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Drash on Parashat B'har-Bechukotai 2021

Drash on Parashat B'har-Bechukotai     

Rabbi Gary Robuck
Educational Adventurist, Gesher Educational Services
Consulting Rabbi for the Progressive Congregation of the ACT Jewish Community and Beit Or v'Shalom, Brisbane


When less Is more 

“In the beginning …" there were books. Then later, radio. But in time, people grew tired of staring at their radio, so a new source for information and entertainment was created and it was called, “television”, and it was good (if only in moderation).   

Today, however, we live in a new digital age where we can listen to and watch what we want to, whenever we choose. Welcome to the age of the podcast.  

I love my podcasts. One of my favourites is called “The Minimalists”.  The Minimalists are two guys, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who in their books, movies and podcasts explore for the millions of fans, what they call, “The Meaningful Life”.   

These two “30-somethings” have redefined for themselves what is “success” and what it means to them to be “happy”. They are quick to explain that being a minimalist does not require anyone to merely start pitching things out. What being a minimalist means, according to Joshua and Ryan, is focusing on making room for more: more time, more passion, more experiences, more growth, more contribution, more contentment and more freedom.

I thought about The Minimalists when reviewing the contents of this week’s sidrah, B’har, in chapter 25 of Sefer Vayikrah (Leviticus). It is a magnificent portion for the minimalist in all of us. It describes how our ancestors, once in Eretz Yisrael, were to care for the land, for each other, and to observe a “Sabbath of the Eternal” (verse 2). 

The Sabbatical Year, or sh’mittah, in which the land was to rest, introduces a raft of religious, social and economic principles meant to curb our natural acquisitiveness.  Sefer HaChinuch, a 16th Century book enumerating each of the 613 mitzvot, emphasizes how both the Sabbatical and later the Jubilee laws helped to restrain man’s appetite for property, for goods and produce and, in this way, grow more generous towards others.    

Likewise, Kli Yakar, a 16th Century homiletical commentary on the chumash, saw in the sh’mittah the prospect of generating “peace and goodwill” among people, who in theory would own nothing at the time of the yoveil. “No-one, not even the poorest person, would sow or harvest”, and for that reason, people would be free from envy and jealousy over possessions, and quarrels originating when one owns what the other wants would stop.   

Rambam (Maimonides) argued that the shmittah, a year of rest for the land, contributed to the “physical productivity of the land” in the long run, a notion that modern science confirms.Ibn Ezra, the 12th Century Spanish scholar, saw in the sh’mittah the opportunity for the Jewish people, once relieved of caring for the land, to engage in study of the Torah for one full year out of seven, much like Shabbat permits us to learn one day out of each week.  Imagine that: everyone studying Torah, possessed with such trust in God that they need not worry about their land, their food or their future.   

It is not only the classic commentators who weigh in on the significance of the sh’mittah and yoveil years, but also men like Rav Kook, one of my personal favourite Jewish thinkers.  Kook, viewed these laws not as the others did, from a religious, social or economic viewpoint, but from a spiritual perspective:  Writing in the first half of the 20th Century, he had this to say: “The normal pursuit of one’s livelihood and business transactions (including paying back debts) are all interrupted at this time in the renunciation of the “sacrilege of excessive worry about individual property.”  Thus, in the seventh year the supernatural quality of the Jewish soul is allowed to blossom once more.” Kook, a devout vegan, was also clearly a minimalist too.  

I love this portion.  It is the same one that grandly proclaims: "U’k’ratem dror ba’aretz – You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants, to your fellow Jew, to your servant, to the poor, to the resident alien, to the sojourner” (25:10). All these sorts are to enjoy relief from poverty and be afforded, as we say here in Australia, a “fair go”. And we, who enjoy so many blessings, are told: v’he’che’zakta bo - to strengthen them. How civilising. How revolutionary. How Jewish.   

As I reread these words in light of the gross inequality so baldly revealed in the past 12 months, when I think about how attached we are to our “things” and how hard we work to accumulate more and more of them, I wonder whether the Torah wasn’t on to something after all. Something timeless.  

To me, the message from this week’s sidrah is clear and ennobling: All that we have may be viewed as given to us but for a moment, so we are to treasure it. What we possess is ours as if on loan, so we are to care for it: our homes, our health, our fortunes. What we have, in other words, should not be towards the goal of gaining more, but in gaining meaning.   

Wherever we may reside in our vast region, let us be grateful on this Shabbat for what we have and for those with whom we share it.

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