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Parashat Behar-Bechukotai: Sabbath for Land, Sabbath for All

By Isabel Mares

As we watch springtime offer us its technicolor bounties, I recall the leafless trees and desolate flower beds of only a few months ago. I think about how this transformation may only be possible because of the long sleep (sabbath) of winter. A season that brings a slumber over the earth, winter quiets the green and the chirping and the fragrant. Still, the human is clever and persists with work. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense that the Hebrew Bible reminds us that rest is holy work and must include vital rest for the land.

In this week’s parashah, Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34), we read this text:

“When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the LORD. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.” (Leviticus 25:2-5) 

I find that both scripture and the most powerful stories leave us with two things: First, a resounding truth and then, a tension. A universal truth may serve as a compass or a guide in Torah or a story. A tension gives us the invitation to ask questions and define (or redefine) our own truths. Why this formula? Well, for a story to be transformative—to move us to be and act in different or better ways—we must be both inspired and inquisitive, and this week’s parashah. perfectly exemplifies a sacred text that delivers these key ingredients.

Let’s start with the “resounding truth” in this Torah portion. Looking at this ancient text, I am awed and amazed to find not only a universal message, but also a message that feels like it was created for (and perhaps even foreshadows) this exact moment in time – one in which human beings have affected the earth in extraordinary and grievous ways. This parashah frames laws around caring for the land, creating rules of commerce to ensure its care. It also weaves in harsh warnings about what God will do should the Israelites not follow these commandments, making it abundantly clear that respecting the land and God by adhering to these laws is necessary and holy:

“Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin. Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years.” (Leviticus 27:33-35)

A subtle juxtaposition lies also in that the land both does and does not belong to the people. While people can work and sell allotments of the land, it is God who has assigned it. The land is ultimately divinely owned and protected; humans are its caretakers.

Now to discuss what is difficult:

“But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce—you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield.”(Leviticus 25:6-7)

Mentioned throughout this portion, including above, are slaves. In the same text in which God insists the land be treated with respect—through sabbatical rest—we read about enslavement. In an instant, a message that only moments ago seemed so relevant for today quickly becomes archaic. Without passing judgment on others’ way of life millennia ago, how might we lean into the tension of “ownership,” of both land and people, here in Leviticus? Are there questions we can now ask ourselves about the treatment of others—and even ourselves?

Although it is not possible to solve the presence of oppression in history and scripture retroactively, we can recognize the discomfort it causes us and use that discomfort to propel us deeply into the ways of right living and reverence for life. Can we not give the land, ourselves, and others better sabbaths? That is, can we value each other beyond mere productivity, recognizing every individual as a part of creation and thus inherently worthy of rest and care?

From this biblical tension comes a truth I can hope to realize in my own life and community. If I were to hold something up to this challenging part of the text, I would ask that we give the ethos of sabbath to each other—freely, often, and in all seasons. I look at the flowers in all their radiant colors, and I think: “Look what’s possible when the soil and seeds take their holy rest.”

Isabel Mares is the program manager, Development and Arts and Culture, at JCC Association of North America.

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