Parashat Behar Behukotai “And I remember the Land”




The Hebrew bible is essentially the story of how a group of diverse individuals came to be formed as a People through a covenant relationship with God, the Creator of all things, and how that relationship was supposed to help them to be a righteous People who lived out their ethics on a small land to which they gave their name – Israel.

We are used to reading the texts and narratives, deriving from them a system of laws and of ways to behave in order to create our society and ourselves. We are used to the stories that form a narrative history, albeit one that is often read more as metaphor or myth than as literal record of events.  We are comforted by the story of the relationship with God that, even though interspersed with episodes of extraordinary pain and even a feeling of temporary estrangement, is shown to be constant and caring and ever present.  

The people Israel really came to existence at Sinai, when they agreed to the covenant relationship with God, with all of its rules and obligations. As God said when they were encamped at Sinai before the formal giving of Torah  “ Now, if you will really listen to My voice, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine” (Exodus 19:5). Though of course much earlier when speaking to Moses in Egypt, God reminds him of the earlier promise of Covenant relationship and Land given to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob,  that “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name YHWH I did not make Myself known to them.  And I established My covenant with them, to give them the Land of Canaan, the Land of their sojourning, where they lived…..So say to the children of Israel: I am the Eternal, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage;…  and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the Eternal your God, …  And I will bring you in to the Land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the Eternal” (Exodus 6:3-8)

What becomes clear as we read these texts of the formation of a people was that the Land which God gives to them is a critical element of the covenant, it is a partner in the relationship, and it is not simply an object which is given as reward or gift. The Land in the biblical narrative has a personality and a power. It is not a passive backdrop to be lived upon and worked for its produce– it is an active force in the relationship, a player in the narrative and character in the events. Like the people it belongs to God. It is only ever on loan to the Jewish nation, and that loan comes with strings attached.

Here at the end of the book of Leviticus we return to the Sinaitic meeting to emphasise once again the importance of the Land in the Covenant agreement. In Sidra Behar the text presents the laws regarding the sabbatical and the jubilee years. For six years the people are to sow their fields and prune their vineyards, but in the seventh year, the Land must be allowed to lay fallow. In other words, it must be given a rest – a Sabbath for the Land.
Every fiftieth year is a jubilee year which will not only to have all the rules of a sabbatical year but also is the time that all the Israelites who had sold themselves into servitude during the previous forty-nine years would be freed. Property (especially land) is also to be returned to the original owner-families. Thus the clock is reset and the original distribution of land among the tribes of Israel is to be preserved forever.

Then Parashat Bechukotai reminds us that if the people follow God’s laws then they will be protected, but if not then God will punish them – specifically the Land will not produce, the people will live in fear of their enemies who will remove them from the Land, and they will not return to it until they had atoned for their sins, included in which is their refusal to have let the Land have rest:  “Then shall the Land be paid her sabbaths, as long as it lies desolate, and you are in your enemies’ land; even then shall the Land rest, and repay her sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest; even the rest which it had not in your sabbaths, when you dwelt upon it. (Lev. 26:34-35)

So if the covenant is broken and the people forget their responsibilities to each other and to God, then the Land will lie desolate without its people, the people desolate in the land of their enemies, but ultimately, says God  “ I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the Land” (Lev 26.42) and God goes on to say: “I will not reject them, neither abhor them to destroy them utterly and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Eternal their God, and I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations that I might be their God, I am the Eternal (Lev 26:44,45)

The Covenant is ultimately unbreakable, however strained it may become. The Land remains connected to the people and to the Covenant, but it will not be abused. It too has its own relationship with God. It too is cared for and remembered by God, and it will not allow itself to become the setting for unrighteous behaviour.  It is not a prize for its inhabitants to use as they will, rather it is the test bed for the mitzvot that form the detail of the Covenant to be carried out – the commandment of compassion for the stranger, of thoughtful use of resources, of caring for all the poor and needy who are living amongst us, of the awareness that ultimately we do not own the Land but are allowed to lease it, so we should remember and give thanks to God who is giving us the food we need.  The Land is content to be in a mutually respectful and symbiotic relationship with us, a sibling relationship with us,  but we should never take it for granted. To impose ourselves on the Land and those who live on it, to oblige them to bend to our will, to arrogantly arrogate to ourselves the power to dictate to the Land and those who live on it, be they human, animal or plant life – this the Land will not accept, we will forfeit the benefits of the covenant and we will ultimately forfeit the Land if we do not quickly return to the ways of righteous behaviour.

Again and again Torah reminds us that our behaviour has consequences, and the ultimate consequence is displacement from our Land. Again and again the prophets rail against behaviours that place us and the Land in danger. Again and again a harsh experience results, a lesson must be learned, behaviour must change.

And yet the sidra gives us a clear instruction and it gives us hope: “If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments and do them, then I will give you rains in their season, and the Land shall yield her produce and the trees of the field will yield their fruit. …and you shall eat your bread until you have enough and you shall dwell safely in your Land. And I will give peace in the Land, and you shall lie down and no one shall make you afraid… (Lev 26:3-6)

Peace in the Land comes at a price – the price of how we behave in the Land and to the Land. To treat her well, and to treat all those who live on her well, will bring about the “shalom ba’aretz” we all crave and which comes, ultimately, from God. Not to do so – well the warning is explicit in the sidra with the tochecha listed here. The Land will not provide any place to hide.




Emor: and the principle of proportionate Justice

A piece of case law enlivens this sidra. The son of an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother gets into a fight with an Israelite man and utters a blasphemy against God. He is put into prison while the people go to find out from God what they should do.  God speaks to Moses and tells him to bring the man out, that everyone who heard the cursing should lay their hands on his head, and that everyone shall stone him till he died. This does happen in the text, but first there is an interlude of six verses where we are told about the death penalty for murder, then the requirement for compensation in the case of an animal that is killed; then the requirement for appropriate compensation when a person is maimed – lex talionis, the law of eye for eye and tooth for tooth. Then there is a reprise of the law that if one kills an animal one should ‘make it good’ and if one kills a person they shall be killed, followed by a reminder that there is one law for both the stranger and the home born because God is our Eternal God  – and only then are we told that the people did as commanded in the case of the blasphemer – they brought him out of the camp and stoned him, as God had commanded Moses.

We have to ask ourselves – why is there a disruption in the smooth flow of the narrative? Why this strongly framed reminder that the law is given by God, that human life and animal life are both to be taken seriously, if not seen as equal in compensation?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein teaches that the interruption in the narrative comes because this is the first time in the history of the Jewish people that judicial capital punishment is enacted. Murder has certainly happened before – Cain killed Abel, Moses killed the taskmaster – but judicial execution is something else.  We are reminded that life is not cheap, that taking a life can be a response only to something so heinous that no other punishment is adequate. So in between the sentence and its enactment there is a pause – for reflection, to remind us that the  event is not carried out in a state of heightened emotion, to consider whether this is really what has to be done, to remind us that the taking of life is a terrible thing.

The interpolation in the text is one that catches our attention. First found in the book of Exodus, the law of lex talionis – of retaliation and retributive justice is one that must be unpacked thoughtfully. While a surface reading may understand the text to be demanding that whatever is done by the perpetrator should be done to the perpetrator, any sense of justice would be outraged by the lack of equivalency in such a response. People are not identical so any retaliation would not be identical. For example to remove the eye of a person who already has poor sight might cause effective blindness. So rabbinic exegesis makes very clear that this is about compensation for damage rather than a mechanistic damage to others. It reminds us that human life is valuable, diverse and complex and must be thought about, cared for and appreciated.  And why is this excursus here between the sentence against the blasphemer and his execution? Surely again to remind us that all justice must be proportionate, equivalent to the crime, and must be thoughtful about the people to whom the justice is to be applied.  Whatever we may think about biblical law, it is set against systems of either randomly applied justice or justice which favoured some over others. This text teaches us that one law is applicable to all, and that that law has to be considerate of all the people it serves. It is a principle well worth upholding.

