05/18/2012 11:07 am ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

Parshat Behar-Behukotai: Weekly Torah Portion Summary, Questions, Resources

Editor's note: The HuffTorah is an overview of the Torah reading of the week, which is a double portion found in the Book of Leviticus 25:1-27:34, and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. Read the full text of Parshat Behar-Behukotaiwith interlinear Hebrew/English.

Parshat Behar

God speaks to Moses on Mount Sinai, telling him to tell the Children:

When you come to the Promised Land, the earth should rest. A Shabbat to God. Sow your fields for six years. Prune your vineyard for six years. Gather the produce for six years. In the seventh year, give it a rest. A Shabbat to God. Do not sow. Do not prune.

Do not reap even the after-growth. The naturally growing produce from the seventh year is ownerless. You may eat it. Your slaves and workers and workers and guests may eat it. Your animals may eat it. You may even store it in your house -- if you leave enough for the wild animals.

Count seven sabbatical years. That is, seven years, seven times. Forty-nine years. The 50th is a Jubilee year. Announce it with the shofar on the 10th of the seventh month -- the Day of Atonement. Proclaim and sanctify this year as a year of freedom. Free your Hebrew slaves -- even the ones who chose to remain slaves.

Return land that has been sold to its hereditary ancestors. Do not sow. Do not reap the after-growth. Do not pick the grapes. If you sell produce from the fields of this year, it is as if the profit were dedicated to the Temple. You may store the produce as long as there is some available for wild animals.

Do not cheat your fellow Jew in business deals. The price of a parcel of land should be based on the number of years until the next Jubilee. Fewer years, lower price.

Don't hate. Fear God. God is God, your God.

Guard God's rational commandments. Observe the decrees that are beyond understanding. Do this, and you will live securely in the land -- on your land.

Don't fear the fallow year. God will bless the land in the sixth year, and it will produce enough in the seventh to last for three additional years.

Do not sell the land permanently. It belongs to God.

If a Jew becomes destitute, he may sell some of his land. But his relative should come and buy the land back. Or, if he later becomes wealthy, he should buy the land back for a fair price. If he cannot come up with the cash, the land will belong to the purchaser until the Jubilee year, when it returns to the original owner.

If someone sells land within a walled city that has a house on it, it may be redeemed until one year after the sale. Afterward, the land belongs to the purchaser permanently. In the Jubilee year, he keeps the land. (Houses in unwalled cities return to the hereditary owner in Jubilee years.)

The cities of the Levites, and the houses therein, belong to the Levites. If they are sold, they may be immediately redeemed. And Levite land returns to rightful hands in the Jubilee.

Support your fellow needy neighbor -- converts and non-Jews alike (of course, only non-Jews who don't worship idols). Do not take interest from him. This is a double sin. Do not lend money or food with interest. God is God, your God, who took you out of Egypt to give you the Land.

If a Jew is sold to you as a slave, do not make him do demeaning labor. Treat him like an employee. Do not give him unnecessary labor. He should work for six years or until the next Jubilee, whichever comes first, and then he should return to his family as a free person. Jews are servants of God. They should not be sold as slaves. Fear your God.

You may acquire a slave from other nations and submit them to harsh labor. These slaves may remain in your permanent possession.

If a Jew is sold to a wealthy non-Jew as a slave, you should redeem him immediately. Or, if he should acquire money, he should redeem himself. The price should be calculated based on years until the next Jubilee. The price should be divided by this number of years, and he should be hired as if he were a daily worker. If you see a non-Jewish slave owner making a Jewish slave do harsh labor, you must stop him. In the Jubilee year, this slave is freed to be a slave of God. God is God, your God.

If you are sold into slavery, do not make idols or statues or prostrate yourself on pavement.

God is God, your God. Keep God's Sabbaths. Fear God's Sanctuary. God is God.

Questions: Why does the text emphasize that God speaks to Moses on Mt. Sinai? Why does it seem to say that the earth should rest first, then you should work for six year and then let the earth rest again? Isn't that a given? What is the significance in not picking fruit in the Jubilee year? Do you see reflections in the cycles of nature and what is being commanded of us? Why is charging interest a double sin? How can the laws of slavery be so blatantly discriminatory? Why are non-Jewish slaves kept even in the Jubilee year?

Parshat Behukotai

Study God's laws, guard and observe God's commandments, and rain will fall at the right time, the land will produce fruit and you will be satisfied with even a small amount of bread. You will be busy reaping what you sow. You will live in safety. There will be peace in the land. You will have nothing to fear. You will chase away your enemies, who will fall on their own swords as they run. Five of you will chase away 100 of them. One hundred will chase 10,000.

God will reward you and renew the Covenant anew. Your storage houses will be bursting. God's spirit will dwell among you. God will be your God. You will be God's people. God is God, your God, who took you out of slavery in Egypt.

