Our short portion of Behar-Behukotai emphasizes communal responsibility. Its distinctive mitzvot of the shimitah, or sabbatical, and yovel, or jubilee years, both require individuals to relinquish private holdings, whether on real estate or over other people (slaves), so that all of Israel can live in freedom and dignity with God. Leviticus 25:23 says "Do not sell the land in perpetuity, for all the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and residents with Me." The overall message is that God's design for Israel is the creation of a fair society where everyone has a stake.
In Midrash Vayikra Rabbah God's declaration, "that the land is Mine," is compared to other places where God claims an entity-the priests, Levites, all of Israel, Jerusalem etc.-and explains that this claim is eternal, in this world and in the next. Seventeenth century Hasidic writer Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apte, known as the Oheiv Yisrael, finds here a hint of future experiences of exile. Even when Israel is not resident upon its land, God's presence remains. When Israel is called geirim v'toshavim, strangers and residents, this does not mean that they are less than permanent occupants of the land but rather that they are permanently connected to God, no matter where they live. For many Hasidic writers, exile was more a state of spiritual alienation than a physical dislocation, but in the Oheiv Yisrael one also sees a yearning for physical return to the land.
Our dilemma is that in the Diaspora we think of themes of exile and homecoming in terms of spiritual connection or alienation from Jewish identity and practice. But there is no denying the importance of a physical land. When we do things right in Israel, it has far more power and permanence than even the best efforts abroad. And when things go awry, the consequences are especially devastating.
Traveling to Israel is such an unbelievable experience. We have a unique opportunity to travel to Israel together as a congregation next June of 2016. I urge all of you to come and attend our Israel Trip informational session on Thursday, May 28th at 7:30 PM. Even if you can't join us in Israel, we are going to be conducting a service next Shabbat morning, Saturday, May 23rd where we will "pray at the Wall." We will have a unique experience of changing our seating arrangements to simulate what is like to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, literally what our sanctuary is meant to look and feel like.
It is not that Israel is unblemished, but rather precisely because of its flaws that I feel so committed to the land and want you to join me in absorbing it. Parashat Behar is itself set in exile-at Mount Sinai-and yet its image of national life on the land is not idealized. It anticipates many failures, both individual and national, and warns the people of Israel to guard its conduct, creating a just and faithful society, lest the land propel its occupants back into exile.
Let us instill in ourselves the consciousness inspired by Parashat Behar. We are grateful for the opportunity to live in an era of Jewish sovereignty and resolve to take this opportunity to create a society that is secure, just, and faithful to the Torah's instruction of living with God, upon the land.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham