B’har/B’chukotai from Netivjah.

by Yehuda Bachana.

With this double Torah portion we conclude the book of Leviticus. Leviticus starts with the description of different offerings and sacrifices. Then it continues with the order of the priestly service in the sanctuary. Later, in the land of Israel during the rule of the kings, this sacrificial system shifted to the Temple. From the destruction of the Second Temple until today, we follow the order of the sacrifices as an integral part of our prayers.

The Jewish morning prayer, Shacharit, is divided into four sections. The first section is a remembrance of the daily offerings and the order of the Temple services. The idea is to remind us of the great contrast between temptations and sin vs. the holiness and purity we experience when we stand before God.

The second section includes psalms, which serve the purpose of lifting up our soul, to help prepare us to stand before God. This is the same purpose of the worship songs, with which we usually start our worship services, as believers.

The next section is called ‘Shema’ (Hear of Israel), in which the worshiper takes on the yoke of the Kingdom of God. Saying: I am here, willing to listen and to serve.

The last section is called the ‘Shmona Esre’ prayer, or ‘amida’, where the worshipper stands before God, praising, requesting and thanking God for everything.

In a way quite similar to the Jewish morning prayer, we also start our service with songs of praise and worship, in order to exalt our spirt and prepare us for our encounter with God. We partake of the Lord’s Supper* in remembrance and participation of the Yeshua’s sacrifice for us and we stand before God and learn from His Word, as we internalize His Word with love into our hearts.

Throughout the book of Leviticus, we learn the instructions concerning forbidden foods and the instructions concerning uncleanliness, purity and holiness. We also learn how to celebrate the appointed festivals, which are Israel’s national holidays. Furthermore, we encounter the greatest commandment of all:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

For today’s Torah portion we will mostly talk about ‘Shemittah’ (the sabbatical year) and ‘Shnat Yovel’ (the year of Jubilee). We will also discuss the redemption of the land and the return of the land to its original owner. We will also discuss the idea of helping others by lending money interest-free. The goal is to help our neighbor to get back on their feet. If his situation, however, is especially hard, he can sell himself into slavery. However, this week we read how to redeem a slave through redemption by a relative or with money.

This week’s portion and, with it, the book of Leviticus, ends with blessings and curses. The list of curses shows the importance of being on the side that receives blessings. Sadly however, we can also recognize the curses we endured as a nation through our painful history.

Behar-Bechukotai begins in a special way:

“The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai”, after which a commandment follows: “For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards… But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord.” (Leviticus 25:1-4)

This verse has turned into a famous Hebrew saying:

“What is the issue of the sabbatical year at Mount Sinai?”

This saying expresses a surprise concerning the connection between two distanced and (seemingly) unrelated issues. The original question belongs to the famous rabbi Rashi, who wondered about this verse. Rashi rightfully asks: if all the commandments were given on Mount Sinai; then, why is Mount Sinai explicitly mentioned for the Shemittah-commandment?

Obviously, there are many explanations concerning this verse. Some say that this commandment includes specific and very detailed instructions. Simultaneously important is the fact that the commandment was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. These scholars conclude that the entire Torah was given to us with specific instructions, part of which is the Oral Law. They then conclude that the entire Torah (both written and oral) was given at Mount Sinai.

As Messianic believers we do and cannot accept the Oral Torah as the Word of God given at Mount Sinai. In addition to the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), we view the ‘Nevi’im’ (Prophets), the ‘Ktuvim’ (Writings) and the New Testament as divinely inspired, sanctified and as the supreme authority for our lives.

The Oral Law was written down after the destruction of the Temple, when the danger to lose our traditions forever was real and present. Our traditions were passed down from generation to generation. Likewise, as Messianic believers we see the Oral law as traditional, but not as binding instructions from God.

As Messianic Jews, some of us are more observant, while others are less; and yet, some of us, are completely secular. This is regardless of our strong faith in God and His Word. One can have a truly living faith without being religious or observant.

Some believers, including myself, view ourselves as ‘observant’. This means we place ourselves between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’, keeping the main Jewish traditions and customs for various reasons: as part of our identity and sense of belonging, as an important and integral part of the family values, or in recognition of the importance of traditions for Israel’s existence in the past, present and future.

Meaning that some of us see the great importance in the rich and ancient traditions and customs of our nation, even if we do not accept the Oral Torah as the Word of God. We celebrate Passover in accordance with our customs, including the traditional Passover Seder and the reading of the Haggadah.

During Sukkoth our traditions include the four species, that we hold in the traditional way while reciting customary blessings. Even the Shabbat candles are lit according to tradition. All of these customs connect us, as we are a part of the Jewish people, belonging to the nation of Israel. We want our children and grandchildren to be part of the future of this nation, too.

We accept the fact that God gives people a certain amount of power to make certain laws. We accept that, because both Yeshua and the New Testament give people responsibility and authority. The Torah, too, gives our leaders a certain amount of responsibility. In this way, the Torah and the New Testament kept and continue to keep their relevance, from generation to generation.

Throughout our history, we lived some years independently in our own land; while others we lived in exile. The family-structure, leadership and worship systems underwent drastic changes. Nevertheless, the Torah – the written Word of God – continues to guide us throughout all of it. How is that possible?

