or enthusiasm, and therefore not whole-heartedly. The Rambam, who urged moderation in all matters, cites the Sage Rav who taught that in the World to Come, people will have to account for all the good food which God provided for their enjoyment but from which they abstained. (JT Kiddushin 4:12) This is understood to mean that taking on stringencies that deprive one of pleasure is frowned upon. This, according to Rabbi Shmuel, accounts for the sin-offering which it is incumbent on the nazir to bring – to atone for regarding the pleasures of God’s world as a source of evil and temptation. (Taanit 11a)
The Midrash addresses the location of the section on the nazir immediately following that of the sotah (the woman accused of adultery by her husband). The Midrash suggests that the potential nazir saw a sotah commit adultery while drunk, and so resolved to avoid liquor (B’Midbar Rabba 10:1) The Etz Hayim adds that the effect of seeing someone else ruin his or her life by succumbing to temptation, might propel someone who considers him or herself weak and impulsive, into setting extreme personal limits.
The Etz Hayim observes, “We today might also feel ambivalent toward the religious enthusiast. We can admire the fervor and readiness to refrain from ordinary pleasures, appreciating the person as a role model of religious seriousness. We can be grateful that there is a place in Judaism for such a person, and yet be concerned with the danger of extremism and fanaticism to which such enthusiasm can sometimes lead.”

In a commentary on Parashat Naso from 2014, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/naso/5774/can-center-hold, Marc Gary notes that in the previous parasha, we learn about the ideal holy community structured round the Mishkan, and in this parasha we learn about laws that show that the society has been corrupted by fraud, perjury, adultery, and finally, in the section before that dealing with the nazir, marital jealousy and suspicion. Gary cites Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein in his book, Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People, “[j]udging the camp [of Israelites] by what may be inferred from Naso, one would conclude that holiness cannot be achieved even when the people are encamped around the Mishkan, and that the only option is the nazirite ideal of withdrawal.” But Gary wonders whether that is what the Torah is really trying to impart. “In response to the dangers, temptations, and imperfections of this world — the real world in which we live — is the Torah trying to nudge us in the direction of religious extremes? In the realm of ritual practice, is more always better?”
He notes the ambivalence already described, both in the Torah itself and in the controversy ever since. He contrasts the Ramban’s stance, that the nazir is holy until he reverts back to living an ordinary life, and then needs to bring a sin offering, with that of the Rambam, whose view he expands, that “one should abide by the Torah, but not resort to religious isolationism or excessive ritualism. In his book, the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot De‘ot 3:1), Maimonides reiterates the point that a person should not withdraw from society or “inflict on himself vows of abstinence on things permitted him.” Religious moderation — “the middle road” — is the desired path.”
Gary continues, “In today’s Jewish world, Maimonides’s call for moderation in religious matters needs to be renewed. The Pew Research Center report on American Judaism last year shows that the extremes are gaining ground—those who reject religion entirely and those who identify as ultra-Orthodox… ”
Gary concludes, “What is at stake is not just the future of a movement or denomination; it is the reaffirmation of the importance of religious engagement with the world. Those who stand firmly in the center and travel with Maimonides on the middle road embody the notion that the best response to the injustices and moral deficiencies of our society is not the rejection of religious values or the obsessive focus on ritualism in a closed community, but rather a deep and faith-driven commitment to confronting the imperfections of our society based on the demands of a just God in a not-yet-just world. As JTS Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel famously remarked, “Our concern is not how to worship in the catacombs, but how to remain human in the skyscrapers.” “

Advertisements

Shavuot: Boaz

Ten elders sit by the city gate,
waiting, watching, eyes asquint
as the sun goes down on dappled fields
and gleaners wander home.
And you stand up unflinchingly
and resolutely claim,
before these silent witnesses,
your right to marry Ruth.
And yes, you know about her baggage:
daughter of the house of Moab
widow of Elimelech’s son,
who left the Land when times were bad.
Yet you love her for her kindness,
for her steadfast trust in God,
and you take her to you openly
and she becomes your wife.


