Topic: Shmita

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Korach: When Is The Desire For Equality Sincere? by Avraham Norin

“Capable leadership can use authority wisely to contribute to solidarity and equality.” A memorable line from the movie The Incredibles is said as Syndrome captures the Incredible family and explains his grandiose plan to the captured heroes “I’ll sell my inventions so that everyone can be superheroes. Everyone can be super! … And when everyone’s super, no one will be.” Syndrome’s reasoning, derived from his jealousy of the Incredibles, is similar to that of Korach in this week’s parasha. Korach, the oldest son of Amram’s younger brother, was a first cousin of Moses. Yet he was not awarded any leadership position in Israel- neither president, priest nor prophet. Therefore, Korach started an anti-Moses campaign, stirring up the crowds against Moses with slogans such as “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy!” and ” Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” Korach felt that if he couldn’t be a leader, then no one should be able to be one. Korach preached complete equality, but in reality, he was only interested in Moses’ demise. To paraphrase Syndrome, Korah knew that when everyone is a leader, no one is really a leader.   Once every seven years, the […]

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Shlach: Honoring The Bounty by Rachel Siegal

“A person who is deeply connected to the land around her is a person who can honor its uniqueness, celebrate its bounty, and respect its need to rest.” This week’s parsha, Shlach, contains the well-known scene of the scouts sent to assess the land of Canaan for its habitability. Chosen from each Israelite tribe, the twelve  scouts are charged with reporting back on the people who live there, what the towns look like, how rich the soil is, how wooded the area is, and to bring back a sample of the type of fruit that grows there. This seems like a reasonable request: when we ourselves are considering a new town to live in, we certainly want to know more about what the people are like, whether the houses, say, are mostly in gated communities, what the school options are for our children, and where the open spaces and parks are located.  Do we also want to know what fruits are native to the region? Perhaps, although most are unlikely to factor that question into our modern day assessment, given our ease of access to all kinds of produce from all around the world in most grocery stores. Inspired by […]

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B’haalot’cha: Of Fertility And Infertility In Land And People by Anna Burke

“Action and prayer work hand-in-hand; we cannot rely solely on God for our well-being, but we can derive meaning and support from walking our journeys with God in our hearts and minds.” Parashat B’haalot’cha marks the beginning of the Israelites’ journey from Sinai to the Promised Land as they make their final preparations, set out from their encampment, and grapple with the challenges they face along the way. The Israelites push God’s buttons with their complaining, and in this portion even Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses, and God by extension. God punishes Miriam with leprosy for speaking out against Moses. Upon hearing Aaron’s plea for forgiveness, Moses prays for his sister with the words, “El na refa na la,” meaning, “Please God, heal her.” Moses’ prayer for healing has become a staple of the Jewish tradition that compels us to lean on God as our source of healing. We trust in God to heal the earth in the shmita year as we allow the land to rest, and hopefully, in turn, become rejuvenated. Maintaining faith in God as we remove ourselves from our regular activities and work can be challenging, especially at our most vulnerable times. And yet, we know […]

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Carol Glass

Naso: Lift Up Their Heads – And Notice Them, by Rabbi Carol Glass

“Moving towards equity, inclusion, and diversity by truly seeing others and sharing our bounty with them.” By mandating a 7th year cessation of all agricultural production and the release of intra-Jewish debts, shmita is a highly ‘disruptive’ ancient Jewish practice with important lessons for today’s world. As Kohenet Rabbi Sarah Bracha Gershuny has pointed out: Shmita slows down the race to the top (of production and power), supports more equitable distribution of wealth, and promotes generosity, forward planning, and collective care, while encouraging self-control for the long haul. Shmita is about love of land and it is also about love of and for, all people and creatures. It is by interrupting our drives to produce, accumulate wealth, compete, and establish boundaries, that we learn that drives are not the same as needs—that sharing, reducing what separates us, and watching out for one another make for a holier (holistic) existence. Our parasha, in choosing the word ‘Naso’ (see Num 4:22), emphasizes this message. In Biblical Hebrew the phrase “Naso et Rosh” is used to mean “Take a census of…” however, Naso literally means “carry, lift up”, and also “forgive”; so the phrase ‘naso et rosh…’ literally means ‘Lift up the heads […]

