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Torah Commentary
B'har (May 19, 2012)

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

THIS IS ONE of the years when we read the final two portions from the book of Leviticus, B’har and B’chukotai, in the same week. These chapters conclude the section of the Torah known as the “Holiness Code,” which began with Parashat K’doshim and continued with Emor, the portion we read last week.

B’har details the laws regulating the Sabbatical year: Every seven years, for the entire year, the land of Israel is to be given a complete rest. There may be no cultivation, no planting or harvesting of crops; it is, in essence, a Sabbath for the land. Just as we humans return to a week of work rejuvenated and reenergized after a day of rest, so too the land is allowed to lie fallow so it may regenerate its productivity.

In an agrarian society like that of biblical Israel, the Sabbatical year must have been a period of leisure and recreation for the vast majority of the population. Nevertheless, the Torah anticipates the anxiety that inevitably would accompany the idea of a year without food production. God reassures the people that in the sixth year of the cycle, the harvest will be so abundant that it will suffice for two full years.

In their desert wanderings, on the sixth day of every week, the Israelites gathered a double portion of manna, so that they might rest on the Sabbath. Each week, they were reminded that their sustenance ultimately depended on God’s providence. Once in the Land of Israel, a rich land flowing with milk and honey, the Sabbatical year served the same function by demanding of the Israelites faith in God’s generosity.

The Sabbatical year is an assertion that the earth belongs not to its human inhabitants but to God alone. It is God who determines how and when we will draw sustenance from the land and how much of it. In times of prosperity, it is easier to believe our wealth is the result of our labors than it is during times of poverty. The Sabbatical year reminds us that our achievements always are dependent upon Divine providence.

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