Megillat Ruth recounts the story of the family of Elimelech, a man of wealth and standing, who lives in Bethlehem in the time of the judges. A famine strikes the land so Elimelech takes his wife Naomi and his two sons Machlon and Chilion and they flee to the land of Moab.  The Soncino summary of the Book of Ruth by Judah J. Slotki comments on the relationship between Israel and Moab, which oscillated between friendly and hostile, and in the Book of Ruth can be assumed to have been amicable. However,  Slotki adds that it is unsurprising that tradition looks unfavorably at Elimelech’s going.  Although the Moabites were descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew (by an incestuous liason between Lot and his daughter), they had taken a different route through history and did not espouse the faith in God and adherence to the Torah of the Israelites. The Moabite people had displayed hostility when the Children of Israel passed near their territory en route to the Land of Israel, and lured them into wicked practices, so they were excluded from entering the assembly of God,  (Devarim 23:4) and intermarriage was forbidden with them (Devarim 23:3, Ezra 9:12, Nechemiah 13: 1, 23-25).  Slotki concludes, “Israel and Moab were separated not merely by a strip of water called the Dead Sea, but by something vaster than the ocean, a difference of religion. The journey taken by this family of Bethlehem was, therefore, not from one country to another, but from one universe of religious thought to another.” The text then tells us that the family “continued there” (Ruth 1:3) which is understood to mean that they decided to take up permanent residence in Moab, and then Elimelech dies. Somewhat predictably perhaps, Machlon and Chilion marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. And then, after ten years of childless marriage, both Machlon and Chilion die. At this point, having heard that the famine is over, Naomi, widowed, childless, homeless and destitute, decides to return home, there being nothing left for her in Moab. She sets off, accompanied by her daughters-in-law. She blesses them and tries to convince them to return to their parents, because she says they will be able to remarry, but they cry and say they will go with her. She reiterates her desire that they should go home and remarry and finally Orpah is convinced, but Ruth is adamant and determined to follow Naomi to her people and her God. The two women return to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest, and Naomi describes herself as bitter and empty. Ruth, who is both kind and hardworking, metaphorically rolls up her sleeves and goes out to glean corn to sustain herself and her beloved mother-in-law, in the fields of a prosperous relation of Elimelech’s called Boaz. Boaz has heard of her kindness and loyalty in following Naomi to a foreign land. He deals with her kindly in return. He tells her to glean freely in his fields and he has her eat with his reapers, and he instructs them to drop corn on purpose and not shame her. Ruth returns to Naomi and regales her with her experiences. Some months later, Naomi sends Ruth to Boaz one night to remind him of his duty as a near kinsman to buy Elimelech’s land from Naomi. He points out that there is a closer relative but he will try to address the issue. He loses no time, and the next morning, he goes to the city gate where the elders dispense justice and address claims and litigations. Boaz hails the nearest of kin who comes past and asks him whether he will redeem Elimelech’s field, and the man acquiesces readily, but when Boaz adds that he will also have to marry Ruth and “raise up the name of the dead”  (Ruth 4:5) which would mean that the property would be in the widow’s name, he demurs, leaving Boaz free to formally buy the land and marry Ruth.
The couple is blessed with a son who will become an ancestor of the royal house of David.

In an article about Shavuot entitled The Book of Ruth: A Modern Look, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/author/rabbi-juan-mejia/, Rabbi Juan Mejia* notes that one in six contemporary Jews are converts (from The Pew Research Center’s newly released 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study).
He imagines the scene as Boaz gathers ten city elders to address the case of who will redeem Elimelech’s holding. Boaz clearly wants to give wide publicity to the proceedings. Rabbi Mejia quotes the text of Boaz’s words to the nearest of kin, ““When you acquire the property from Naomi and from Ruth the Moabite, you must also acquire the wife of the deceased, so as to perpetuate the name of the deceased upon his state.” (Ruth 4:5) He suggests that this man, who originally agreed to buy the land, may have backed down because Ruth was a Moabitess, for he responds, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I mar my own inheritance!” (Ruth 4:6). The Soncino commentary submits that he was wary of “tainting his pedigree”.
Rabbi Mejia notes that we do not know this man’s name – the text merely refers to him  as “Peloni Almoni,” that is, an anonymous person. The Soncino commentary posits that the explanation for this might be that “the name is withheld out of deference to his position, he being a person of note who should not have selfishly refused to discharge his duty as a kinsman.” Rabbi Mejia submits, “Because he refused to redeem a soul, his name was forgotten. Because he was willing to accept the land, but not willing to reach out to the stranger, his memory was blotted out from the land.”
He continues, citing from the fourth chapter of the Megilla, “Boaz, knowing the kindness of Ruth, her enduring love for Naomi and for her God, then responds: “You are my witnesses today that I am acquiring from Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to his sons.” (4:9) Even though they strayed away from the land and estranged themselves from their people, I am willing to take them back. “I am also acquiring Ruth the Moabite.” Yes, because it is no shame that she is a Moabite. “The wife of Machlon,” Yes, she has a story. I honor and recognize it. “…as my wife.” For I see her as she is: all love and intention, not the conglomerate of her past and her lineage. “You are my witnesses today.” I do this. Not secretly, not shamefully, but publicly sanctifying and welcoming her into the loving arms of my family, and through this, my faith and my people.”
Rabbi Mejia concludes, “What was Boaz´s reward? “Boaz begot Obed, Obed begot Jesse, Jesse begot David.” (Ruth 4:21-22) One single act of kindness, of openness, of inclusion of this unpopular stranger led to the greatest king in our history. A king whose lineage, we believe, will help the world achieve its original intention. Because he redeemed a soul, he brought redemption to the world. May we live in his example always.”

