April 13, 2024 |

Bechukotai - Shmita and Personal Responsibility

Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom 5779

Good shabbes!
In today’s parashah, it turns out that I’m worth 50 shekels. By the sanctuary weight. And my mom said I’d never amount to anything.
I’ll get back to the 50 shekels, but first, some of you may know, for years, my family has been working with a children’s environmentalist group called “Plant for the Planet,” which is devoted to fighting climate change by changing land use. It’s a great group, with bold, vocal kids, and I encourage people age 6-16 to check us out. When I was given the opportunity to speak Parasha Bechukotai from an environmentalist perspective, I thought, wow, it’s right there in big print. If we obey the laws, we’ll have good weather and good crops; If we don’t walk in the way of the laws and follow the commandments, we’ll have crop failure, famine, plague, war, and exile. And in our Gaon Deirdre Gabbay’s Shmita blog, you’ll find a d’rash pointing out that the commandment most emphasized in the text, in Bechukotai and Behar, is shmita, giving the land the rest it needs. The parsha specifically says, ch. 26:34-35, the land will go fallow and recover for all the shmita years it missed. In case we miss how vital the shmita law is to all of this, in 2d Chronicles 36, there’s a callback to this parsha, where we find that the Babylonian exile lasted 70 years “until the land had been paid her shabbats; for as long as she lay desolate she kept shabbat.” And in our time, climate scientists and agronomists are telling us that an essential, necessary part of reducing climate change will be regenerative land-use practices in farming, including crop rotation to give the land a chance to restore itself, will be. In Pirkei Avot ch. 5 v 9, we are told, based on Bechukotai, that "Exile comes to the world on account of transgressing idolatry, sexual immorality, murder, and failure to keep the shmita.” Land-use is as critical as murder. These days, that does not seem abstract.
So, boom, there’s the d’var, easy peasy.
But…something bothered me. Because that’s only half the parashah.
Chapter 26, first half: If you follow the laws, good weather, good crops, safety, no vicious beasts, no invasions, military success
Chapter 26, second half: If you don’t, utter catastrophe. The natural world will rebel. You will be exiled. You will be torn apart. You will eat your own children.
Chapter 27: Now, let’s talk about those gifts to Adonai. And today only, the part of the Kohane Gadol will be played by Edward G. Robinson.
But seriously, let’s talk about gifts to Adonai. There it is in Bechukotai, in Chapter 27. If you ignore the laws and fail to husband the land, you’ll suffer, you’ll bleed out the ears, apocalypse, exile. Now, gifts to the temple. Whiplash much? Why are we talking about gifts to the temple in this context? And why are we talking FIRST about a gift you CAN’T make?
What I mean by that is, there’s this whole list of possible donations. If you want to give to G-d, you may commit anything you own. You may donate it chereim, proscribed, in which case it’s an irrevocable gift. Or you may pledge it with the right of redemption, which in practice, may reduce to giving the money value plus a handling surcharge. Everything has a monetary value, assessed by the priest, to set the redemption price. You can give your house. Your unclean animals—I don’t know why you have them, but you can give them. Your real property, your leaseholds, your fruit, your grain, everything. Absolutely, or redeemably. Except one thing, the very first thing discussed:
You cannot pledge yourself or another free person. You can donate another human being, if he or she has already been reduced to part of your property, to slavery. A slave, you can pledge or proscribe to G-d. But free people including yourself, you can only make a neder, a pledge, of the money value. It makes sense that you can’t donate a person you don’t own. But why not yourself? The Christians do it. And again, why do we discuss the one thing you can’t give, before we talk about all of the others, and right after the parade of horribles?
One answer is suggested by the text. You cannot vow to G-d the firstborn of a clean animal, because it is already HaShem’s. So is that the answer? We are Avodat Adonai, slaves of G-d, we’re already G-d’s, we can’t give the same thing twice.
But it says we CAN pledge the equivalent value. If there’s nothing to give, why talk about this money as the person’s value? Why not just say, nu, you want to give money, give money. Here’s the suggested donation amount per person, based on sex and age. But that’s NOT what it says here. It says, an equivalent. You cannot donate yourself, don’t even think about it, there’s no such thing, but if you wanted to, which you can’t, here’s the redemption value, which we’ll never use as a redemption, because you can’t do it. Why? Can we all agree, this is a very strange way to address this topic?
To answer that question, I ask another question. Why might a person want to vow himself to G d in the first place?
Let’s go back to where the possibility is first raised: right after this horrifying description of, if you don’t follow the laws and perform the commandments, things will get very, very bad. And what does walk in the way of the laws mean? Rashi says it means to actively, diligently study. You have to direct yourself, you have to study, and get it right, and then do it right. Not just for your own sake, for everyone’s. That is a weighty responsibility.
Wouldn’t one easy answer be to just say, I quit? Let the kohanim figure it out. Andrew, you’re a kohane, you do it, I’m out. I’m vowing myself over to G-d, now it’s the priests’ problem. Call the Kohane Gadol, tell him, I’ll follow his directions, I’ve got no responsibility. I have certainly felt that urge. Well, maybe not literally to ask Andrew for direction, but to let our modern priests, guys in white coats who know stuff, media personalities, let them handle it. Climate change is such a huge, difficult problem. I don’t want to work on it, because then I have to think about it, and that’s depressing. Literally. It could give you an anxiety attack. Let the priests decide what needs to be done. I’ll just make a neder, tell me where to write a check. I give up.
That’s the one thing we can’t do. We can give money to help. That’s great. But it does not absolve us of our individual responsibility to maintain the world. Every day, we still have to do our part. We can’t make a neder and have it annulled by Kol Nidrei. We have to do the right thing knowing that it’s not just our consciences that rest on it, not just our own well-being, not just our own lives, it’s everyone’s lives, and it’s the land itself. And we have to decide, each of us, what that thing is. You gotta walk that lonesome valley, you gotta walk it by yourself.
What does that mean in our world, today? We’re not actively keeping shmita. Any farmers here?
Well, the text also gives us a little hint on that. Ch.27 verse 8: if you want to pledge yourself, if you feel this need to pledge, but you don’t have enough money—and 30 or 50 shekels is a lot of money, much more than Joseph was sold for, most people don’t have it to spare—but if you don’t have enough money, the priest will set your value. Our translation says, according to what you can afford, but the Hebrew phrasing is, “according to the naw-sag yod of him who vowed will the priest value him.” The naw-sag yod, the reach of his hand. His abilities. What is your value? The reach of your hand is your value. How far can you reach? Not as a slave, someone following orders, but as an independent Jew with skin in the game. Use your own ability. You’re a lawyer? Write an amicus brief, write a comment on proposed rules. You’re a business owner? Use environmentally sound supplies, lobby legislators, they listen to employers. You’re an academic? Write to the editor, write postcards to get climate change deniers’ opponents elected. Programmer? Contribute some time to local governments to help them protect their voting systems? Write software to model the benefits of competing land-use methods? I don’t know, I’m not you.
Get involved. Educate yourself. Go to 350.org, go to our own Deirdre Gabbay’s Shmita blog, link from there, learn. Set a schedule. As Rabbi Tarfon said in Pirkei Avot chapter 2: “The day is short, the task is great, the paid laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. …You do not have to finish the task, but you are not free to give up.” Good shabbes.


Manny Jacobowitz

Joined: December 12, 2010

Manny and his two kids are members of Congregation Beth Shalom. He approaches Torah as an actor and lawyer, looking for character motivation.

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