Weekly Davar: Behar-Bechukosai 2023

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

‘For the land belongs to Me; you are strangers and temporary residents…..’ (Leviticus 25:23)

This one idea – that land belongs to God and not to us – would have saved so much human suffering throughout the generations.

I often hear people say that religions have caused many wars. I usually counter that it is human beings supposedly practicing those religions that cause wars, not the religions themselves. But if we are to really consider the causes of war, the most common, by quite some way, is land. Alexander the Great, Rome and the other great early empires – fought for new lands. Russia’s war in Ukraine, is ultimately a dispute over land. Israel and the Palestinians – land. Hitler’s expansion eastward – ‘lebensraum’, land. America and the Native Tribes – land. Yes, there are often other factors such as ideology (religion being one example) and politics, but land is most commonly the fundamental factor.

There is something about land, and the ownership thereof, that arouses a visceral response in human beings. My late father, of blessed memory, was a mediator. He said that the worst disputes he dealt with were divorces. But a very close second was neighbours – and often it was about the tiniest and most irrelevant pieces of land between their properties. Land ownership is something that we human beings feel very strongly about. We get very attached. I think it’s about a sense of security. Possessions come and go, but land seems solid. It cannot be moved so it looks like it cannot be taken away. (Ask Jews who went through the holocaust about that one, though.)

The Torah goes out of its way to discourage this sense of attachment to land ownership. Land belongs to God, not human beings. We are simply grateful tenants. And laws in this portion strongly support this aim. Every seven years the land must lie fallow for a year – God owns the land, and we are given permission to use it only six years out of seven. Land must not be sold unless a person is becoming destitute – it is, after all, not ours to sell. Even when sold, it is only ever leasehold. A freehold cannot be sold in Torah law. And it returns to its original owners every jubilee year. 

Torah is not just a set of laws. It is a set of laws with divine purpose; a set of laws designed to develop and refine the human spirit. In its laws around land ownership, its goal is clear and noble. If only humanity would see the land we live on as God’s, this primordial and visceral drive could be curtailed and controlled. Of course, we would find other things to fight over, as is our nature. But ultimately, I believe that with our most fundamental cause of dispute gone, our world would look like a very different place.

Shabbat Shalom,

Shaul

Parsha in a Nutshell

The Torah portion begins with the laws of the Sabbatical year in which the Jewish people are commanded to desist from all agricultural activity. Every 50th year is the yovel, the Jubilee (an English word which clearly derives from the Hebrew) year, where agricultural activity is also prohibited. The portion also talks about land ownership and the buying and selling thereof. In Jewish law, there is no such thing as selling a freehold. Land can only ever be leased.

The second portion talks firstly of the good that will befall the Jewish people if they live up to their billing of being a light to the nations and then it talks about what will happen if not. Unfortunately, the latter part of the portion is much more the story of Jewish history than the former.

Weekly Davar: Bechukosai

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Davar Thought

This portion is in essence a list of punishments, or perhaps consequences, if the Jewish People chose not to keep Torah.

Nowadays, the idea of punishment to get people to change has gone out of fashion; understandably so. People might change superficially if you force them to do something. But the change will not be genuine, meaningful, or lasting. So, if God wants superficially compliant, but deep down sceptical, even resentful, ‘servants’, then fear of punishment is likely the way to go. But personally, I don’t believe that’s what God wants from human beings.

So, what’s this portion all about then?

I’ve mentioned before that when I was a very young boy, I was in a restaurant with my late father a”h. I noticed octopus on the menu and said that it sounded disgusting. My father responded how could I know it was disgusting if I had never tasted it? I answered how could octopus be anything other than disgusting… wrong answer. He ordered me the dish and insisted that I at least try it. I tasted the first bit, ran outside and threw up in the street. Thus proving my point that octopus was disgusting!

Kosher issues aside, I agree with my father in principle. When I was seventeen, I drank three quarters of a bottle of cheap whisky and was throwing up for forty-eight hours. For fifteen years, just the smell of whisky would make me retch. Or so I thought. A good friend of mine encouraged me to try again in my thirties. He insisted that I smell some whisky. Lo and behold, I didn’t retch as I was certain I would. I tried a sip and it didn’t taste as bad as I expected. Slowly but surely (for better or for worse!), I found my way back to drinking whisky and it has now become a great pleasure for me. It took a lot for my friend to get me to try it – and he was persistent. But once I did, I found a new joy in life.

There is a principle at play here. We human beings do not always know what’s best for us until we have tried it out. But since we are conditioned and make assumptions, we often are unwilling to try. So how do we get ourselves to try something new when we are convinced that we don’t want to?

I think this is Torah’s point. On the surface, being good doesn’t always look worth it. It usually doesn’t bring immediate gratification. And so, left to their own devices, people will not always do so. But create consequences and you should at least get people to try it out. And the theory is that once they have tried out being good on a consistent basis, they will see that they enjoy it a lot more than following every base desire that comes their way. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I believe there is a solid logic in it. The concept in Judaism is called lo lishma ba lishma. A person who does something for the wrong reasons, will eventually come to doing so for the right ones. There is, of course, much more to be said about this.

There will always be octopus situations – whereby people are so convinced they cannot enjoy doing the right thing that they will be resentful no matter what. But, on the whole, setting up a structure to insist that people taste the pleasure of goodness might well ensure that more people end up seeing its value in the long run.

Shabbat Shalom

Parsha in a Nutshell

The Torah portion talks firstly of the good that will befall the Jewish people if they live up to their billing of being a light to the nations and then it talks about what will happen if not. Unfortunately, the latter part of the portion is much more the story of Jewish history than the former.