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Rabbi Eli Herb

BaMidbar: Being Sustained, In Eden and the Wilderness, by Rabbi Eli Herb

“To create a society balanced between the curse of civilization and the wildness of being nourished by the Creator.” “When the Holy Blessed One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl fluttered, no ox lowed … the sea did not roar, the creatures did not speak; the universe was silent and mute.” (Exodus Rabbah 29:7) The Creator brought all into being for this moment of receiving; the whole world was wired with the knowledge that this moment would come. When the moment came, everything was still, receptive. At the beginning, Creator placed the human being in Gan Eden where all received sustenance from Creation herself. Tragically, humanity (and humanity alone) was exiled to become workers of the land, civilized, alienated. Empires and imperialism, slavery and injustice, inequality and exploitation arise from this exile.  Gan Eden remains, Torah tells us, guarded by flaming swords, mostly inaccessible to those of us cursed to live in the civilized world. At the same time, Gan Eden evolved in our tradition to be a synonym for the World that is Coming (and is even now flowing like a great river into the world). It remains a place we can access; like Torah, Gan Eden […]

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Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson

BeHukkotai: Why Land is Different, by Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson

“Land is imbued with holiness, which means that like God, it is beyond human measures of usefulness or control” As we prepare to close the Book of Leviticus, the Torah’s pinnacle, we are left with a message of responsibility, consequences, and possibilities. God presents us with the benefits of making wise choices and the consequences of choosing poorly. Then the Torah provides for the funding of the sanctuary and its staff: our participation with monetary support, pledges of animals or homes. But when it pivots to pledges of land, the Torah shifts gears entirely. Land, you see, is ours to borrow and to use. But humans presume they can own land. In reality, the land makes its claim on us, and we can either open ourselves to its ground rules, or we risk a rootlessness that leaves us clinging when the next sandstorm swirls. We are, as the book reminds us, “resident strangers (Leviticus 25:23)” on earth. The Land precedes us and the land will bury us when we no longer need our bodies. We are dust, and we return to dust (Genesis 3:19). On some deeper level of reality, it is all just dust, earth, soil.  Judaism directs our […]

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Parshat Behar: To Dwell Within Them, by Arthur Green

״אין לך פרשה שאין בה תחיית המתים אלא שאין בנו כח לדרוש״  (ספרי האזינו ש״ו) There is no portion in the Torah that cannot be brought back to life, if only we had the strength to interpret!” (Sifrei, Ha’azinu 306:35) 1 וידבר יהו״ה אל משה בהר סיני לאמור…ושבתה הארץ שבת ליהו״ה  “Y-H-W-H spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying…the land shall rest in a godly Sabbath (25:1-2). Rashi famously opens by asking: “What does the Sabbatical have to do with Sinai?” Why, among all the many commandments, should this be specifically designated as spoken at the Mountain? The Talmud (b. Sanh. 39a) explains the commandment this way:  “Plant for six years and rest in the seventh, so that you will know that the land belongs to Y-H-W-H.”  But, in the broadest sense, that is the purpose of all the other commandments as well! The earth is filled with God’s presence since its creation. That did not begin at Sinai. Torah was given to provide us with a way to discover that presence, and a path of living in response to it. “The world was created by ten divine utterances,” says the Mishnah (Avot 5:1). These ma’amarot are the ten times […]

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Parshat Emor: Making It All Count, By Rabbi Jon Kelsen

