Ohr Torah on Behar and Bechukotai

Torah lights from Efrat in the Judean Hills, as the Diaspora catches up with Israel - as far as reading the parsha is concerned.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin


Behar: “And you shall count for yourselves seven cycles of Sabbatical years , seven years, seven times… forty-nine years… you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants; it shall be the Jubilee year for you.” (Leviticus 25:8-10)

This commandment to count seven cycles of Sabbatical years leading up to the 50th Jubilee year of proclaiming freedom throughout the land, is clearly reminiscent of the biblical commands we read last week (Parshat Emor): “Count for yourselves [from the day of your bringing the barley ‘omer wave offering] seven complete weeks… you shall count fifty days…” from the day after our exodus from Egypt until the Festival of the first fruits (bikkurim), the festival commemorating the Revelation of God’s Torah at Sinai (Lev. 23:15-17).

What is the significance of this striking parallelism between the counting of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot and the counting of the seven sabbatical years leading up to the Jubilee year? What is the true message behind the daily count of sefirat ha’omer, the period which we are currently marking?

There are three words which express the concept of freedom: hofeshdror and herutHofesh appears in the Book of Exodus (21:2) in the context of the Hebrew slave leaving the homestead of his owner; at the end of his sixth year of employ he becomes (hofshi hinam), “completely free,” without any obligation whatsoever to his former master.

The second word, dror, has just been cited in our present reading of Behar, in which “freedom” (dror) is to be proclaimed throughout the land on the advent of the Jubilee year.

But the Festival of Passover, which celebrates our exodus from Egyptian servitude, is referred to by our Sages as zman herutenu, the time of our herut – a non-biblical word with Aramaic roots that connotes freedom. Why do our Sages pass over the two biblical Hebrew words hofesh and dror in describing our Festival of Freedom in favor of herut?

In his illuminating study Escape from Freedom, the philosopher and political theorist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) distinguishes between freedom fromsomething and freedom for something. The former—the mere ridding oneself of duties and obligations—will, at best, produce a monotonous existence of boredom, aimlessness, and sometimes even depression; at worst, it will lead to alcohol and drug addiction, wild licentiousness and even criminal acts of depravity.  Many societies would rather succumb to a totalitarian regime of enslavement rather than risk the challenges of the responsibility of freedom.

It is from this vantage point that Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), author of From Death-Camp to Existentialism and founder of the branch of psychoanalysis which he calls “logotherapy,” insists that the most essential human drive is not a search for pleasure, as Freud would maintain, or a search for power, as Adler and Jung suggest. Rather, it is the search for meaning, the human need to carve out a life of significance and worthwhile purpose. Freedom from enslavement must be linked indelibly with the belief of the individual that he/she is empowered to forge for him/herself a life dedicated to an important goal and purpose.

Hence, our Bible begins with the creation of the world, positing that every human being is created “in the image of God,” with a portion of the Lord on High within the very essence of his/her being,” so that he/she becomes commanded (and thereby empowered) to “develop the earth and preserve it,” to “perfect the imperfect world in the Kingship of the Divine” (Gen. 1:27; 2:7, 15 and the Aleinu prayer).

By reliving God’s primordial week of creation during our human weekly cycle of “working the world” for six days and resting in God’s presence on the seventh, we hopefully rekindle our task to perfect the world as God’s partners every single week! And hofesh is our freedom of choice not to do whatever we wish but rather to choose good over evil, God over Satan, creation over destruction.
Hence the word dror is used to express the period of human perfection, redemption (ge’ula), described in our Jubilee year, when all slaves will be freed, when everyone’s land will provide sufficient produce for all, when all debts will be rescinded, when everyone will be returned to their ancestral homestead, when all the needy of the world will be sustained by their communities. Dror is the purpose for which Israel and humanity was created; the society and world which Israel and humanity must recreate.

Our Sages refer to the time of our liberation from Egyptian enslavement as herut, which derives from the Hebrew ahrayut, responsibility: the responsibility of freedom for, the responsibility of accepting the formidable task of partnership with the Divine, the responsibility of protecting our brothers (ahim), the responsibility of protecting every stranger (aher) who is also our brother under God, the responsibility of going first and saying “aharai” (after me), and the responsibility of bringing the world to its aharit hayamim, the final stage of redemption, the Messianic Age.

