Archive for Behar

Behar-Bechukotai: Strangers Upon the Land

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar-Bechukotai

“But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me”    (Vayikra/ Leviticus 25:23)

What a gorgeous morning in the Hudson Valley!

It’s the kind of day which evokes a sense of glorious gratitude for the beauty of the earth and all its flora and fauna (maybe ticks not so much). Lucky for us, this feeling, of being privileged to live upon the land, is addressed in this first of this week’s double Torah portions. The portion Behar first teaches the laws of the Sabbatical [shmitta] and Jubilee [yovel] years; the former is a seven year cycle of debt forgiveness and letting the land rest, and the latter is a 50 year cycle of returning land to its ancestral owners and letting servants go free.

The verse above is a theological foundation for these practices: we are tenants rather than owners of the earth. The phrase translated as “strangers resident with Me” is perhaps even more subtle than that: ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi literally means “you are resident aliens and temporary residents with Me.” A ger in Biblical Hebrew is a non-citizen, a non-Israelite, living among the citizens of the land (the contemporary meaning is a convert to Judaism, more on that another time), whereas a toshav can be understood as a temporary settler, somebody passing through, not living somewhere permanently.

This is quite striking: even in the land of Israel the people are to understand themselves as passers-through, not owners but graced with the privilege of temporary residence on the earth. On the one hand, this is all about feeling intense gratitude for the earth and its glory, and on the other, it’s about the humility of knowing that we depend on the land and its blessings, and feel mastery only at our own peril. This has profound implications for environmental ethics but also for personal spirituality, because in a sense we don’t really own anything, just borrow it for a bit. The sense of attachment, of mastery or command over the material world is an illusion: we are ultimately attached to nothing except the Source of our being, as we are ultimately “residents with Me.”

Read this way, the verse teaches us to think of ourselves as rooted in relationships: with God, with the earth, with each other, with ourselves- rather than rooted in the experience of possession of material things. Relationships are truly within our power to create and make part of ourselves; material objects, even the land beneath our feet, is “ours” only the sense of being entrusted to us for a particular time and use before going on to somebody or something else. To put it another way: go to a cemetery, and read the headstones. The inscriptions often name relationships, like father, mother, brother, sister, son, friend, and so on. Sometimes the inscriptions name a role somebody played in society: doctor, soldier, rabbi, teacher, musician, whatever people do to serve and provide.

I’ve never seen a gravestone mention anything about property, cars or clothes, because in the face of death, people know that these things are impermanent and unimportant. Relationships are real and ongoing, in life and after death. Thus we do well to remember that we are all but strangers and passers-through upon the land, ultimately resident with the Source of our blessings, owning nothing but our love and care, given and received from the earth, the heavens and each other.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Comment

Behar: A Radical Experiment

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar-Bechukotai

Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month — the Day of Atonement — 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/ Leviticus 25:9-10)

Greeting from the sunny and beautiful Hudson Valley! It’s been a busy week, to Albany (see the post-script below) to NYC and back over the past few days but we’re still three hours ahead of last week’s commentary.

I almost never use the weekly commentaries to respond to current controversies* but recently a prominent Jewish pundit said something which deserves to be looked at in the light of Torah.  A few weeks ago, shortly after President Obama voiced moral support for same-sex marriage, a great advocate for the Jewish people, Dennis Prager, wrote that  marriage equality is  “the most radical social experiment in modern history”- and let’s be clear, he doesn’t think this is a good thing.

While others have pointed out the absurdity of Prager’s claim regarding “modern history,” I’d rather cast my glance even further back, to the Torah itself, which certainly could not envision marriage equality but contains much more radical social experiments, such as the Yovel  [Jubilee year], described in the verse above from this week’s Torah reading. Every fifty years, indentured servants were set free, debts were forgiven, and land was returned to the families who originally owned it- now, that is a radical social experiment in an ancient world quite comfortable with rigid economic castes and inescapable social hierarchies.

Of course, ancient Israel also had social classes- the priests and the kingship, to name two obvious examples- but the larger point is that the Torah begins to actualize the idea that every person is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image. (Cf Bereshit/Genesis 1.) In this week’s parsha, the law of the Yovel points towards a larger ethical concept: that there should not be permanent classes of rich and poor, and to that end, human dignity may be sometimes more important than property rights.  Again, that’s a far more radical concept even in contemporary times than marriage equality could ever be.