“Counting the Omer – like the shemitah cycle – invites us to believe that each day, week and year is count-worthy, valuable and unique.” One after the other, the days proceed. The slog continues on, with no progress or forward movement in sight. Familiar mistakes are made again. Regrettable habits deepen, and the hours between getting up and lying down start to look all alike. The only thing passing is time itself. This “Groundhog Day” experience of ennui is familiar now to so many. On those gray days and listless years, many of us find ourselves asking: Does this all add up to anything? Do my days, weeks, and years count?  The Torah indicates that, indeed, they do. Literally.  Parshat Emor consists of two major components: first, laws relevant to the priest (mourning, eating sacred foodstuff) and second, an elaborate discussion of the yearly festival cycle. This includes discussion of the Omer period, bridging Pesach and what we call Shavuot (the feast of weeks), in which we find ourselves today.  The Torah commands (Lev. 23:21) that, at the time of the wheat harvest, on the day following the “Shabbat” (i.e. the beginning of the Pesach holiday, according to rabbinic tradition), […]

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Parashat Kedoshim: How To Be Holy Now?, by Rabbi Atara Cohen

“Taking a step back to envision a holy, caring society – especially in light of the oppression perpetuated by this very parasha.” Parashat Kedoshim begins with what one might call a “greatest hits” compilation of mitzvot. Here God lists the ways in which we are to become holy: honor our parents, keep shabbat, treat our employees fairly, give away parts of our crops to those less fortunate than us, and many other obligations which often align with our modern values. Famously, we are commanded to love others as ourselves. Kedoshim offers a glimpse of what holiness might be: creating a society of caring for others.  However, amidst these beautiful mitzvot which offer structures of justice, we find prohibitions of certain sex acts. One of these prohibitions in particular has been appropriated to oppress LGBTQ+ people for millennia. Among verses which call for care, our parasha has verses which historically have caused physical, emotional, and spiritual harm — harm which continues to be perpetuated today. It is not clear how to reconcile these challenging prohibitions with the parasha’s call for loving others as ourselves. However, the parasha presents us with the mission to be holy. If holiness is aligned with care, […]

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Acharei Mot: You Can Be Too At Home by Abe Mezrich

“What you see as your own private grounds is actually a base from which to serve the world.” It makes sense that Aaron’s sons would bring a strange fire to God in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Aaron their father is the high priest. They are priests themselves. The building and inauguration of the Mishkan, and the sewing of the uniforms and the inauguration of the priests—they all come together. And at their inauguration, Aaron’s sons are to stay in the Mishkan—not stepping out once—for a whole week. Why not, then, see the Mishkan as their home? Why not see it as their own private grounds for their own private flame? After He strikes Aaron’s sons down, God offers a new set of laws. These laws take Aaron and his remaining family far afield from the Mishkan and the pristine sacrifice. Now the priests are to teach the people the difference between pure and impure, are to help the people navigate the animal kingdom, bodies of water, bodily fluids. The priests are to serve new mothers who come bearing offerings. The priests are to visit lepers’ homes. After commanding these laws, God teaches Aaron of Yom Kippur. On that day Aaron—and whichever […]

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Vincent Calabrese

Pesach Torah Reading: Between Particular and Universal, by Vincent Calabrese

“Though the Exodus tells the story of one nation’s birth, the legal and religious system to which it gives rise is open to outsiders.” On Passover our Torah reading is taken from one of the most dramatic moments of the Book of Exodus (12:21-51): the Israelites mark the doors of their homes with lamb’s blood to protect against the plague which strikes down the firstborn of Egypt. In wake of the terrible destruction wrought against the Egyptians, they march out of the chaos that has overtaken the land of their long bondage.  Jewish tradition distinguishes between the ‘Passover of Egypt’ — the unique observance detailed here — and the ‘Passover of the Generations,’ which is instituted as a way for the Israelites to commemorate the Exodus once they have entered the land of Canaan, the first laws of which conclude our Passover Torah reading. In this final section, we read that should a male sojourner wish to partake in the Passover sacrifice, he must first undergo circumcision — the first instance in our tradition of something resembling conversion to Judaism as we know it today. Though the Exodus tells the story of one nation’s birth, the legal and religious system […]

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Metzora: Illness And Recovery, Then And Now by Mira Potter-Schwartz and Rabbi Ariel Milan-Polisar

