Shemitah, Freedom, and Covenant in the Face of Assimilation

Behar By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On May 9, 2014 / 5774

Parashat Behar opens with the commandment to observe the sabbatical cycle (for six years, one may plant crops and work the land and then, in the seventh year, the land must rest—what is known in halakhic terms as shenat shemitah, “the year of release”); shemitah or “release” is observed today in the Land of Israel. Throughout the balance of the parashah, we learn other laws related to release, including the laws related to the jubilee year, which comes at the conclusion of seven cycles of seven years (i.e., the 50th year). Most notably, freedom is declared in the Land such that indentured servants are given their freedom, loans are forgiven, and property returns to its original owner. The close of Parashat Behar, however, digresses, and reiterates commandments forbidding idols and the extolling observance of Shabbat: “You will not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Lord am your God. You will keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, Mine, the Lord’s” (Lev. 26:1–2). How do these concluding verses connect to the earlier portion of the Torah reading?

As it turns out, the verses before the close of our parashah discuss a curious case concerning a non-Israelite master and an Israelite servant. Not only were non-Israelites servants in Israelite homes, but some Israelites also found themselves serving affluent non-Israelites. The Ramban (Nahmanides) cites the Sifra, and explains that “the Torah warns the servant who sells himself to an idolater to observe the commandments concerning idolatry and Shabbat.” In other words, the Torah is concerned about the soul of an Israelite living in a non-Jewish environment. Though the temptation would be to follow the ways of his or her master and abandon particular Israelite identity, the Torah compels us to hold fast to our religious selves.

While today our concern is not with respect to idolaters, the Torah’s commandment and the Ramban’s teaching prove timeless and eminently applicable to today’s world. A rabbinic notion teaches “hamakom gorem” (the place shapes the individual). In some ways, this is a fatalistic worldview; after all, each person is endowed with free choice and may live a life that is clearly self-differentiated from that of his or her fellow citizens. Still, pressure to follow the crowd remains. Wherever one chooses to live, challenges—especially of assimilation and acculturation—present themselves. Learning how to find the golden mean between one’s loyalty to covenant and being a part of the larger world calls for a delicate balance. Parashat Behar and the Ramban remind us of the need to remain loyal to God and our particular Jewish identity, even when we find ourselves in the homes of those of other faiths.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.