I would even say that although the Torah itself could not envision monogamous, egalitarian same-sex relationships (see more on this here), the Yovel can be interpreted as a step towards a more inclusive concept of human society, one in which all participants are given a more fair chance at productive participation. There are certainly passionate  religious arguments for and against various forms of marriage equality, but it seems to me that a basic teaching of the Bible is that all people matter, a basic teaching which gets expanded over time throughout Jewish thought, and that this larger moral concern affects how we interpret specific verses or traditions.

Properly understood, Judaism, evolving over time and enlarging  its world of ethical concerns, is perhaps the most radical social experiment of them all, because it asks us to live as if we might meet the Divine in any and all people, if we seek to live with openness, justice and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom,


*an assertion to which some will doubtless respond: “what? never?” To which I say: “hardly ever!”

P.S.- Regarding that trip to Albany, you can see my invocation to the NY Senate here, in the first few minutes of the session. Senator Saland has some nice things to say afterwards.

Leave a Comment

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.

Leave a Comment

Behar/Bechukotai: Rewards Within

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar/Bechukotai

This week we have a double Torah portion, Behar/Bechukotai, which means we read the haftarah that goes
with Bechukotai, from the prophet Yirmiyahu, or Jeremiah. Yirmiyahu
was not the most chipper chap running around ancient Israel; much of
his prophecy concerns the doom awaiting sinners, which thematically
corresponds to the section in Bechukotai called the “tochecha,” or
“rebuke,” in which all sort of bad things are enumerated as the fate
of those who spurn the Divine Covenant.

These are problematic texts, to be sure; most of us over the age of
about 8 see that reward and punishment are not always so clear- at
least, not in this world. Yet to me, the the main theme of the
haftarah is not punishment, but faith. A beautiful and famous passage
describes a faithful life as ever-renewing:

“Cursed is he who trusts in man,
Who makes mere flesh his strength,
And turns his thoughts from the Lord.
He shall be like a bush in the desert,
Which does not sense the coming of good:
It is set in the scorched places of the wilderness,
In a barren land without inhabitant.
Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord,
Whose trust is the Lord alone.
He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit. ” (Yirmiyahu 17:5-8)

Now, on the one hand, this is a beautiful metaphor for the spiritual
life: such a person is like tree planted by water, who can withstand
life’s vicissitudes and hard seasons. However, one might question the
first part of the metaphor- the person who trusts “in man, who makes
mere flesh his strength”- well, what’s so bad about trusting people?
Isn’t it good to be part of a web of relationships, which necessarily
involves a positive view of oneself and other people?

I think the first part of the passage above is clarified by comparing
it to another passage a few verses later:

“Like a partridge hatching what she did not lay,
So is one who amasses wealth by unjust means;
In the middle of his life it will leave him,
And in the end he will be proved a fool”

The prophet is saying something obvious (especially these days): if
you orient your life such that your happiness and security comes from
material gain to the exclusion of moral and spiritual connection,
you’re likely to end up unhappy, because external things- objects,
money, status- can be lost or taken. (Again, an obvious point these

Returning to the first passage, recall that the one who “trust in man”
is one who “makes mere flesh his strength”- that is, such a person
relies on temporary, external things, like physical strength, status
and materiality, and this is why he is like the tree in the desert-
there’s nothing to fall back on when the stock market crashes or the
body declines or whatever external circumstances change. The person
who “trusts in the Lord alone” is not a hermit, but one who knows that
one’s spiritual accomplishments- giving, loving, doing good, helping
others, acting in compassion- can only be practiced in community and
can never be taken away. Such a person lives more deeply because of
the spiritual dimension of their life- that depth is its own reward,
and is cultivated from within rather than given from above.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Comment

Behar: Honest Words

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Behar, which deals with
land, servants and money- always interesting topics. Many of the laws
in Behar only apply in the land of Israel but there is one law which
clearly articulates a permanent ethic of honest business dealings:

” When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your
neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. . . . Do not wrong one
another, but fear your God; for I the Lord am your God.” (Vayikra/
Leviticus 25:14 & 17)

The ancient rabbis interpreted the “wronging” of each other that could
occur during buying and selling to refer to various forms of verbal
deception, including overstating an item’s worth by more than
one-sixth or asking about prices with no intention of buying [thus
deceiving the seller.] The sages also included verbal harassment,
dishonesty or manipulation in their interpretation of these verses.

