Drash on Parashat B'har
Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black
Leo Baeck Centre for Progressive Judaism
East Kew, VIC
Israeli Jews arrived at the mountain last week, and most Progressive Jews worldwide did as well, for the same reason, whilst the Orthodox community is not reading Parashat B’har until this Shabbat. The reason is that in Israel and for Progressive Jews, Pesakh only lasts the biblically ordained seven days. Starting this year on Friday evening, it finished before Shabbat on Friday 22 April, so we read Akharei Mot on that Shabbat. For the Orthodox Diaspora community, marking the last day on Friday 22 AND (just in case of error) on Saturday 23 as well, they only resumed the normal cycle the following Shabbat – so we have been a week ahead since then (and will be until 30 July when the Orthodox world will read the double portion of Mattot/Masei but we will already be on Masei, having read Mattot the previous week).
The Israelites learn that a year of rest is to be added to the calendar, so that, when they enter the promised land, it can truly reveal its full promise by having a fallow year to regenerate after every six productive ones.
And so, even today in the land of Israel, a year of sabbatical or release is marked – called Shmita, running from New Year to New Year – and Israel is marking a Shmita year at present. That means the land is not supposed to be cultivated or harvested.
But most Jews I know love their food and, not surprisingly, ways have been found around this problem. Although good organic practices may utilise a fallow year for some crops, famers worldwide know that this is not economically very competitive, so other methods such as crop rotation are more frequently used. The sabbatical rules only apply to land in Israel, and furthermore, land owned by Jews. So some landowners and institutions make a technical transfer to a non-Jew. They will draw up a contract that says for example ‘for a shekel, you will buy my land for a year, and I’ll be free to buy it back at the end of the year’! This is similar to the idea of temporarily selling all Chametz during Pesakh.
I would prefer to say ‘We do not understand that every word of Torah was literally dictated or written by God – rather that Torah is our human attempt to answer the question ‘What does God require of us?’. We do not accept that God gave the impractical rule that the land across all of Israel should lie fallow for the same year. Rather it was seen at the time it was written over three thousand years ago (and, according to its own chronology, it was written before they had even entered the land!) to be a good idea to preserve the productivity of the land, but is no longer the only way to proceed today.
Actually, our progressive Jewish kibbutzim had a similar conversation when they established their dairy herds in the Negev. If you have cows, you are obligated to milk them on Shabbat, since it is cruel not to do so. But you must not benefit from the milk – that is, you should not drink it, or sell it. Hence thousands of litres of milk could be washed down the drain every Shabbat. The kibbutzim came up with another solution – we must not benefit from it – but others could! So they decided to milk the cows but not waste the milk – instead, when they sold their produce, they allocated one seventh – the Shabbat production – to charity.
But the Torah portion goes further. The shmitah year might have seemed a good idea – surviving on the food stored from the previous year, but it then adds the idea of a jubilee year, after seven cycles of shmitah. So after forty-nine years, a jubilee is to be celebrated. The land that had been sold during that time should be returned to its original families, because the land belongs to God, and can only be leased, and all Israelite slaves are to be freed. But also, in that year, immediately following the seventh sabbatical year, the land was to again lie fallow and not be farmed. So in the Jubilee year, you had to live off food that was not at least one year old, but at least two! This alone makes us believe that this idea was more theoretical than practical, and there is no attempt to mark it in modern Israel. The reason they have found is that, according to a handy interpretation of biblical law, the Jubilee need only be observed when all twelve tribes of the Jewish nation are living in Israel. Conveniently it has been determined that they are not – after all, ten of the twelve tribes were lost when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed some 730 years before the common era or 2750 years ago. But one part of the Jubilee tradition does live on each year – it was to be announced on Yom Kippur, by blowing the shofar across the land. So when we are in shul at the end of Yom Kippur (and whoever our new Government is by then!), that one long last blast of the shofar connects back to this portion and this part of our rich and beautiful Jewish tradition.