Behar-Bechukotai : Call to Freedom

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Behar-Bechukotai

Behar-Bechukotai is a double portion which concludes the book of Vayikra/Leviticus. Behar begins with the Shmitta, or Sabbatical year, and includes laws of helping others and debt repayment. Bechukotai is difficult; it contains a long series of blessings and curses related to covenant.

Shalom one and all!

We’re delighted to be working on this week’s drasha before the “OMG it’s almost Shabbat” timezone- let’s hope this trend continues !

Continuing with our exploration of the connections between the Torah portion and our various prayer services, this week we note that the practice of blowing the shofar is linked to the Yovel or Jubilee year, in which servants are released, debts are forgiven and land is returned to its original owners:

“Then you shall sound the shofar loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month — the Day of Atonement — you shall have the shofar sounded throughout your land  and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. . . ” (Vayikra 25:9-10)

Now, most readers of this commentary know that the shofar is associated with Rosh Hashanah , but actually, the Torah doesn’t tell us directly to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Rather, the Torah (in Vayikra 23:24) speaks only of teruah, the “sounding,” on Rosh Hashanah. The ancient rabbis note that in the verse above, teruah and shofar show up in the same verse, and they thus deduce that since the Yovel proclamation has a shofar on Yom Kippur, all the “soundings” of the month must be the same, so we must blow a shofar on Rosh Hashanah, too.

So when we hear the shofar on the New Year, one association is Yovel, the year of freedom, equality, and justice. One commentary links teruah with re’ut, or friendship, implying that in the Yovel year, all the social tension caused by economic struggles is relieved when society “resets” itself by forgiving debts and letting servants go free.* Freedom was proclaimed for servant and master alike (“all of its inhabitants”), reminding us that we can be enslaved by our possessions, and true freedom requires putting material desires into the context of an ethical and compassionate life.

That’s why the linking of teruah– shofar sounding- and re’ut, friendship- is so profound. It reminds us that what sets us free is focusing on people, not on objects; we can never be fully free to become loving friends if we are oriented more towards ownership of things than service to others. When we sound the shofar for the new year- and, as many synagogues do, every Rosh Hodesh, or new moon- we challenge ourselves to be released from relationships constrained by the illusion of ownership and control. Getting more stuff doesn’t make us more free; being a better friend and more loving human being is our true calling.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- This is cool. My friend Rabbi Eli Garfinkel made an iPod/ iPad application for learning Torah trope. Check it out.

* Quoted in Y. Nachshoni, Studies in the Weekly Parashah.

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