The general idea here is that people have a right to make an honest
living buying and selling legitimately acquired property, but they
should not do so using tactics which would cause anger, conflict or
wasting another person’s time. We might think that one should be free
to charge whatever one likes for an item- after all, it’s a “free
market”- but there are always inequalities of information which give
one party an advantage, which the ancient rabbis direct us not to
exploit. (Just ask yourself how you feel after someone has taken
advantage of you. How could a compassionate person do that to someone

Furthermore, the phenomenon of “deception with words” is quite real in
the Internet age, wherein it’s easy to look at products in a local
store and then buy them cheaper online. I personally know of several
small business owners who have given up their specialty shops because
of this- and I’m sure I’ve done it myself. The point is not that we
shouldn’t “comparison shop,” the point is that if you <know> you’re
not going to buy something, then it’s a deceptive act to inquire about
it, because the seller thinks a sale could happen.

These are just two examples of the Torah’s ethic of honesty and
integrity as applied to all aspects of our lives; we can’t be pious in
shul and sharks in the market. I’d say it’s precisely in those areas
where it’s most tempting to cut corners that Jewish law provides the
most guidance; money flows in and out of our hands and every day we
must consider how we act in financial transactions.

On a deeper level, honesty and integrity in business come from
striving to see each person as made in the image of God, and thus
possessing rights and dignity. It’s a mitzvah to be honest in
financial matters because there’s always another human soul on the
other end of the transaction. In any exchange, a relationship is
formed, however brief, which can be one which builds bonds of trust
and community or which degrades the dignity of both parties- and
relationships, after all, are what makes us most truly human.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Comment

Behar/Bechukotai: Roots and Fruit

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar/Bechukotai

Dear Friends: The following thought grew out of a eulogy I gave
yesterday for a long-time member of Temple Beth-El, whose life was
both interesting and inspiring. I have adapted the interpretation of
the verses below for our weekly study together, but those folks in
Poughkeepsie who think they’re hearing something familar are indeed
paying attention.

With that said, let’s turn not to our Torah portion, Behar/Bechukotai,
but the haftarah, or prophetic reading, which comes from the book of
Jeremiah, who was a prophet who lived sometime around the late 7th or
early 6th century BCE. In this part of the book of Jeremiah, the
prophet uses a variety of metaphors, symbols and images to contrast a
person who is faithful to God to one who has strayed from the religion
of Israel. Over and over again, the prophet tells of the blessings of
the loyal Israelite and the futility of the idol worshipper, whose
choice is not only mistaken theologically, but leads to spiritual

One of the homiletic images Jeremiah employs is that of a tree planted
by streams of water, which is contrasted in earlier verses with a
dried-up bush in the desert:

Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord,
Whose trust is the Lord alone.
He shall be like a tree planted by waters,
Sending forth its roots by a stream:
It does not sense the coming of heat,
Its leaves are ever fresh;
It has no care in a year of drought,
It does not cease to yield fruit. (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

Verse 7 may be familiar to those who recite the birkat hamazon, or
blessing after the meal, in which it is quoted. In its own context,
the meaning of the image is clear: the one who trusts, or has faith
in, the God of Israel will be sustained in hard times and better able
to “blossom” in good times than one who worships false gods, who
cannot help a person through times of suffering or achieve any sort of
real spiritual growth.

One reason I find this image powerful and evocative is because it
portrays a rich human life as one that both “takes in” and “brings
forth”- the image of roots is one of drawing from inner resources and
the image of yielding fruit, to me, suggests the acts of caring and
love which we are able to offer in the world. A healthy tree can’t
“yield fruit” if it doesn’t have roots- that is, a person cannot
consistently offer of him or herself without some spiritual resources
to draw upon when times get tough or inner strength gets depleted.

For the prophet, the inner resource was faith in God, but I don’t
think this meant only an intellectual faith- I think it also meant
living one’s life in faithful ways, even when – returning to our image
and updating it with a modern idiom- the “heat was on.” To put it
another way, the prophet’s image of the tree compels each of us to
ask: upon what source of spiritual strength or moral courage do we
draw upon when we feel “dried up” (o, in a modern idiom that retains
the same resonance, “burned out”) ?