The answer is that the Torah contains both constant and variable aspects. Our earthly life is dynamic, whereas God gives authority to those that are in charge. Yeshua shows how great and significant the authority given to people is:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Mathew 16:19)

This verse concerns people of flesh and blood. The same idea appears again in another verse:

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Mathew 18:18)

Meaning that, according to the spirit of the age and place, people even have the authority to cancel, bend or change the commandments. That being said, every generation should examine the time they live in, and discern what the public can do, or what is too much for the majority of the people. Focusing on the original intention of the commandment written in the Torah.

The written commandment is the ideal, but sometimes we are unable to follow the ideal. This Torah portion explains this issue best by means of the debate concerning the sabbatical year, at the beginning of the Jewish establishment in the land of Israel in the modern era, and the correction by means of the Hillel’s ‘Prosbul’ of Hillel in the first century BC.

These changes were necessary, because the original sabbatical year also canceled debts and loans. The sabbatical year was a restart that returned the system to its balance. Hillel changed the Shemittah, specifically concerning the omission of debts.

The issue was that the rich did not give loans to the poor, fearing that the loan would be lost due to the sabbatical year. Hillel ruled that it would be best to cancel the debt-relief, so the rich would continue to lend money to the needy.

Even today, many businesses continue to use a Prosbul-declaration, stating that the sabbatical year does not omit the debts to their business. If you purchased in payments, or by means of an open account at their business, the sabbatical year will not release you from paying in full.

Concerning the sabbatical year itself, this commandment is connected to the land of Israel. Therefore, it was not relevant until the return of the Jews to the land of Israel in the modern era.

At the beginning of the Jewish return to re-settle the land of Israel, the Jewish farms could not survive financially if they would follow the commandment to stop working the fields for an entire year. As a solution, Rabbi Kook decided to sell the Jewish-owned lands temporarily, allowing the farmers to continue plowing the fields.

Those with a more radical viewpoint opposed the solution to sell the land temporarily. Their opinion was supported by the idea that following God’s commandments requires self-sacrifice. In their eyes, the financial ability to cope with the sabbatical year was not a reasonable consideration.

Unlike the extreme point of view, Rabbi Kook decided to support the Jewish farmers, who were already facing plenty of challenges and difficulties.

Rabbi Kook saw the restoration of the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel as the first signs of our national redemption. He argued that the momentum of the Jewish establishment and the development of Jewish agriculture must not be stopped. Personally, I fully agree with the ruling of Rabbi Kook, who stood by the Jewish pioneers and did not let the settlement collapse.

The goal of the Torah is to bring people closer to one another and to the society they live in. Public leaders must be attentive to the society they live in. Discerning the inevitable need to bend the laws or even temporarily annul the commandments of the Torah, in case those might harm the public.

That being said, today we ought to rethink the economic abilities of the Israeli market, in connection with the preservation of the sabbatical year. We need to find creative solutions to strengthen our economy, and specifically the agricultural sector, even during the sabbatical year.

It is not a problem to import agricultural products from abroad during the sabbatical year. However, the real question is: what will happen with the farmers? Will they go bankrupt? What should we do about it? What will the future of Israeli agriculture look like?

As a society, we are obligated to stand side-by-side. Together we can keep the sabbatical year.
If we show solidarity and buy local products at a price that allows Israeli farmers to keep the sabbatical year, then we will be able to return to keeping this commandment and receive the promised blessings of God. In addition to the success and prosperity promised in this commandment, the inherent mutual responsibility will also fortify the foundations for a stronger and supportive society.

Back to the idea of authority given to leaders: before we celebrate the authority given to us by God, we need to remember that a leader’s responsibility comes along with a heavy burden. Eventually, everyone will stand before God and will answer for their every word and decision. The bigger a leader’s influence, the greater his responsibility to God. The judgement and punishment that each leader will receive is proportional to his or her influence. According to James, Yeshua’s brother:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1)

James warns against our desire for power, because teachers and leaders will be judged more strictly.

The decision and the dilemma here are extremely difficult. On the one hand the commandments of the Torah should be followed according to set and detailed instructions, and at the designated times and places. As the following verse demands:

“Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)

Yet, on the other hand, people truly face hardships. Like the sabbatical year at the beginning of the return to our Jewish homeland, for example. Or, in case of the idea of omitting all debts every seven years: then how can one take a mortgage for twenty or thirty years? It is simply impossible.

Here we need to make difficult decisions, to find the right balance between the obligation to fulfill the laws and commandments with precision, adhering to the smallest details; and, the consideration for the public ability to fulfill the commandment. To find the balance between the necessity to internalize the Word of God and live by it; and, legalism, where religion and faith become more important than the people around us.

How can a person know that he or she is walking on the right path? How can a person find the right balance between the commandments, faith, and social life? The first letter of John answer this question:

“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence” (3:18-19)

The resounding answer of the New Testament is: love. If we act from love, our conscience is clean, knowing that we chose the right path.

That’s it. We have concluded the book of Leviticus, and the only thing left to say is the traditional blessing upon the conclusion of a Torah book: ‘Chazak chazak v’nitchazek!’ or: “Be strong and courageous!”