Parashat Behar Behukotai 05.12.18

D’var Torah: Channels of Connection

Rachel Schwartz, Conservative Yeshiva Student & Lishma Fellow

Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem

This week, we find ourselves in the sixth week of Sefirat HaOmer, the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot when we, like Bnai Yisrael at Mt. Sinai, prepare ourselves to receive the Torah. We look inwards and examine the ways we manifest Godliness in the world, each week guided by a different kabbalistic sefirah – or divine emanation. This week’s sefirah is yesod – the foundation – the manifestation of creating channels of connection.

This joint Torah portion this week, Behar-Behukkotai, marks the end of the book of Leviticus with laws governing ownership of land and of people. We are also reminded to walk in the way of God’s rules and mitzvot and are told of the blessings we will receive if we follow God, or the curses that will fall upon us if we do not. What can we learn from it about building channels of connection?

Imagine a close friend comes to you in despair: She lost her job and has been unable to pay her bills. She offers to do any job you need, in the hopes of getting back on her feet. What do you do?

The Torah refers to this situation as “וְכִֽי־יָמ֣וּךְ אָחִ֔יךָ” – v’chi yamuch achicha. The root of yamuch, the letters mem, vav, chaf, is found only in this Torah portion, where it appears four times. What it actually means, and how that relates to other kinds of poverty, may give us some insight.

The first time, in Vayikra 25:25, our fellow has been forced to sell his or her land holdings. The second time, in VaYikra 25:35, our fellow has somehow come under our power. The third time, VaYikra 25:39, our fellow has been sold to us as a kind of indentured servant. And the fourth time, VaYikra 25:47, our fellow has become an indentured servant to a resident alien – someone who is not part a member of the extended Israelite family.

A careful reader of text, Vayikra Rabba, the midrashic anthology of Leviticus, explains: “There are eight names for a poor person: ani, evyon, misken, rash, dal, dach, mach, helech…Mach [trampled upon] because he is lowly before everyone, like a kind of lowest threshold.” (Vayikra Rabba 34:6) The “mach” is one who has dropped below some kind of poverty threshold such that others gain power over them, and can trample them. There is more to do here than just give a little tzedaka or leave the corners of your fields un-harvested.

The Torah commands us to redeem our fellow’s lost holdings, returning that which provides financial security, and we are forbidden to take accrued interest on the support we give. They are not to become our slaves, nor are we to let them become slaves to others.

The medieval French commentator, Rashi (1040-1105 CE), explains that when one is faced with a fellow who has fallen on hard times: “You shall support him: Do not allow him to fall down and collapse altogether, in which case it would be difficult to pick him up again [from his dire poverty]. Rather, “support him” while his hand is still faltering [for then it is easier to help him out of his trouble]. To what can this be compared? To a load on a donkey-while it is still on the donkey, one person can grasp it and hold it in place. Once it falls to the ground, however, [even] five people cannot pick it up.”

Rashi tasks us with building relationships where we are attuned to the needs and struggles of those around us, including ourselves. When your friend comes to you, desperate for a job, you are to give her a fair job with a fair wage, treat her with kindness and not take advantage of her position. It is your obligation to strengthen her as she falters and to pick her up before she sinks too low.

This week, guided by both our parasha and Sefirat HaOmer, we should reflect on the foundation of the relationships we have built with those around us. Are we able to know when our family and friends need a strengthening hand? Are they able to know when we need a strengthening hand? If the answer is no, we must open a channel of connection. And if the answer is yes, we should reinforce the channel of connection with expressions of gratitude.

חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזֵּק – Be strong, be strong, and we shall be strengthened.