Jeremiah suggests that each of us needs “roots”- that is, an inner
life of connection to the sacred and faith in spiritual principles- in
order to “yield fruit”- that is, live a life of deeds which offer
sustenance to others and bring sweetness to the world. Roots without
fruit are meaningless, and a tree which blooms and blossoms without
roots isn’t going to last very long- this is the reason that Judaism
teaches that learning is a life-long practice, with growth achieved
over the arc of a lifetime, with wisdom and deeds balancing and
reinforcing each other.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Comment

Behar/ Shavuot: Torah of the Land

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar and Shavuot

Dear Friends:

The following article will appear next week in the e-bulletin of the Coalition
for the
Environment and Jewish Life, but it’s directly relevant to this week’s portion,
Behar. Enjoy!

Jewish environmental thinking brings together strands of traditional
Jewish theology and key points of contemporary environmentalism; among
those strands is the recognition that we have to move from thinking of
the Earth as a mere resource for human benefit to something that is
fundamentally not “ours,” to do with as we please. Some call this the
ethic of stewardship, drawing a distinction between a steward and a
master: the steward recognizes that he is not the owner, but one
appointed to guard and protect something precious. Stewardship implies
humility, thoughtfulness, and self-control, which any environmental
thinker would agree are qualities that our society needs to rebalance
its relationship with the Earth we live on.

In Jewish thought, the Earth belongs to God, as stated succinctly in
the Torah portion Behar:

” But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine;
you are but strangers resident with Me.” (Leviticus 25:23)

In Behar, the context for this theology of the Earth is the cycle of
“shmittah,” or sabbatical years, in which the land lies fallow and
debts are forgiven. The sabbatical year is a powerful symbol of living
humbly upon the land, but it’s not the only place in the Torah that
this idea appears. With that in mind, let’s turn to the cycle of
spring holidays, beginning with Passover and ending with Shavuot, the
“Feast of Weeks.”

In the Torah portion Emor, we are told that in the early springtime,
we are to bring the “first sheaf of the harvest” to the priest, who
will “elevate” or “wave” the sheaf before God, which then releases, as
it were, the rest of the crop for human use. (Cf. Leviticus 23: 9-13.)
Then we count off seven weeks of the “omer,” or bundle of barley
stalks, until we get to the holiday 0f the “first fruits” of summer,
which we now call Shavuot.

On Shavuot, there is another “elevation” ritual, in which the priest
waved the agricultural offerings on the altar of the Temple. On this
holy day, the offering is not just raw stalks of barley, but loaves of
bread, along with animals:

“The priest shall elevate these — the two lambs — together with the
bread of first fruits as an elevation offering before the Lord; they
shall be holy to the Lord, for the priest. On that same day you shall
hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you . . .”
(Leviticus 23:20-21)

For Rashi and other traditional commentators, the “waving” of the
agricultural offerings is to assure God’s favor and avoid destructive
winds and rains; just as the barley stalks or loaves of bread are
waved up and down, back and forth, the winds and rains which sweep
over the land should only be for blessing, and not destruction. Now,
this might seem like a kind of magic, or a pre-modern theology which
draws a direct connection between our rituals and the weather, but
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of German Orthodoxy in the
late 1800’s, sees the “waving” as symbolic of the idea we discussed
earlier- that the Land and its blessing belongs to God alone:

“Referring to this “waving,” it says in the Talmud (Menachot 62a):
that thereby injurious winds and damaging downfalls [lit: “dews”] are
kept away from the seeds and fruit. The blessing of the fields of the
Land of Israel is not dependent soley on physical influences. The
physical prosperity of the soil itself is dependent on the unselfish
renunciation of its products, and devoting them to the purposes of a
God-serving life as directed by [God’s] Torah. ” (Hirsch, Commentary
on the Torah)

For Hirsch, the Land is prosperous when the people of Israel recognize
that our tenancy upon the Earth is for the purpose of fulfilling God’s
commandments, and any blessing that the Land produces is only part of
this greater scheme. Yet I think there is a more universal message in
his words: the vitality of the Earth, anywhere, is indeed dependent on
humankind becoming “unselfish.” We must learn to feel that we are but
stewards for future generations, who depend on our unselfishness
regarding a planet already overtaxed with resource extraction and

The rabbis of the Talmud saw the wave- offerings of Passover and
Shavuot as being linked to the winds and rain; this idea is not so
far-fetched when one considers the effect that global warming has on
weather patterns across the planet. If we learn to see the Earth as
the Lord’s, perhaps we can live more humbly upon it, in a relationship
of blessing and sustainability. The symbols and rituals of the holy
days are times of reflection upon this relationship between people,
God, and Earth. Our ancestors lifted up the blessings of the Land in
order to thank the One who blessed them; we too must lift up the Earth
itself, from being inert resources to that which we hold most dear, as
stewards and guardians, for God, for ourselves, for all other species,
and for all future generations.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- the usual links:

Leave a Comment

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.
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
indentured workers which seem ethically problematic, but that’s a discussion for

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
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
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

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
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
without becoming ostentatious about it? How do we let Jewish ritual take us to
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.