*Rabbi Juan Mejia was born in Bogotá, Colombia in 1977. When he was 15, he discovered his converso roots which led him on a Jewish journey and eventually the Conservative rabbinate. He lives in Oklahoma City and teaches about Judaism to Spanish Jews around the world.

B’midbar: Finding a place

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron,  saying: The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house;  they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting, some distance from it. (B’midbar 2:1-2).

I stare into the wilderness
where grains of sand blown by the wind
drift freely by on sun-splashed dunes.

I turn my gaze towards the camp –
the throng resolves: twelve tribes aligned;
each stately banner waves above.

Each patriarchal family
on designated territory, is marked by flags
that flail, bright-hued, against the pearly sky.

Within the intricate design, of shadow
and of light, each soul must seek its certain place
and write its letter in the scroll.


Parashat B’midbar contains an elaborate description of the arrangement of the tribes into camps, as they advance through the wilderness. They were aligned on four sides of a square, three tribes to a side, with the Mishkan in the middle, each tribe being equidistant from it. In her book, Studies in Bamidbar, Nehama Leibowitz notes that several commentators derive that this is a military blueprint – organisation into troops and divisions, with standards and pennants. She cites the Rashbam (who consistently brings out the simple literal meaning of the text (the peshat)) and holds here that this is indeed military preparation for the conquest of the Land. She also notes that Rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto (the Shadal) (1800 – 1865, Italy) teaches that the idea was that the people should be divided into groups with their standards so that they would not appear like a bunch of runaway slaves, but rather a people prepared for battle.

However, in a commentary on Parashat Bamidbar, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/a-map-of-pluralism/ Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger notes that several Chasidic commentators explain the verse above rather differently. He cites the Beit Aharon who says, “Each person with his standard under banners of his ancestral house [means that] every Israelite must know and think that he is unique in the world, and there was never yet anyone like him in the word; because if there had already been someone like him, there would have been no further need of him [to come into the world]. And truly every single person is someone new in the world, and he has to perfect his attributes and his [special part of] Torah which belong to [speak to] his soul, until all the worlds have attained perfection by Israel in its entirety.” Rabbi Loevinger notes, “This commentator seems to be exploring the tension between each person finding his or her own, personal “standard,” or flag, and also being grouped into a larger social unit under the “banner of his family.”” He continues, “This is a fundamental tension in contemporary Judaism: Each of us must develop our own, personal journey of Jewish spirituality, and yet we are not alone in doing so. We are inheritors of a larger Jewish tradition, with all of its teachings and customs and different interpretations. There’s no such thing as a Jew who just makes up a brand new Judaism for themselves, but rather we always exist as individuals in a creative, covenantal relationship with the larger Jewish community.”
Rabbi Loevinger sees this tension between individual and community as a two-way street: just as the individual has to find his place, his “flag” in the larger picture, so too, the picture is incomplete unless individuals are finding their own place within it. He adds, “Judaism is not “one size fits all!” One person may become zealously observant of ritual practices, another person may devote all her energy to Judaism’s vision of social justice, a third may find that studying sacred texts is the proper “flag” for his living Judaism. As our commentary points out, it is only when each person finds their own “flag,” or personal mission within the broader Jewish framework, that the Jewish people as a whole can find its “perfection,” or ultimate potential. The visual metaphor of the Book of Numbers is striking: Each person finds his or her place in a particular camp, and the camps find the proper relationship to each other – and only then can the entire people move forward, with the Presence of God “dwelling” in the middle.”