Sidra Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. The limits of following the Laws of God

God spoke to Moses and said “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Eternal your God. You will not follow the practices of the land of Egypt where you lived, nor of the land of Canaan to where I am taking you, nor shall you follow their laws (Lev 18:1-3)

Not to follow the laws of the country in which we are living, but only to follow the laws of God – it is potentially a recipe for disaster, particularly in the modern world in which we live. The Hasidic rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, (1847–1905) known as the Sfat Emet, understood this verse to be unlimited in its reach -: we are not to imitate “Egypt and Canaan” in any way in which we live our lives – even in matters of clothing. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888) who is credited with founding Torah im Derech Eretz, modern orthodoxy, said that there were limits, and that we may “imitate the nations among who we live in things that are based on reason, but not on things relating to religion or superstition.”

The prohibition, to “not follow the law of the land” is one which is considered and worked upon in Jewish literature – what exactly does it cover? Is it simply the idolatrous practises of the other nations or is it more? And where does one draw the line?

In the Talmud we find a ruling which is well known in every Jewish community, and which seems to cut across the biblical statement should it be interpreted as done by Sfat Emet.  In several places in the Talmud (Bava Kama 113a, Nedarim 28a, Bava Batra 54b-55a and Gittin 10b)  we find the words of Samuel:  “Dina de’Malchuta, Dina” – the Law of the Land is the Law. This halachic principle does not mean simply that Jews have to follow every secular law (the “law of the land”); it means that Halacha incorporates the law of the land in which Jews live. In other words, where dina de-malchuta dina applies, a requirement of secular law becomes a halachic obligation as well.  And it is an immutable and absolute principle of halachic process.

In the Talmud in  Bava Kamma 113a we are told that it is an absolute obligation to pay taxes imposed by Government. But then a baraita is given (a text that is of the same age as Mishnah but which did not make it into the final edit of the book in the 2nd century) which tells of an argument about the legality of evading tax. The Talmud asks in amazement about the existence of such an argument – “How can it be permitted to evade a tax? Surely Samuel said the law of the land is the law!”  The resolution comes that if the tax is being collected on behalf of recognised government, then one is forbidden to take steps to evade it.

 Surely a lesson for modern times!

After Death, Speak Holiness

“Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor” the sequence of these three sidrot in the book of Leviticus are used as a moral teaching in their own right – “After death, holiness speak”

I don’t know where this ethical teaching originates in the Rabbinic sources- it seems to have a folkloric life of its own. But I do know that while it sounds like a Hebrew version of Chilon of Sparta’s 6th Century BCE epigram “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” “Of the dead, nothing unless good” it is in reality quite a different formulation and comes from a very different understanding of the world.

“Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor” does not mean, as some would like to have us believe, that we cannot ever speak ill of the dead and only say good things about them. Nor does it mean that we should rework the historical truth, so that after a death one has to suddenly say that the deceased was holy. The aphorism does not instruct us to speak only about sacred things rather than about the ordinary realities of life, once a death has occurred. Nor does it imagine that holiness is a state to be achieved only after a life has been lived, something that is not possible in the mundane ordinary world of our life.

In fact, the three central sidrot in Leviticus whose names make up this epithet, all deal with the laws of Kedushah, of holiness, which are precisely not about a heavenly ethereal righteousness – they are about practical ordinary detailed and everyday goodness. So when we say that after death one should speak holiness (kedushah) we are talking not the sacral and not the saintly, but the real meaning of kedushah – the dynamic, practical, societally cohesive and caring activities that imitate God’s being and that we try to emulate.

Kedushah/Holiness in Leviticus is far from the saintly spirituality it has sometimes come to mean to us. Look at the commandments in these three sidrot and you will see all of our lives come into their purview.  There are commandments about giving a fair and living wage on time for the worker to be able to support themselves. There are commandments about respect for others, about the fairness of weights in trade, about not trying to gain advantage through another’s weakness or vulnerability. There are commandments about sexual behaviour and about limitations of power. About what we choose to eat and about how we kill the animals we consume. Commandments about caring for the poor and ensuring there is food, shelter, clothing, respect for all in society. There are commandments about using time and about mandated rest for us, for those who work on our behalf, for the land and the animals we have in our control.  Holiness becomes an organising principle of Judaism, and if one had to boil it down to one sentence it would be something like “do not hurt others with your behaviour” or “love your neighbour as yourself” – itself of course, a phrase found in the Holiness Code of Leviticus, later quoted by Mark in the New Testament, and which for me is summed up in the idea that I have never put a limit on how much I care for myself, never decided that I have received all I deserve, never seen myself as ‘other’, and this self awareness should critically inform my thinking about the ‘other’ and what they deserve or need.

