Behar: Stones Below, Heaven Above

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar

Shalom Friends!

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, is often read with the following portion,
Behukotai, but
this year stands on its own. Behar begins with the laws of the Sabbatical and
Jubilee years,
and then lays out a system of laws regulating land sales due to poverty or need.
Similarly,
a person who in desperation has to sell themselves into servitude must be
treated with
dignity and respect. There are also distinctions made between Israelite and
non-Israelite
indentured workers which seem ethically problematic, but that’s a discussion for
another
day.

At the very end of the Torah portion, after a long set of laws dealing with
employment and
servitude, there is general injunction against idolatry, which has an
interesting
architectural detail attached to it:

“You shall not make idols for yourselves, nor shall you set up a statue or a
monument for
yourselves. And in your land you shall not place a pavement stone on which to
prostrate
yourselves. . . ” (Vayikra/ Leviticus 26:1)

OK, no idolatrous statues, that’s pretty clear, but what are these “pavement
stones” we’re
not supposed to put down?

Our teacher Rashi says that these pavement stones were a flat covering on the
ground, a
kind of stone floor. Rashi also asks why we’re not supposed to “prostrate”
ourselves on a
stone floor – wouldn’t such an act be a way of humbling ourselves before Heaven?

Answering his own question (as rabbis like to do), Rashi says that stretching
out on a
stone floor, even as worship, is prohibited outside the central Temple of
Jerusalem, where
“prostration” was part of the worship. This answer can be compared to other
aspects of
rabbinic (i.e., our) Judaism which distinguish between the worship of the
ancient Temple
and contemporary practice. For example, there is a teaching not to put roasted
meat on
the table at a Passover seder, so as not to confuse people into thinking it’s
really the
Passover sacrifice, which we don’t do anymore without the ancient priesthood and
Temple.

On the other hand- wouldn’t laying oneself out on a stone floor be a powerful
way to show
one’s humility and internal orientation towards Heaven?

Yes, and maybe that’s the reason we’re not supposed to do it on our own. Most
people
want to be thought of as good people, as people of character and proper values-
so there
is always a danger that legitimate spiritual practices will be done as a public
display, as a
way to show off one’s piety and goodness. So perhaps the Torah knows that if
people were
laying themselves out on stone floors, evoking the rituals of humility and
devotion in the
Temple, it could become a shallow act, done for show and not for spiritual
growth. To put
it another way, grand acts of showing one’s humility could become another source
of pride
and self-aggrandizement, which is precisely not the intent of the ritual.

Here’s the paradox, as I see it: sometimes public rituals (like, for example,
bowing down to
the floor on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or wearing a beautiful tallit during
prayer, or
creating a sense of sacred time on Shabbat and the holidays) really help a
person achieve a
sense of awe and transcendence and spirituality. Yet human beings are naturally
competitive, so it’s also true that being “observant” (understood broadly) in
public can
create a temptation to show off, to be proudly humble, as it were.

So although I have no immediate plans to put a stone floor for worship in my
backyard, the
challenge remains: how does one nurture an internal orientation towards God and
Torah
without becoming ostentatious about it? How do we let Jewish ritual take us to
great
heights of spiritual experience without letting pride or ego get in the way?
Ritual practice
is essential to a rich Jewish spiritual life, yet even bowing before God can
become an idol
without introspection about one’s true motivation.

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