And so, as soon as we became free, we started to count; only for a free person does every day count, only for a free person is every day fraught with infinite possibilities of productivity and meaning. We count until we receive our Torah, which is our blueprint for the creation of a perfected world.

Bechukotai:“And I shall remember My Covenant with Jacob and also My Covenant with Isaac and also My Covenant with Abraham shall I remember, and the Land shall I remember…. But despite all this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I shall neither hate them nor despise them to destroy them, to abrogate My Covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God” (Leviticus 26:42-44). 

Our Torah never promised us a rose garden; the sacred Scriptures mince no words in describing the excruciating persecutions and punishments which will pursue us if – or rather, when – we fail to heed its exhortations, as we see in this week’s reading.

We can only identify with Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the dairyman, who, when confronted with the order of expulsion of the Jews from the town of Anatevka, looks heavenwards and cynically decries, “I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

And to add insult to injury, in addition to this chapter of curses (tochehot) in Leviticus, there is an additional and much longer litany of imprecations in Deuteronomy (chapter 28, verses 15-68). Moreover, whereas the Leviticus tocheha provides a silver lining to the cloud guaranteeing that God will remember His Patriarchal Covenants as well as His patrimonial land and will never completely destroy us as a people by abrogating His Covenant with us, such a “happy ending” does not appear in the Deuteronomy tocheha.

Why two chapters of such horrific imprecations and why is our Leviticus chapter mitigated by a promise of Divine remembrance and redemption while the Deuteronomy chapter has no such respite?

The great biblical commentator Nahmanides (1194 – 1270) suggests that the first set of curses refers to the destruction of the First Temple and its aftermath of Babylonian captivity (685 to 516 BCE), whereas the second set of curses refers to the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the subsequent scattering of the Jewish Exile throughout the world.

My revered teacher and mentor Rav J.B. Soloveitchik explains that the first destruction led to a forced exile to Babylon for only 50 years in duration, with the restoration of the Second Temple in Jerusalem barely 20 years later.

No wonder the Bible mentions God’s remembrance of the Covenant and His refusal to completely destroy His nation within the very context of the first destruction. Rabbi Soloveitchik goes on to say that the second destruction in Deuteronomy also has a promise of restoration, but it comes two chapters after the tocheha with an extremely important rider attached to it:

“It will be when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you, that you shall return to your heart from amongst all of the nations to which the Lord your God has scattered you” (Deut. 30:1).

The restoration after the second destruction is dependent upon Israel’s repentance!

The first destruction was at an early juncture of Jewish history when we were still enamored with idolatry and before we had really developed our oral law. God was still taking responsibility for us, almost like He took responsibility for us in taking us out of the Egyptian exile. Here too, God remembers His Covenant, and God guarantees that He will step into history to ensure that we will never be destroyed as a people.

After the second destruction, however, God expects much more from us, His partners in history. He will not effectuate our return single-handedly; He expects us to be the initiators. He expects us to return first to the Land of Israel from our many lands of dispersion and then to the Torah of Israel (Deuteronomy 30:1–3). Once we initiate our own purification, then the Almighty will complete the process.

This second restoration will be much longer in the coming than the first was, and so it is in Deuteronomy. It comes two chapters after the imprecations. It assumes that we will take a leadership position among the nations, “exalted above all the nations in fame, in renown and in glory… a holy people to the Lord…” (Deuteronomy 26:19) to bring the entire nation to repentance in the realization of one God of peace, compassionate morality and justice. This Covenant will then include the entire nation, “Those standing with us before the Lord our God and those not with us this day before the Lord our God.”

This third Covenant also written on stones from the Jordan River with words of universal morality speaking to the generic human being (ish, rather than ivri oryehudi) and translated into the 70 languages of the proverbial 70 nations.

Hence this covenant will enable all of the wicked of the earth to return to God, to accept the yoke of the Heavenly Kingship and to perfect the world in the Kingship of the Divine (Alenu Prayer). We anxiously await the fulfillment of this Covenant, the beginning of which we are experiencing today in Israel reborn!


Shabbat Shalom