It is taught in the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 34a) that there are seventy faces to the Torah. In his book, Torah Through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period, Shai Cherry quotes Gershom Scholem who explains the teaching of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Ari: “[In] Lurianic Kabbalah every word of the Torah has 600,000 “faces” that is layers of meaning or entrances, one for each of the children of Israel who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. Each face is turned toward only one of them; he alone can see it and decipher it. Each man has his own unique access to revelation. Authority no longer resides in a single unmistakeable “meaning” of the Divine communication but in its infinite capacity for taking on new forms. (Gershom Scholem paraphrasing Isaac Luria the leading Kabbalist of the 16th century.)”

The Midrash (B’midbar Rabbah 2:13) recounts the famous teaching that just as there were six hundred thousand Jews at Sinai, there are six hundred thousand letters in the Torah. In a commentary on Parashat B’midbar, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=12032, Rabbi Adam Greenwald observes that this Midrash has evoked countless sermons about the value of the individual, for just as a Torah is only complete and usable if all its letters are intact, so too our community needs each of us. However, he notes that there is a serious problem with it. He says, “The Torah does not contain 600,000 letters. In fact, not even close to it! The Torah contains just about half that number, at 304,805. While the rabbis lacked the sophisticated software that can produce an accurate count like that in seconds, they surely knew that their count was off by an entire order of magnitude.” So he wonders what this Midrash comes to teach us. Rabbi Greenwald continues, “The mystical tradition has long taught that the black letters of the Torah scroll only make up half the story; the other half – and potentially the more revealing truths – are contained in the white spaces that accompany each letter. Just as in conversation where what is not said is often more important than what is actually spoken aloud, the white spaces that surround the black letters are equally vital to understanding what Torah is trying to teach us. Counting the white spaces, along with the black letters, we arrive at 600,000 – and the Midrash is saved!”
But Rabbi Greenwald is still unhappy. He notes that there is an even more perplexing problem with this text. He says, that the Torah’s  record of 600,000 people who stood at Sinai refers only to the men! He adds, “As feminist critics like Judith Plascow, Rachel Adler, and others have taught us – a closer look at the text reveals that twice that number participated in Revelation and twice that number marched from the mountain. The Torah records only the names and stories of the men, the women who stood aside them have been erased from our counting. Again, half is visible and half, invisible.”
So he concludes, “Just as our understanding of Torah is only complete when we count both the black letters and the white spaces, our understanding of ourselves is only complete when we notice the whole community. That means really seeing those who have traditionally counted and those who have been excluded, who have historically faded into the background like the white spaces.
“Let’s teach our eyes to see the whole of what is in front of us, both light and dark, both seen and unseen.”

 

Bechukotai: Walking

If you walk in My statutes … I will walk among you…(Vayikra 26:3, 12)

The path leads further than the eye can see:
behind, it melts in darkness;
ahead it touches sky.

It cuts a swathe through rugged ground
en route to fertile land:
each one alone must seek the way.

Yet on this path, four cubits’ span,
where two can travel side by side
God asks of us to walk with Him.


In his book, The Language of Truth* Rabbi Arthur Green brings a commentary by the Sefat Emet on the opening words of the parasha, “If you walk in My statutes...“. The Sefat Emet cites a Midrash quoting the verse, “I considered my ways; I returned my steps [lit.: “feet”] to your statutes (Psalms 119:59). The Midrash comments: “David said, “Master of the Universe! Every day I consider going to such-and-such place, to such-and-such dwelling, and yet my feet bring me to synagogues and houses of study.” ”  “A man’s steps are from God and He desires his way (Psalms 37:23). The Sefat Emet teaches that a person who serves God and is always yearning to find those paths that are unique to him or her, will be guided by God. The Midrash explains that “my feet bring me” means that David would “consider” and “long each day to find the way of God”.
This, says the Sefat Emet, is the meaning of “If you walk in My statutes...“: it is within a person’s capability to decipher “the ways and patterns that God has inscribed into the human soul”. The Midrash derives that the statutes are called “chukkim” (lit.: “inscriptions, engravings”) because they are carved within us, imprinted on our soul, to lead us to God. The Sefat Emet concludes this commentary by noting that when David said “I considered my ways” in the plural, he was always seeking those paths that were uniquely his, and because he invested so much effort, he received Divine help.

In a commentary on Parashat Bechukotai, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/behukkotai/5774/walking-together-god, Rabbi Daniel Nevins notes that the theme of walking recurs several times in the Parasha (the verb to walk occurs three times in the first 10 verses). The opening words “If you walk in God’s statutes” are followed by a description of the blessings that will accrue as a result, and especially that God will walk among the people. It was He, they are reminded, Who freed them from the yoke of Egypt allowing them to walk erect. In the next section, which describes the dire consequences of breaking the covenant, God says that if the people will walk coldly, hostilely with Him, He will walk hostilely with them. Rabbi Nevins wonders what the metaphor of walking in the Torah might signify.
He notes that the Torah is replete with allusions to walking, among them: Enoch is a righteous man who “walked with God and then he was no more, for God took him.” (Bereishit 5:24). Noah is praised for walking with God (Bereishit 6:9). Abraham is the most prodigious walker travelling vast distances, obeying the Divine command to “arise, walk around the land” (Bereishit 13:17) and is further told, “Walk before Me and be blameless” (Bereishit 17:1). God walks ahead of the people in a pillar of cloud (Shemot 13:21) and later, Moses promises that “God walks before you; He will not release you nor will He abandon you,” (Devarim 31:8). King David asks of God, “Show me your paths, that I might walk in your truth” (Psalms 86:11). The people of Israel make a walking pilgrimages to Jerusalem three times annually, and we are adjured in the Shema to speak of God’s teachings “when you sit in your homes and when you walk on the way.”(Devarim 6:7) The prophet Hosea notes that God’s paths are smooth and the righteous can walk on them, while sinners stumble on them. (Hosea 14:10). The prophet Micah is considered to have condensed the essence of the Torah as “walking humbly with your God.”(Micah 6:8)
So Rabbi Nevins asks, “Is it any wonder that Judaism came to associate its method of religious practice with walking? The Rabbis created a normative world known as halakhah (“the walk”), and the Sage Ulla claimed that since the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One has no place in the world except for the four cubits of halakhah (BT Berakhot 8a). This could sound claustrophobic, but unlike the Temple, the halakhah is not enclosed on four sides. It has boundaries, but its origins stretch back to the mythical beginning of time, and its destination remains beyond our imagination. What matters about the Jewish walkway is not endlessly broad, but rather has defined edges that lend it coherence.”
Rabbi Nevins imagines the four cubits of halakhah as the width of the path. He calculates that as a cubit is said to be between 18 and 24 inches long, a four-cubit path would thus be six to eight feet wide. “It is broader than a trail, but narrower than a proper road. It is just right for two people to walk side by side, engaged in an animated conversation as they cross the countryside.”
He continues, “This metaphor of walking and talking is a beautiful way to think of Jewish life. Our religion has seldom emphasized solitary meditation. The image of a monk in a cell staring at a candle and breathing deeply is not immediately recognizable as a Jewish ideal, though there is certainly room for such spiritual practices in our religion. Walking on a path together is a social, dynamic metaphor. And if you imagine, as our portion does, that God is available to join you for a walk, then religious life becomes an adventure.”