We are about to start reading this trio of sidrot, and all week we have been reading about and listening to the reaction to the death of Margaret Thatcher, and this has set me thinking. I have been caught by the level of vitriolic personal attack on a woman not yet in her grave;  the venomous rhetoric, the anger stirred up and directed towards a woman who is a quarter of a century out of being in political power, and who has died. I hold no candle for Margaret Thatcher nor for many of her policies, but I wonder a little if, instead of feeling it taboo to speak ill of the dead, or else feeling the need to break that taboo and speak very ill indeed, we followed the Hebrew dictum we might find ourselves in a different place. For if after death we spoke Kedushah – not kind or unkind or hurtful but truthful and healing, this might be a better response. The laws of Kedushah are designed for everyone in society to have an obligation to behave well towards each other and towards those over whom they have power – be it land, workers, livestock, vulnerable people, students…. There is in Leviticus what has been called a democratisation of holiness, in that it is something all of us must participate in, all of us are obliged to do, not something we pass up the hierarchy to rabbis or priests, politicians or other leaders. If both before and after death we use the organising principle of kedushah – of each individual and each family and each company doing their best not to inflict hurt upon others for their own gain then maybe the biblical ideal of a world where everyone tries to care for their neighbour would be reached. Before death there is always the imperative of the code in Leviticus which teaches us and requires from us ordinary active unhurtful behaviour in everything we do – that is a given and one we either choose to live by or not. But after death there is both a greater vulnerability of the powerless, and a greater power of the living to damage and hurt the deceased and those who are close to them. And so it is the greater imperative to do this, as it is so easy to ignore. Acharei Mot, Kedoshim Emor – After a death, when there is nothing the dead can do or say to help themselves, it is all the more important that we promote a healing in the breaches made or left by that person, rather than rent the fabric of our society even further.

ואהבת לרעךך כמוך אני יי



Tazria Metzorah – bringing back the outcast

As we work our way through the scroll, reading a section a week till we have completed the yearly cycle, there are some sections which cry out in their relevance to the moment, and others with which we struggle to connect with at all.  Tazria-Metzorah is one of the latter.

The book of Leviticus brings us into a world we no longer understand.  Yet we still read about it, and it is important that we do, because it reminds us how ancient our tradition really is, and it brings us into the religious and spiritual world of our early ancestors.  We may find the detailed description of the ritual sacrifice of animals and of wine, oil and flour incomprehensible and off-putting, and the clear concern for the community to create a state of ritual purity in its encounters with God perplexing, but it such texts hold the memory and history of our people and must reveal to us something of what they meant in their time. 

The double portion Tazria-Metzorah is concerned with skin disease.  In particular we learn about the condition ‘tzara’at’ – a collection of skin diseases whose causes were unknown, whose duration was also unknown, but which we know were seen to be contagious and dangerously damaging to the community. 

The impurity brought about by tzara’at had serious consequences.  The sufferer was required to remove themselves from the sanctuary, stay on the periphery of the community and announce to all that they were in a state of ritual impurity. They were to tear their clothes, and to keep their distance from anyone else in the community. They were outcasts.

 While we are given a great deal of quasi medical information about tzara’at – all the signs and symptoms are elucidated in the text with a rather grisly fascination – the Torah is not in fact interested in its medical significance, but instead it cares about the ritual significance of the condition. The people who are to monitor and assess the cases are not the healers but the Cohanim, the priests, who are instructed about recognising the disorder, about declaring the individual ritually impure, and they are also trained how to restore the individual to ritual purity after the disorder has run its course.  This is a matter not of medicine, but of ritual. The priests don’t in any way treat the condition nor do they act as safe guarders against infection for health reasons. Their job is to patrol the borders of ritual purity and impurity, and, most importantly, to create the way back into the community for the one who had been afflicted and marginalised.

