Rabbi Krichiver’s Behar Sermon 2024

Judaism concerns itself with the ethics of everyday actions, even those seemingly harmless. Familiar with the laws around bearing false witness and lying – and we are well acquainted with the consequences of those acts – when we cannot rely on one another’s testimony, the court system falls apart; when we lose trust in those closest to us, families, marriages, and parental love all come into question. These are the large seams of society’s fabric, and when they weaken or begin to fray, it threatens our entire way of life.

But the Torah does not conclude the conversation with this dramatic, end-of-the-world imagery. The Torah shows us every great idea through the simple yet profound day-to-day interactions. The Torah teaches that living our values means practicing them in large and small ways every day. And that even small harms to the integrity of our relationships can do real damage.

From atop the mountain, God’s word booms forth, and in an earthshaking voice God proclaims liberty throughout the land, commands us not to stand idle by the blood of our neighbor, and to fight injustice and oppression, for we ourselves were oppressed generations ago. And then God continues: “In buying from your neighbor, deduct only the number of years since the previous jubilee, and the seller may charge only for the remaining crop years, with the amount of the sale dependent and proportional to the years, for what is being sold is the harvest.” We have left the study of sacred text and seemingly opened a volume of the IRS tax code!

There are many such sections of what we call Scripture, our sacred text, revelation. Mundane passages at best, maddeningly trivial at worst. Could this have been the actual content of a conversation between the Divine and humanity at Sinai? Did Moses inscribe all of these words onto tablets of stone for all time?

Of course, our understanding of Torah is more complicated than that. Proof abounds in the Torah text that these are, in fact, big ideas. But we study them as conversations among sages spanning centuries, the biggest ideas – wrestled with and argued over by generation after generation of individuals, with larger than life ambitions for their people. So, dare I say it, in this context, the treatment of setting sales prices for property and land, what’s the big idea?

This entire chapter is dedicated to the idea of Yovel, the Jubilee year. Every (seven times seven years) concludes, in the fiftieth year with all land reverting back to its prior ownership. Servants’ obligations to their masters would be considered fulfilled, and all would go free.

The Jubilee only makes sense if we understand it as one of the biggest ideas underlying just about all of Torah – that ‘ownership’ – this land is my land, this land is your land, etc. – is simply not real. Ownership of land, animals, property, human beings – these are all arbitrary lines draw on a contract or a map. They are moveable; they do not reflect any sort of inherent reality and they do not last.

The flowers and trees, and crops and insects, the wandering grazing beasts – all of these life forms, living creatures, surely know if they run into a barbed wire fence, but they could not imagine what that fence might mean. Fences and walls are human inventions, and they have no significance in God’s world.

Picture an old fence in an abandoned field – we have all seen those. The wires have rusted and grown old and brittle. The wood is rotted through, logs fallen away. And the greenery has reclaimed the field, devouring what was most certainly once kept separate, clean and organized. You might not even see the old fence, if you weren’t looking for it. Nature pushes through, and has no use for our entitled sense of ownership.

The earth is God’s and all Creation therein, says the Psalmist (24). All that we have is but lent to us, and the time comes when we must relinquish it. Yovel, the Jubilee, is not some communist or socialist plot to redistribute wealth, but rather an argument against our very definition of wealth in the first place.

Once a nobleman was studying with his friend, the rabbi. They came across the quote, “Tzedakah saves from death,” in the book of Proverbs (10:2) and the rich nobleman argued, “Giving away my money saves me from death? Surely my wealth will offer me much more protection from death, as I can buy medicines and seek out treatments. I can even bribe officials who come to trouble our community and thereby extend the life of every Jewish person!” The rabbi replied, “But only in this world. Your wealth may provide you comfort and opportunity while it is in your possession. But you will not be able to take any of your possessions with you to the next world. At the end of your life, you will realize that the only thing that matters, in the end, is what you give – what you give to invest in relationships and what you give to help others – these are the righteous deeds that are stored away in the World to Come, for your credit.”

All that we have is but lent to us, and the time comes when we must relinquish it. All the earth belongs to Adonai, and all of Creation within.

And yet, we only experience the truth of this teaching through our own, most intimate relationships. Rabbi Meir was away at the study hall when his two sons both died together. His wife, the wise Beruria, worried about how to tell him the news. When he returned home she said, “A man lent me a fine gift, but just this afternoon has come and asked me to return it.” “Well,” offered Meir, “if it was borrowed, it must be returned.” “The gift is something that I cherish very much, and it is hard for me to part with it,” she replied. “But it was never yours,” Meir argued. “You should be thankful that it was lent to you, and that it brought you such pleasure, and be happy to return it.” Beruriah then led her husband into the next room to see their two sons lying still. And they wept together.

When it comes time to return all the many blessings with which God has bestowed us, there will be sadness and loss. We will mourn for those things which were never meant to last. The law of the Jubilee year, however, asks us to be grateful, and to be happy for the time we had. With our families, with our resources, with our ability to help others. And at the same time, the details of the Jubilee year, which continues to be practiced in the Land of Israel, albeit in very modern ways, are designed, in all their minutiae, to pay attention with the same amount of detail to every one of the gifts we cherish – our homes, our beautiful synagogue, our employment, our children, our parents, every friend who loves us.

Treat each other right, says the Torah. On top of laws concerned with bearing false witness, not taking God’s name as a meaningless vow, paying our workers on time, and honoring our marriage vows, the Torah reminds us this week to treat each other right. “You shall not wrong each other.” “Live on with security,” knowing that you have, as God commanded to Abraham – done what is right and what is just, and been humbled by the respect shown to you by others. After all, even in its incredible detail, doesn’t the Torah boil down to this? And after all, when we come to the end of our days, doesn’t our life come down the same?