In a video commentary on Parashot Behar-Bechukotai, https://www.alephbeta.org/course/lecture/behar-bechukotai-walking-with-god, Rabbi David Fohrman addresses this idea of walking with God. He notices the phrase, “vehithalachti betochechem – and I will walk among you” which expresses God’s promise that He will walk among us if we walk in His statutes. Rabbi Fohrman notes that there is a connection between this parasha and the events that occurred in the Garden of Eden. Rashi comments on the use of the same grammatical conjugation used then as here, when the Torah tells us that Adam and Eve hear the voice of God walking in the garden: “Kol Hashem Elohim mit’halech ba’gan… (Bereishit 3:8).” Adam and Eve have just eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and they hide from God and He calls out to them, “Ayeka – where are you?” (Bereishit 3:9).
Rabbi Fohrman asks why God asks a question to which He obviously knew the answer, and he suggests the answer lies in this week’s Parasha. In Bechukotai, God promises that if we keep His laws He will walk with us, as Rashi continues, quoting from the Midrash, “Atayel imachem beGan Eden – I will stroll with you in the garden of Eden.”
Rabbi Fohrman surmises that the Rabbis discerned the parallels between the garden of Eden story and the promise in Bechukotai, and they are hinting that we are being offered a second chance. He says, “Way back in the original garden things didn’t work out so well, we didn’t really get a chance to stroll with G-d lovingly, with a great sense of togetherness in the garden, instead we were crouching and hiding after having eaten from the forbidden fruit. We heard G-d walking alone in the garden. But it doesn’t have to be that way, G-d doesn’t have to walk alone in the garden, He can walk with us. That’s: Vehit’halachti betochechem – we’ll stroll together in the garden. We have a chance to do it right this time around.”
Rabbi Fohrman continues by exploring this conjugation “hit’halech” which is the reflexive form of the root “halach“. If halach means “he went,” “hit’halech” would mean “He took himself for a walk.” But, he adds, reflexive verbs can also connote some sort of mutual action that two people do together, as in the case of Jacob and Esau in their mother’s uterus, where the Torah tell us, “Vayitrotzetzu habanim bekirbah – the sons struggled with each other within her.” (Bereishit 25:22). In modern Hebrew, Rabbi Fohrman notes, there are examples of this, as in lehitkatev – to correspond, and lehitkasher – to call someone on the phone, two people engaging mutual activity, expressed in the reflexive form.
So in the light of this, Rabbi Fohrman re-examines the episode in the garden, and perceives a hint of tragedy in the words. “Because right before we hear about G-d being Mit’halech in the garden something had gone wrong, the people had eaten from the forbidden fruit and they were hiding from G-d. How do we understand the Hitpa’el? It wasn’t that G-d was taking Himself on a walk, it would seem to imply mutual action, but it wasn’t mutual. When G-d was walking, Adam and Eve were hiding, and that’s the tragedy. It’s like a broken form of Hitpa’el here, it’s like G-d was inviting them, here I am, I’m ready to stroll with you, but where are you, you’re not here? Now we understand the question Ayecha – where are you, weren’t we supposed to be walking now?”
He notes also that there are two Hebrew words for “where”. The usual word is “eifo“. The second word, however, “ayei” is never a simple request for location, but rather when something more is being questioned. In the Akeda, Isaac asks his father, “Here is the firestone, and here is the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Bereishit 22:7) and he uses the word “ayei” for where, and this is understood to mean that the awful suspicion might be dawning on him, that he is intended to be the offering. Rabbi Fohrman cites another example from Psalms, (115:2) in the phrase, “Ayei Elokeihem” – when other nations look at Israel and ask, “Where is their God?” – they are not questioning His physical whereabouts, rather wondering why He seems to have deserted His people, and is not involved with them.
So he concludes, “It’s the same thing back in the garden with the original Ayei. G-d wasn’t saying, where are you, I can’t figure out where you are. No, it was a poignant cry. We were supposed to go walking together. How come you’re not here with Me? It is the original lament in the Torah.” Rabbi Fohrman notes the letters of “Ayecha” as first spelled in the episode in the garden are an anagram of the word “Eicha” – the opening word of the Book of Lamentations. He says, “The tragedy of sin in the garden is the tragedy of Ayei, where did you go? It’s the tragedy of missing a joyful moment of togetherness with G-d, the chance to stroll with Him, a chance – G-d promises – that will be re-created in Israel, where one more time we will have that opportunity, if we can only muster the strength to avoid hiding and to seize the opportunity of companionship with the Divine being offered to us.”

*The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Gur, translated and interpreted by Rabbi Arthur Green.

Behar: Letting go

When you enter the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field…and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest…
You shall count off seven weeks of years — seven times seven years — so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud…you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family…(Vayikra 25:2-4, 8-10)

For six yearly cycles, master the land:
rejoice in the orderly columns of plants;
water and prune and gather the crops.

Yet each seventh year, leave the fields fallow,
and just as the earth’s innate wisdom emerges,
recover the freedom to be who you are.

Ponder the vision of plenty, unfolding,
let go of possessing, of searching for more,
rather reap what is naturally there.

After seven times seven, at the blast of the horn,
return to your birthright and reclaim your home
as you harvest your essence from exile.