BUT! Don't listen to God, and terrible things will happen. Don't study, don't perform the commandments, become disgusted by those who do, hate the scholars, stop others from observing the commandments, deny that they are God's commandments at all, break the covenant -- do all of this and God will do the same to you.

God forbid these things should happen, but they could: panic, inflammation, fever, disease, longing, anguish, drought, desolation, depravation, defeat, destruction, rot, malnourishment, incitement of terrifying animals, diminishment, more desolation, war, plague, famine, crumbled bread, cannibalism, Divine anger and disgust.

You will be scattered among the nations. You will be pursued for a long time. Your cities will become ruins. Then, the land will rest, and make up for the abuse it withstood under your desecration. There will be terror in the hearts of any of you who survive. A leaf will rustle, and you will shake in fear and run screaming into the night. No one will chase you, but you will run and run and stumble and fall. You will become lost. You will rot away.

But God will remember God's covenant. The covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The land will rest, and your sins will be forgiven. God will not annihilate you. God will remember the covenant.

Some laws God gives Moses on Mount Sinai:

If an adult makes a vow and pledges to give the value of a person's life to God's Sanctuary, there are fixed amounts he or she must give: 50 shekels for a man between 20 and 60 years old; 30 shekels for a woman of this age. Twenty shekels for a male between 5 and 20 years old; 10 shekels for a female. Five shekels for a male between one month and 5 years old; three for a female of this age. Fifteen shekels for a male over 60; 10 for a female. If the person cannot afford the designated amount, he should bring the pledgee before a priest, who will determine how much the pledger should give.

If a person pledges an animal -- or even a limb of an animal -- for the Temple, that animal (or that part of that animal) becomes holy. This animal must be sold, and the money should be given to the Temple. A consecrated animal should not be exchanged for another animal. If one does make an exchange, now both animals are consecrated. If the consecrated animal is blemished, it should be brought before a priest, who will determine its value. If the original owner sells the animal but wishes then to redeem it, he or she should buy it for the original price plus one-fifth. This applies to non-kosher animals, too.

If a man consecrates his house for the Temple, the priest should determine its value and fix it at that price. If the original owner wishes to redeem the house, he must pay that price plus one-fifth.

If a person dedicates a piece of his land to the Temple, its value is based on how much can be grown there. The price will change based on how many years are left until the next Jubilee. If he wishes to redeem it, he must pay one-fifth more than the original price. If he does not redeem it and the Temple sells it to someone else, it does not revert back to his possession at the next Jubilee -- instead, it will belong to the priests. If a person dedicates a field to the Temple that is not his hereditary land, the priest should determine its value, and then anyone may purchase the land from the priests for that price. In the Jubilee, the land returns to the hereditary owner.

A firstborn animal must be sacrificed to God. Ox and sheep alike belong to God.

Anything dedicated to be used by the priests may not be sold and should not be redeemed.

If a person consecrates another who has been sentenced to death by a court, this dedication is meaningless.

The tithe of the land belongs to God. If one should redeem his tithe, he should had one-fifth of the value.

If a person tithes his animals, the tenth animal should be offered to God on the altar. It is holy.

Questions: Why does the earth need to rest? Why are the horrible curses followed by a detailed discussion of how much individual lives are worth? Why are these Torah portions read together?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection:

  • When Is Idealism Idolatry? -- "I fear sometimes that in our efforts to create more just societies, we can become self-righteous, indulging in the idolatrous practice of worshipping our own ideals." (ON Scripture - The Torah)
  • Haftorah Behar-Behukotai -- In the supplemental haftorah, found in Jeremiah 16:19-17:14, the prophet warns the people about all sorts of transgressions. (My Jewish Learning)
  • Rashi on Parshat Behar-Behukotai -- The classic commentator in all his interpretive glory. (Chabad)
  • The Animated Parshat Behar -- "Betcha didn't know that the Torah has lots to say about sustainable farming practices. Organic farmer Emily Freed explains the laws of the land in down-to-earth language. So get your hands, or at least your ears, dirty!" (G-dcast)
  • The Blessing of Rain -- " is not enough to just pray for rain. The Torah teaches that our actions impact the rain as well. At the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Behukotai, we read that rainfall is a function of our doing G-d's will. If Israel keeps the Torah, G-d says, 'I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit...'" (Canfei Nesharim)
  • Rest and Re-focus -- "Shabbat, as it comes at the end of a work cycle, allows a respite from our materialistic involvement, a break from activity, and an allowance to just be. It is a much needed invitation to enter an oasis of time where we can be introspective, alone with G-d, ourselves and family. It is a time in which we can express ourselves as we really are, and not by what we 'do.'" (IYYUN)