Leave a Comment

Behar/Bechukotai 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar/Bechukotai

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1- 27:34)


The Torah portion Behar has two main themes: the Sabbath of the Land, and rules for a moral social structure. The Sabbath of the Land, called shmitta, occurs once every seven years; the land lies fallow as an acknowledgment of God as the Creator. Every seven cycles of seven years, there is a “Jubilee” year, called yovel, in which slaves go free, certain debts are canceled, and land returns to its original titleholders. Further laws are given pertaining to debts and property: one must help people avoid debt-servitude, and one must help people to avoid losing their property. Interest and oppressive financial practices are prohibited. The parsha ends with a general reminder to keep God’s laws, especially the Sabbath and the prohibition on idolatry.


“If your brother falls low, and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him- sojourner or resident- and he will live with you. Do not take from him interest and increase-you shall revere your God, and your brother shall live with you. Do not give your silver for interest nor your food for increase.” (Leviticus 25:35-37)


In addition to the positive commandment of supporting those who fall into poverty or hard times, there is a prohibition on loaning money or capital on with interest. The basic intent of the Torah seems to be directed against “loan-sharks,” people who would take advantage of another’s economic troubles and profit from them. Exodus 22:24 and Deuteronomy 15:3 both prohibit creditors from harassing or pressing poor debtors for payment, so it would make sense that this verse too is primarily a prohibition against profiting from someone else’s poverty.


Last year, we discussed at length the first part of this passage, the positive commandment to support those who find themselves in trouble. Focussing on verse 36, we find that the rabbis understood this verse to be part of a general prohibition against charging simple interest as the condition for making a loan of either money or capital. There is an immense amount of halachic literature dealing with this subject- after all, financial regulations tend to be complex in any society- and over the course of history, certain legal loopholes evolved in response to the need for credit in an advanced economy.

Aside from the financial technicalities of defining permitted transactions, the words for “interest and increase” have themselves been the subject of some debate. We have rendered the Hebrew word neshech as “interest” and tarbit as “increase.” Rashi understood these two words to be synonymous, and “doubled up” so that a violator would be liable for two separate prohibitions. (!) On the other hand, the Torah itself uses one for money transactions and one for material capital, so maybe that’s the intended distinction.

In terms of basic definitions, tarbit comes from the word to increase or make larger, so it’s easy to understand that the lender’s wealth or share will “grow” with the additional payments he demands. Neshech, on the other hand, is a more obscure word; most commentators relate it to the word neshichah, “biting,” perhaps with the idea that interest takes a “bite” out of the borrower’s finances.

A novel way to understand the image of “biting” comes from the Hasidic teacher R. Moshe of Kobrin:

    Do not give your silver for interest. . . . this is the continuation of the previous verse, which tells us that “your brother shall live with you,” a reference to the need to give tzedakah. The word for interest used here is neshech, which is related to the word neshichah, which means “biting.” When you give tzedakah to a poor person, do not use the opportunity to “bite” him by reprimanding him and telling him to mend his ways. Instead, give the tzedakah cheerfully.

R. Moshe’s words as applicable today as they were in his day: all too often, the poor are regarded as morally unworthy, or in need of correction before assistance. Of course there is a need for training programs and job assistance and the like, but Judaism calls for preserving the dignity of the poor as much as possible. People who need assistance are in an unequal power relationship with the assister. Just as the Torah warns us not to take financial advantage of that inequality, neither are we to take moral advantage, putting ourselves in the position of judging someone else’s worthiness as a person. There’s a idiom which says “don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” but the Torah turns it around, saying: “don’t bite the one that you’re feeding.”

Leave a Comment

Behar 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Behar

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.


The Torah portion Behar has two main themes: the Sabbath of the Land, and ethical balances to free-market dangers. The Sabbath of the Land, called shmitta, occurs once every seven years; the land lies fallow as an acknowledgment of God as the Creator. Every seven cycles of seven years, there is a “Jubilee” year, called yovel, in which slaves go free, certain debts are canceled, and land returns to its original titleholders. Further laws are given pertaining to debts and property: one must help people avoid debt-servitude, and one must help people to avoid losing their property. Interest and oppressive financial practices are prohibited. The parasha ends with a general reminder to keep God’s laws, especially the Sabbath and the prohibition on idolatry.


