The Covenant of the Written Law
Behar and Bechukotai are written in the Torah at the end of the book of Vayikra. This is surprising, since they were already taught to Moshe when he was on Har Sinai (see Vayikra 25:1, 26:46). An explanation of the Torah's placement of these Parshiyot can be suggested by examining the nature of the two covenants Moshe made with the people of Israel on Har Sinai (Shmot 24).
The first covenant Moshe made on Har Sinai was the Oral Law Covenant. The goal of this covenant was for Israel to accept the binding authority of the Oral Law. The Oral Law dictates the way one should practice the mitzvot. To demonstrate the Oral Law's authority regarding mitzvot, Moshe (orally) recited the mitzvot of the Ten Commandments and Parashat Mishpatim to the people. Fittingly, the people accepted the authority of the Oral Law to instruct Israel how to observe the mitzvot with the phrase "We will do!" (Shmot 24:3).
The second covenant Moshe made on Har Sinai was the Written Law Covenant. The goal of this covenant was for the people to recognize the vital role the Written Law has for the nation's wellbeing. The Written Law, in addition of being the source of the mitzvot, reveals that Israel was chosen to teach the world about God and goodness. To demonstrate these aspects of the Written Law to the people, Moshe wrote down and read to them a sample of the Written Law from the "Book of the Covenant" (Shmot 24:7). The contents of this book were the Parshiyot Behar and Bechukotai.
Behar and Bechukotai were chosen to show the significance of the Written Law to the people. The laws of Behar, even more than having practical applications, serve to inspire mankind through the promotion of equality (Shmita), social justice (Yovel), and kindness (redeeming the poor from poverty and slavery). Parshat Bechukotai graphically shows the great responsibility the people of Israel have to keep Hashem's mitzvot.
In addition, it concludes with the uplifting promise that Hashem will never forget his "covenant" (Vayikra 26:42-45), a word repeated seven times in this Parsha (Vayikra 26:9,15,42,44,45).
Fittingly, the people of Israel agreed to accept the Written Law with the words "We will do (na'aseh) and we will listen (nishma)", demonstrating that they accepted the conditions of the covenant, as written in Bechukotai: "If you follow My laws and faithfully observe (va'asitem) My commandments…I will maintain my covenant with you…But if you do not obey (tishme'u) Me and do not heed (ta'asu) all these commandments…to break my covenant…I in turn will do this to you…" (Vayikra 26:3, 9, 14-16).
The Torah transferred Behar and Bechukotai from Har Sinai to a different position in order to publicize the covenant. The new location of these Parshiyot is in the center of the four books of the Torah that contain mitzvot. Now, the words of Hashem through which Israel accepted the covenant stand proudly in the heart of the Written Law.
The Big Picture
In the middle of the 19th century, south-central Poland suffered from a wheat shortage. A group of Radomsker chassidim invested heavily in grain, even borrowing money against their homes for the opportunity. But after they were fully invested, large shipments of grain arrived. The price sank; they were impoverished.
The group approached Rabbi Shlomo haKohen, Rebbe of Radomsk, and pleaded, “Have mercy on us! Daven to Hashem for the price of wheat to recover, or we’ll lose everything!”
The Rebbe of Radomsk replied, “I’m sorry, but we don’t daven for Hashem to raise the price of food. We don’t ask Hashem to stop sending His kindness!”
To which the hassidim complained, “But we’ll have nothing, what will happen to us?”
And the Rebbe responded, “Don’t worry. The One who took care of the poor when grain was expensive, will take care of you now when grain is cheap.” (Otzar Chaim, Parshat Behar)
The message of the Rebbe of Radomsk is clear: Look at the big picture; evaluate good and bad by the experience of the community as a whole.
The complaint of these hassidim appears in our parshah, as part of the challenge of observing the laws of Shemitah. The Torah instructs us: Refrain from planting in the seventh year, and abandon the wild produce for the needy rather than fence it in and harvest it. The Torah then plays mindreader, entering the mind of the landowner and giving voice to two questions: “But what will I eat in the seventh year? I won’t be able to plant, I won’t be able to harvest!” (Vayikra 25:20)
“I won’t be able to plant” is an obvious challenge; if we cannot plant, what can grow? But then “I won’t be able to harvest” highlights a second challenge: not only must we risk privation, but we must also throw open our gates and invite in the hungry community, and this is hard for a farmer to absorb.
The Torah responds to the farmer as the Radomsker Rebbe responded to his hassidim: By what right do you focus on your personal state? All of the paupers are cheering! In shemitah, they have access to every field! In yovel, the families receive their ancestral land and the slave goes free! This is wonderful for them! Look not upon your own misfortune; be happy that others will receive.
This broad perspective is a necessity for a successful State. Governing a State means sharing the polity with citizens of every stripe, and no group will win every time. How can a modern Jewish State view itself as one society? How does one argue forcefully in the Knesset, demonstrate raucously in the public square, publish articles and lobby politicians – and then daven to Hashem to help people on the other side of the aisle to win not the debate, but the lottery? And to calculate a budget which will distribute our tax dollars to feed the opposition?
Perhaps the Radomsker’s words offer an answer. The Rebbe noted that the change in the price of grain came from Hashem; the loss of the wealthy hassidim, and the profit for the needy, came from Hashem. When our rivals prosper, it’s because Hashem has sent prosperity their way. Perhaps that perspective, recognizing that not only are we one nation, but that the growth of our foes comes from Hashem, will help us to rejoice, regardless of who profits. May we learn to see our nation in this Shemitah way.