Parashat Behar begins by describing the concept of Shmita. The word Shmita itself does not appear in this Parasha although it does in Devarim (15:2). The word Shmita derives from the root lishmot, meaning “to let drop” or “to fall”. In the Shmita (seventh) year, the people were commanded to relinquish debts – the debtor was released from the burden of the debt while the creditor was freed from holding onto it. The land was left fallow, the crops were not tended but could be eaten by all who wished or needed. In the Jubilee year, the Yovel, which is also mandated in this Parasha (Vayikra 25:8-17 and subsequently) land that had been sold to pay a debt reverted to the original owner. This was to prevent polarization of society, precluding condemnation of the poorer class to permanent servitude.

In an article on understanding Shmita by Rabbi Avi Weiss, http://www.jns.org/latest-articles/2014/9/16/the-sabbatical-year-of-shmita-and-spiritually-responding-to-terrorism#.VUqD-Pmqqko=, he posits that the key to understanding Shmita is to reflect upon Shabbat. He cites author and translator Dayan Dr. Isidor Grunfeld, who suggests that Shabbat comes to remind us of God’s mastery over the world: in everyday life we hope our efforts will be successful, but if they are, there is an inherent risk that we might believe our success is due to our own power alone. So, for one day each week, we refrain from our creative endeavors to demonstrate that God is the ultimate Creator, not us. The Sabbatical year parallels this. For six years we work the land. Here again, we could be lulled into believing that any success is ours alone. So, for one year, the land remains fallow: and we are reminded that the earth belongs to God.
Rabbi Weiss quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “For six days, we focus on having more; on Shabbat, we focus on being more — we remember that “to have more is not to be more.” Or perhaps, for six days we are involved in the world of existence, but on Shabbat we are involved in the world of essence — of being at peace, real inner peace.
“So too, for Shmita. For six years we work the land: we engage in the outer world. But in the seventh year we too need a sabbatical, to contemplate the deeper questions of meaning and purpose. As the Torah states: and the Sabbatical year will be “for you/for your sake.” ”

In an article considering what the contemporary spiritual relevance of the mitzvah of Shmita might be, (aside from the aspects pertaining to the land) http://www.jewishspirituality.org/shmita5775/, Rabbi Jonathan Slater regards the Shmita  as a “year of release” and says, “Releasing sounds simple, but it requires intention and practice. In fact, it is quite difficult. The Sages exemplified how difficult letting go is in the midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 1:1) where they argue that those who allow their fields to lie fallow, their vineyards to go untended were similar to angels. In particular, they are “the mighty in strength who fulfill God’s word” (Psalm 103:20). In this light they exclaim, “Have you a mightier person than this?” ”
Rabbi Slater continues, “Letting go of what we perceive to be our possession; letting go of our daily habits of livelihood, professional identity, schedule; letting go of what we rely on to make us feel secure; letting go of the assumption that we are right — this is what release asks of us. It is a courageous act, an expression of inner power. It is very difficult. It is, perhaps, the hardest thing we will ever do, as every letting go is in anticipation of our final release from this life. We — rightly — cling to life, but we become habituated to holding on, even when letting go may be the source of blessing.”

Although the two mitzvot of Shmita and Yovel are intimately linked to an agrarian society, the Rabbis wondered what spiritual relevance they might hold, so we find in Pirkei Avot (12:7) “Exile comes into the world…on account of not keeping the Shmita of the Land.” In an article on Shmita, http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2012/09/16/embracing-the-shmita-cycle-a-new-year-vision/, Yigal Deutscher comments, “The idea of exile goes beyond the simple notion of being disconnected from a particular land. It implies a broken state of being, a broken set of relationships. It implies doubt and disempowerment. It implies isolation and separation…”

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch understands the word “yovel” to derive from the root “to bring”. He says, “[it means] to bring a person to where he is suited to be…”He says “[the] Yovel is the “bringer”, that which brings men and possessions home to the due place and order to which they really belong.”

In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen says, “We are all more than we know. Wholeness is never lost, it is only forgotten. Integrity rarely means that we need to add something to ourselves; it is more an undoing than a doing, a freeing ourselves from beliefs we have about who we are and ways we have been persuaded to “fix” ourselves to know who we genuinely are. Even after many years of seeing, thinking, and living one way, we are able to reach past all that to claim our integrity and live in a way we may never have expected to live. Being with people at such times is like watching them pat their pockets, trying to remember where they have put their soul…Often in reclaiming the freedom to be who we are, we remember some basic human quality, an unsuspected capacity for love or compassion or some other part of our common birthright as human beings. What we find is almost always a surprise but it is also familiar; like something we have put in the back of a drawer long ago, once we see it we know it as our own.”