A Tidbit of Torah – Parshat Behar 5784

If your kinsman is in straits and has to sell part of his holding, his nearest redeemer shall come and redeem what his kinsman has sold.                     Vayikra / Leviticus 25:25

Underlying the entire structure of the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee Year presented in our Torah portion is a deep concern for individuals and the concentric circles of responsibilities surrounding them. The Hebrew word karov, translated above as an adjective meaning nearest, can also function as a noun meaning relative. Baruch Levine1, in his commentary to the Book of Leviticus explains that the term originally expressed physical proximity as well as familial closeness since extended families often lived together.2 This is easily understood within a primarily agrarian society and in the Israelite model of land distribution through tribes, clans, and families.

The Torah affirms that these laws governing indebtedness and indenture are a bulwark against permanent alienation from primary sources of income and provides reset mechanisms to preclude ongoing poverty in a person’s lifetime and generational poverty in the society. Using the term redeem, an echo of God’s act of redeeming the Israelites as a nation from indentured servitude in Egypt and its attendant evils, emphasizes the role of family and clan relatives in assisting in moments of financial hardship and fiscal insolvency with an ultimate goal of restoring the individual’s independence.

Reading the Tanach, we see examples of how these laws were implemented in Israelite society, most famously in the Book of Ruth which we will read on Shavuot. The words of the prophets, and their critique of their fellow Israelites for their mistreatment of those who become impoverished highlights the reality that these laws were aspirational and reflected an ideal to be pursued.

Though millennia have passed the challenge reflected by these laws remains. Providing for those in need remains an ongoing issue demanding a response from those nearest, whether by family or by geography, along with the prophetic reminder that we all stand in one of the concentric circles of support.

We can begin to fulfill our role as redeemers in several ways including providing food items for local food banks including at the UJCVP, supporting the Virginia Peninsula Food Bank, https://hrfoodbank.org, or donating to MAZON: A Jewish response to Hunger, https://mazon.org .

Shabbat Shalom –

Rabbi David M. Eligberg

1 Dr. Baruch A. Levine is the is the Skirball Professor Emeritus of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University. Levine earned his Ph.D. at Brandeis University and has written prolifically mainly in the fields of Biblical studies and middle eastern studies and is the author of the JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus commentary. Levine also served as president of the American Oriental Society, the Association for Jewish Studies, and the Biblical Colloquium.

2 This paradigm explains why a daughter or sister who marries and thus leaves the family domicile is no longer considered “near” as she now belongs to another family.