The priest conducted an elaborate ritual in order to bring back the sufferer into the community once the skin disease had run its course. This ritual was, as is all good ritual, transformational. The­­­­­­­­­­ rejected person was brought back into the people, their status cleaned up and made as if new. It was as if the priest, by power of the ritual, could conquer the fear of tzara’at embodied by the sufferer, and bring forth a new reality for them.

What is happening right throughout the purity/impurity issues which make up the bulk of the book of Leviticus is not some ancient superstitious magic, nor a primitive acting out of an even more simplistic understanding about God that we are long past.  What is being enshrined in ritual and social structures is a way of dealing with, and including, the frightening randomness of life, the sudden illness or ill fortune, the terrifying closeness of death to life, the way our bodies sometimes seem to be following a plan we know nothing about and would not willingly agree to if we did.  The role of the priests is to mediate in some way, and always to bring the person closer to God, even if there has to be a temporary alienation in order to demonstrate the return. 

The Book of Leviticus sometimes seems to be one of a world no longer relevant – altars and sacrifices, blood and smoke, white spots and red skin, magic and superstition.  But reading it carefully it reveals itself as something else, rather like an optical illusion, another perception makes itself known.  The Book of Leviticus isn’t primarily about the rituals and the spices, the prescriptions and the descriptions of priestly activity – it is first and foremost about what a priest should be, how a leader should behave.  Empowered by their role as leaders of the worshipping community the priests  use that power to create a society where everyone has access to God, everyone is able to be brought into the community.  Because the priest declares a thing to be, so it becomes.  Their job description is to effect ‘korban’ – translated often as ‘sacrifice’ but actually meaning  something about “to draw more closely together.” 

In Leviticus, the priest is the leader who holds the ability to create the community through the ritual system.  Nowadays this is not something we can expect from an hereditary priesthood. So where do we look and who can take on the role to make sure that everyone is included, everyone can overcome disability and disaffection in order to be part of the whole people, to be a valued member of community? We no longer have a prescribed ritual system but we still have the imperative to find ways to bring people from the margins back into our society. The Book of Leviticus still calls to us to find a way to do this holy work – it calls to us. So the question for us now has to be “How will we choose to respond?”


parashat shemini

The laws of Kashrut can be sourced back to this sidra – the types of animals, fish, birds and insects that we as Jews may eat, and those we may not.  There is no explanation for these laws, just as there is no explanation for what happened to Nadav and Avihu the sons of Aaron who died after offering an inappropriate sacrifice – but both stem from a system that is both rigorous and spiritual. Both are about the spiritual discipline acted out in life. Judaism creates holiness out of the ordinary. Kashrut in relation to food is partly about choosing to partake or abstain, and in so doing to show that we are not ruled by our animal instincts, but always remember that we are human beings who have been created in the image of God.

 Kashrut is also a way to make choices in order to encourage spiritual enhancement – for example treifa (meaning torn) has at its base meaning a food that has been torn from its source, either through violence or disease.  And Nachmanides teaches that the character of the animal we eat will in some way influence us – so we should eat only peaceful and kind animals, and not animals who are predatory or vicious.

 The sacredness of food – be it as an offering to be burned or waved before God, or be it the food that we consume – is a primal sense. In the bible, Jews understood about God through food – be it drought or plenty, manna or abundant fruits and grains.  Through a consciousness of food, by choosing what, where and when to eat, Jews developed an awareness of the Source of all. Food was the symbol of our relationship with the earth, and that itself is a symbol of our relationship with God. Think back to Genesis when Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden for eating the wrong fruit – and now they are told that they must earn their own food and work the earth hard for it in order to get what God had given so freely before. Food is the medium through which we learn about our tradition and theology – matza at pesach, cheesecake at Shavuot, the seven species that grow in Israel during Sukkot and so on. Two loaves of bread at each meal on Shabbat – teaching us through food about rest – the manna was given in a double portion in time for Shabbat so that we would not have to go out searching – and working – on that day. Food connects us to the seasons, to the earth and to God. So how we choose to use it, or to abuse it; how we choose to partake or abstain – this can be an important spiritual tool for us to learn, to experience, to teach.