A Season for Idealism

Rabbi Malka Mittelman
Rabbi, Skirball Hospice and co-founder of B'nei Mishkan, a Jewish community without walls

Parshat Behar/Bechukotai: Leviticus 25:1-27:34
Haftorah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

The teachings about Shemitah (the year of rest for the land that happens every seven years) and Yovel (the Jubilee year that happens every fifty years) in parshat Behar are a powerful reminder that we never need to give up hope for our greatest and noblest aspirations. Just imagine what it would take for the inhabitants of our beloved Land of Israel to actually follow the laws of Shemitah and Yovel, in this day and age. Don't groan, don't bother to think of the international headaches and problems and seeming impossibilities; instead, indulge the utopian, paradisiacal fantasy a moment, and imagine what supreme coordination and cooperation would be required of all those who hold responsibility for property in order for the Land to have a rest. No less than complete harmony in action would be necessary. How well would everyone in charge have to get along in order for the Land to receive due rest? What kind of trust between people would be necessary for the preparations to succeed? How many years in advance of the event would such trust have to endure? What would be required on individual, familial, national, and international levels? What kind of trust in G-d would be present, everywhere?

Abraham Isaac Kook notes that Talmud prohibits the freed slaves from going home during their first ten days of freedom at Yovel, at the beginning of Tishrei. They were bidden to eat and drink and make merry, with garlands on their heads. He suggests that this enforced celebration helped to substitute peaceful change for what might otherwise be violent social upheaval. Rav Kook, however, was a pragmatist as well as spiritualist. He knew that enforcing the biblical laws on the struggling moshav (farm) at the turn of the twentieth century could have devastating effects on the budding nation-to-be. He had to settle for knowing that the time was not here yet when the Land would enjoy a full Sabbath. One of the first opportunities to see the laws of Torah working in modern times would have to wait for a later day. Rav Kook seems to have known how to embrace a compromise without abandoning his ideal. 

In a recent issue of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, editor Rob Eshman quoted Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Palestinian oby/gyn whose three daughters were killed during the war in Gaza: "We don't look for governments to solve this... There is an Israeli people, and there is a Palestinian people; they will make the difference." One person at a time, a story is told, and some people listen. The ideal gets approached. Not many can listen to the painful stories just yet. It's a practice. What's so admirable about this doctor is that he is willing to come into Jewish communities to speak and to listen, and he knows the work is slow. Amidst the wounded and indignant cries from both sides, we should know that some healing has begun. "...The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen from among you, and you shall love him as yourself," Lev 19:33-34. Alienated as he is by aspects of Israeli society, Dr. Abuelaish behaves like "a citizen" from among us, and actualizes the ideal implicit in this commandment. As difficult as it may be, there are some commandments, such as Yovel, which we might long to realize and cannot yet, while there are others within our reach which we can realize now.

Many passages in the Book of Leviticus teach us about honor, purification, how to recall the sacred, and how to live with respect for ourselves and for all who live among us. In the Book's closing chapters, G-d reminds us to live in awareness of Divine providence through commandments that both require and deepen our trust. G-d trusts us to care for land and property, directing us to return our trust in kind. May we be granted the strength, wisdom and courage to merit our promised walk with the Holy One.