Just as the Torah provides an opportunity for recovery regardless of poverty level – different recovery pathways dependent on means – so too should our health system. Parshat Metzora marks the end of the instructions that detail what a person afflicted with tzaraat, “scaly disease”, has to do to become pure again.  The processes include various rituals that are laid out in very deliberate ways, with specific instructions for the order in which they should be performed. The text outlines special instructions for those who are poor. Commentators suggest that the word דל, dal, “poor,” could refer either to someone who is without means (as the text explicates) or someone who is severely ill. In a world where COVID is still a reality, and there are procedures for returning to normality after testing positive for COVID, the parallels are undeniable.  We know that our healthcare system favors those with greater resources. In a 2020 study done at the Center for Health Policy at the University of Virginia, doctors found that, “Lower education levels and greater percentages of black residents are strongly associated with higher rates of both COVID-19 cases and fatalities.” This study tells us that our current system doesn’t […]

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Tazria/Shabbat Ha’Chodesh: Release, Respect, Renew by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The parasha for this week is Parashat Tazria, but it also Shabbat Ha’Chodesh, the week of the new moon of Nisan, the month of Pesach. The haftarah is from Ezekiel 45:16 – 46:18.  “By whatever gateway we enter the shmitah year, we must not go out again by the same gate. We must become a new people. Together with our respect for all the planetary life-forms, we must affirm a new respect for all people.” This coming Shabbat is Shabbat Ha’Chodesh, the Sabbath of The Month, the renewing of the moon that Torah sees as the first “moonth” of the year. The rabbis who worked out the liturgical calendar wanted to choose a haftarah — a prophetic passage — to signal the coming of a week they called Pesach and Chag HaMatzot. They found a passage by the Prophet Ezekiel that celebrated not only the New Moon but also the Festival of its fullness – a week focused on food when we would make a shepherds’ Pesach  offering of a newborn lamb and eat Matzot, the farmers’ celebratory meal of just-sprouted, barley that we quickly baked into Unleavened Bread. A time of livelihoods renewed. Notice that Ezekiel was following the […]

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Judry Subar

Shemini: Energizing The Ultimate Source Of Energy, by Judry Subar

“When we focus on the purposes of Shmita  we facilitate the flow of spiritual power from earth to heaven and back again.” So many adjectives can be used to describe the act of eating: necessary, enjoyable, challenging, fraught, social, and on and on.  We might be inclined to add “earthly” to the list; inhabitants of this world eat for a variety of reasons.  Several references to eating in Parashat Shemini reinforce this perspective.  We read in Leviticus 10:12-14 about priestly eating, the physical consumption of holy food by the sons of Aaron.  And the end of the parasha identifies the sorts of meat we may eat.   But Shemini refers not only to human eating but also to divine consumption.  Verse 24 of chapter 9 tells us about the godly fire that consumed the sacrificial meat on the altar.  And the beginning of the following chapter provides another example of divine consumption, telling of the celestial fire that consumed two of Aaron’s sons because of some sort of excess fervor on their part in the way they approached service in the Tabernacle.  What does it mean for something in this world to be consumed by its creator?  If, as physicists would […]

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Parashat Tzav: Shmita As An Expression of Gratitude By Shoshana Michael Zucker

People who have the tools of production at their disposal should gratefully acknowledge their blessings, and invite others to partake of the bounty.  Of the many sacrifices mandated in Parashat Tzav, one stands out: the thanksgiving offering (Leviticus 7:12-15), which must be consumed before the next morning. To eat the whole lamb at one sitting, it is necessary to invite guests. As Rabbi Shai Held teaches: “A core aspect of gratitude is the desire to respond, the urge to repay or pay forward the kindness we have been shown. Gratitude is the bridge between the realization of how much I have been given, and the commitment to be a giver myself.” The Biblical and modern Hebrew word תודה, todah, which has a dual meaning of “acknowledge” and “thank,” embodies this idea. The word’s root,  י-ד-ה y-d-h, is derived from יד-yad hand and also means “to throw.” Just as the hand is a body part that can move away from the rest of the body, these words all signify acts that move outwards from the self. We express thanks by sharing. Moreover, in order to be grateful, we must first acknowledge that our achievements build on gifts we have received.  Some […]

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