“If your brother falls low, and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him- sojourner or resident- and he will live with you.” (Leviticus 25:35)


If you see someone falling into poverty or getting into trouble, you must help them, even to the extent of taking them into your home. The commandment starts with the terminology of “your brother,” (i.e., a fellow Israelite, or perhaps someone from your tribe or clan) but in the end seems to imply that we must help any person in trouble, Jew or non-Jew.


Terse and idiomatic, it’s not clear from our verse what situation the Torah is addressing: is this a case of indebtedness, as would seem logical from the surrounding verses? If so, is it specifically directed at the creditors, exhorting them to be judicious and merciful with their financial power? Or is it a more general commandment to the Israelites, encompassing any kind of trouble or “falling low” that might happen to a person?

Let’s begin by comparing several translations and seeing how the translation itself is an interpretation:

Jewish Publication Society

“If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side. . . . ”

Reading this, one would think that the verse is directed to creditors; they must not treat “kinsmen” as if they were non-Jews by evicting them or seizing their property, because “one who mortgaged his land or sold it to another became, in a real sense, a tenant on his own land.” Alternatively, one must not turn a “kinsman” into a “resident alien” by evicting them; one must be compassionate and find a way to keep the poor “by your side” and in the community.

The Orthodox Artscroll translation and commentary sees the commandment to help in more general terms, but agrees with JPS that the point is to help people maintain their status as productive members of the community:

“If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him- proselyte or resident- so that he can live with you.” (Emphasis added.)

Everett Fox, in The Schocken Bible, translates the verse in a way that implies that we must extend assistance to “our brother,” the sojourner, and the resident-settler equally:

“Now when your brother sinks down (in poverty), and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him (as though) a sojourner and a resident-settler, and he is to live beside you.”

This translation seems to turn around the potential ethnocentrism of the verse: just as you would help a sojourner in need, you also need to help the person close to you. It’s fascinating to think that the imperative of helping someone within one’s community might be derived from the classic idea of welcoming the stranger, and not vice versa.

The idea that this verse teaches equality in social ethics is made explicit by Aryeh Kaplan, in his Living Bible, an interpretive translation according to traditional Jewish sources:

“When your brother becomes impoverished and loses the ability to support himself in the community, you must come to his aid. Help him survive, whether he is a proselyte or a native Israelite.

On the other hand, the New Revised Standard Version, a reliable and scholarly but not Jewish translation of the Bible, renders our verse with a somewhat different twist:

“And if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him; as a stranger and a sojourner he shall live with you.

This is almost the opposite of the JPS translation; the interpretation here is that the consequences of becoming so poor that one needs social assistance is that one becomes like a “stranger and a sojourner,” rather than keeping one’s full status in the community.

One might be tempted to argue that a Christian translation could be biased towards seeing the Torah laws as harsh and punitive, while the Jewish translations, based as they often are on traditional Torah commentary, are more oriented towards finding the maximum charity and compassion in our verse. However, at least one Jewish translation, the old Soncino Chumash, renders the verse with the same meaning as the NRSV:

“And if thy brother be waxen poor, and his means fail with thee, then thou shalt uphold him; as a stranger and a settler shall he live with thee.”

The commentators and translators disagree about the extent of our obligation to help those in need: do we give special consideration to the members of our community, or do we help all equally? ( Which might spread out our resources quite thinly.) Is there an inevitable social consequence to poverty, or must we find a way to keep the poor and the well-off on exactly the same social level?

These are questions with parallels in contemporary political debates across North America. Yet all the commentators agree that willingness to reach out to a person in need is a basic religious value, and that economic power brings with it the responsibility to act justly. In fact, the Chafetz Chaim, paraphrasing an earlier midrash, says that in the World to Come, one will be questioned about all the observances that one kept or didn’t keep, but it will be a “great and terrible thing” when they ask if one kept the mitzvah of “strengthening one’s brother.” He continues by reminding us that there will come a moment in everyone’s life when a poor person, or a troubled person, or a desperate person, will come to you for help- at that moment, you have a choice, to help or not, to fulfill this basic mitzvah or to turn your back, to “strengthen your brother” (or sister) or to “let his hand falter besides you.”

Leave a Comment