Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2
Behar is the name, and tzedakah is the game. Many of us have grown up equating tzedakah with giving charity, but the word literally means: “doing right.” We give charity when we are moved to help the less fortunate. We do tzedakah because it is how we are supposed to live our lives, regardless of how we may feel at any given time.
Behar begins with instructions for “doing right” for the earth by giving the land a rest, a full sabbath from work every seven years. This is where, I think, the word ‘sabbatical’ originates. Then, it continues on to describe the Jubilee year, as the cornerstone of a system where land (the source of power) can never be permanently sold but must be restored to the family of its original owner every 50 years. Why does this matter? The Jubilee creates a generational reset, so that every generation has the same opportunity for prosperity in the Promised Land.
From here, we move on to a series of additional laws of tzedakah regarding how to look after the poor. There are many words in Hebrew for a poor person: there is oni, and rash and evyon and nitzrach. However, none of those words appear even once in Behar. Instead, we read no fewer than seven different times about achicha. Achicha means “your brother,” and the nice biblical number of seven iterations adds weight to the term.
Torah makes no distinction between the value of ‘poor people’ and ‘rich people.’ Instead, it reminds us that we are all brothers, and we should treat each other accordingly: with respect, dignity and empathy. In giving charity, we might think that we are better off than the recipient, but ‘better off’ is only three letters away from ‘better.’ Framing our actions with this viewpoint can create a separation between the giver and the receiver, and even dehumanize the exchange. Instead, Torah teaches us what to do “should our brother come to ruin.” [Lev. 25:35] It reminds us that tragedy can strike any of us, and that we need each other. Indeed, Behar could very well be a biblical expression of the more modern phrase: “it takes a village.” Indeed, according to the rabbis, even the poorest of the poor are required to give tzedakah.
Behar calls us not only to a life of tzedakah, of doing right, but to create a community of tzedakah, so that we may all enjoy the fruits of the land.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras