A legal system reflects the deepest moral values of a society and provides for the enforcement of its moral standards. Parshat Behar, while barely more than a chapter in length—only 57 verses—opens a window onto a world of moral values. Although brief, its implications for social justice are long-term and far-reaching. It focuses on land — how ownership, rights, obligations, mortgages, and debts are woven into the fabric of people’s lives and the quality of justice in a society. For most of us today, land is a commodity to buy, sell, and employ to generate income. In the ancient world, land had far wider implications: It served as the basis for one’s place in society, within the family, as well as the source of one’s sustenance. Torah, sensitive to this reality, as well as to the status of Eretz Yisrael as Israel sacred, ancestral homeland, provides a mechanism for people to reclaim not only their land holdings, but their place in society, as well.
Aptly named Parshat Behar (“At the mountaintop”) projects a vision of economic justice for people whose freedom and independence is jeopardized by losing their land, the very means of earning a living. Hard work has never guaranteed success. Rain or drought, peace or war, or pestilence can spell the different between the blessing of prosperity, and the curse of starvation. You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security; the land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill, and you shall live upon it in security. (vv. 18-19)
People who fell into debt in the ancient world all too often lost their land—their means of independence and sustenance—and spiraled into a seemingly irredeemable economic oblivion. It’s not an ancient story, is it? It happens every day all around us. In the ancient world, one “solution,” though it’s difficult to conceive how this was a solution, was to sell oneself into indentured servitude or slavery to pay off one’s debts. The high moral ground—Behar/On the Mountaintop—is laid out in this parashah: viewing the vicissitudes of life that open the door to exploitation of the poor, through a religious, theological lens. Our limited, human vantage point is inadequate, hemmed in as we are by our own desires, fears, jealousies, and rivalries. Climb the mountain and view things from God’s perspective, Torah teaches us.
The first thing we see from atop the mountain is that the land belongs to God, Who ordains a sabbath for the land every seven years, just as we have a sabbath every seven days. If even the land is not to be enslaved by people, how much more so other human beings. Moreover, every fifty years, the land celebrates a Yovel (Jubilee) and is released to its original inhabitants. Here, the fortunes of the land the people merge: those who were compelled to forfeit their land in order to pay debts regain possession and the potential for self-sufficiency. But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. Through the land that you hold you must provide for the redemption of the land (vv. 23-24) The connection of land and people are integral to God’s Covenant, which protects the welfare of both by insuring that neither is exploited and abused.
Yet the real is often far removed from the ideal. If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding (25:25)… If a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city (v. 29)… If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien (v. 35)… If your kinsman under you continues in straits and must give himself over to you (v. 39)… If a resident alien among you has prospered, and your kinsman being in straits, comes under his authority and gives himself over to the resident alien among you… (v. 47). There are situations that result in permanent poverty for a family, as well as for the next few generations.
Parshat Behar seeks to draw strict limits and prevent trouble from tumbling downhill into trauma and tragedy. Just as land is redeemed, so are homes redeemed in the Jubilee year, returning to their original owners. And so, too, are people to be redeemed from the depths of indentured servitude and slavery. Here we find the famous mitzvah prohibiting lending money to poor people at interest—because it tends to increase the concentration of wealth and reduces even further the likelihood that they will work their way out of the abyss of debt and poverty.
A number of scholars contend that ancient Near Eastern law codes were literary, rather than juridical, in nature. Perhaps counterintuitive, but just because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, doesn’t always mean that it is a duck, which is to say, ancient law codes functioned not as normative law but rather as (1) a ruler’s proof to the gods that he was qualified to rule with divine approval; (2) training texts for judges with sample laws to consider when rendering their decisions; and (3) a collection of judicial problems and solutions for judges to consider. As Joshua Berman points out, however, whether the laws of the Torah comprised a normative law code in force during the biblical period, they reflect a world of values and ethics. As Berman put it: “…the laws of the Bible may be rightly viewed as reflections of wider systems of thought and ideology, as the indexes [sic] of the blueprint of a civilization.” The values that undergird Behar, and so much of Torah, are values that not only deserve close scrutiny, but which would serve our society and world well.
Jeffrey Tigay notes that Israelites did not borrow money for commercial investment. Loans were made to those who fell into poverty, which is clearly the context in our parashah: 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: do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman. Do not lend him your money at advance interest, or give him your food at accrued interest. I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God (vv. 35-38). Income inequality was a serious concern in the biblical period. Berman notes that the prohibition, “closed an avenue through which the rich could accrue greater wealth at the expense of the needy. It fostered a sense of community and shared responsibility.” While other ancient Near Eastern civilizations enacted relief edicts and releases (perhaps the template for Torah), these were by fiat of the ruler and served his political purposes. Torah, however, grounds release of indentured servants and debt slaves in theological considerations: they apply at regular intervals because God requires them. This, Berman notes, serves to “neuter [relief edicts and releases] as tools of political manipulation.” Similarly, debt release, redemption, and manumission are depoliticized by Torah’s legislation, and are now seen not at the largesse of a human ruler, but the moral standard of the Ruler of Rulers, reflecting the divine holiness inherent in every human being.
Midrash Sifre, tells a short story about two rabbis who travel from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia in order to study with a sage there. The two rabbis, homesick for the Land of Israel even before they arrive in Babylonia, hyperbolically declare that the obligation of living in the Land of Israel is equivalent to all the mitzvot in the Torah.
R. Elazar b. Shamua and R. Yochanan ha-Sandlar set out for Nitzivim [in Babylonia] to study Torah from R. Yehudah b. Beteira. When they arrived in Sidon, they remembered the Land of Israel. They lifted their eyes and began to weep. They rent their garments and (quoting Torah) said, You will expel them and dwell in their land (Deuteronomy 12:29). They returned home and declared, “Dwelling in the Land of Israel is equivalent too all the mitzvot of the Torah.” (Sifre #80)
In context, the story expresses the view that living in the Eretz Yisrael is a Jewish obligation second to none. While living in the Land entails its own holiness, we know from Torah that it entails far more than the spiritual qualities of the land, itself. It comes bundled with a long list of rules and requirements that govern economic and social relationships, both to land and people, a set of which are articulated in Parshat Behar. Perhaps what R. Elazar b. Shamua and R. Yochanan ha-Sandlar are also saying is that part of the value of living in Eretz Yisrael is the quality of living under moral laws that protect people who fall into poverty. Living by the laws of the Torah insures that the most vulnerable will not fall between the cracks and suffer economic abuse and exploitation on top of their misfortune. Even if the law codes of the Torah are, in large measure, aspirational, the underlying values provide ideals worth striving for.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman