Parshios Behar & Bechukosai
We are All Travelers
One of the overriding themes that is reflected in this week’s parsha is the
impermanence of all human ownership, reflected in its accompanying
agreements and contracts. The Torah specifically states that property in the
Land of Israel cannot be sold in perpetuity. The laws of shemitta and yovel
preclude permanent sales of land, and as far as houses in walled cities are
concerned the seller has a year long right of redemption and repurchase.
The Torah emphasizes the reason for this overriding value which restricts
permanent sale, that “all of the earth belongs to Me.” As long as people are
convinced that somehow their property really belongs to them and that that
they somehow are more than temporary dwellers, then they will have a false
view of life and society.
The only permanence in human affairs is its impermanence, just as the only
certainty in human life is its uncertainty. God told us that we are only
strangers and sojourners within His realm. To think otherwise is hubris of
the worst sort.
By limiting our control of property and curtailing our proprietary rights,
the Torah emphasizes to us the view that a person should have regarding
one’s life and possessions. We are no more than tenants, trustees if you
will, but never the real permanent owners of what we temporarily possess and
That is really the import of the famous first comment of Rashi to the Torah
– that the Lord owns all property and territory in this world and He
distributes and redistributes it amongst nations and peoples as He so desires.
Judaism is a this-world oriented faith. Nevertheless, one of its basic
tenets is its belief in the immortality of the soul and its place in the
World to Come – the eternal world of the spirit. There is a Chasidic legend
about a wealthy man who was traveling and found overnight lodging in the
hovel of an impoverished Jew. The bed was hard, the blanket was flimsy, the
house was cold and the breakfast consisted of meager gruel and water. The
wealthy visitor complained to his poor host: “Is this the way you live
always?” The poor Jew replied: “And are these your usual accommodations?” In
response the rich man replied: “Certainly not. I have a sixteen-room home
with heat and food aplenty where I truly reside. But I am now traveling and
on the road as a such I must accept whatever accommodations come my way.”
The poor Jew then said: “I also have a mansion for my permanent home. It is
being built for me in the World to Come. In this world I am but a traveler
so I also must accept whatever accommodations come my way.” We are all only
travelers on this journey of life. A traveler always has a sense of
impermanence, of living out of a suitcase, of being merely a tenant or guest
in the great hotel/inn that we call this world of ours.
Mount Sinai and the Torah that emanated from there emphasized this truism of
life to us. Would that we would see ourselves this way and thereby spare
ourselves needless frustration and aggravation.
Strengthen Our Faith
The book of Vayikra opened on a very high and positive note. Moshe is the
recipient of Divine revelation and serves as the High priest of the Mishkan
during its first week of its dedication. His brother Aharon is appointed as
the permanent High Priest and the children and the descendants of Aharon
remain the special family of kohanim throughout the ages of Jewish history.
After the revelation at Sinai and the acceptance of the Torah by Israel, and
the dedication of the Mishkan, the Jewish people are apparently at the
zenith of their national and spiritual life. Yet this rosy future is not
quite what will really occur. At the conclusion of the book of Vayikra,
which we read in this week’s parsha, a much more somber picture is portrayed.
Anyone cognizant of the story of the Jewish people over the centuries is
well aware that all of the dire predictions that appear in this week’s
parsha are not hyperbole. A professor of Jewish studies once wryly commented
to me that Jewish history was “all books and blood.” That pretty much sums
up the book of Vayikra as well.
Two of Aharon’s sons are destroyed, many laws and strictures are bought down
as the Torah of Sinai is fleshed out by God through Moshe, and the awful
events that will befall the Jewish people – destruction, exile and agony,
are all painfully described in this week’s parsha. Thus the book of Vayikra
becomes the true book of the Jewish story, in all of its glory and somber
What are we to make of all of this? That question has hovered over all of
Jewish life in every location, generation and circumstance. Because of the
inscrutable nature of God’s direction of Jewish affairs, the question has
never had an even halfheartedly satisfactory answer. The books, the laws,
and the commandments remain in the main to be mysterious as does the blood
of Jewish history.
Because of this, Jewish history, aside from being composed of books and
blood, is mainly composed of faith and belief. That is what the rabbis may
have meant when they stated that the prophet annunciated the basic
underpinning of all of the Torah – “the righteous person lives on faith.”
And faith is truly a difficult commodity to achieve and maintain.
The past century of Jewish life has challenged traditional Jewish faith
greatly and dealt it mighty blows. For many Jews it no longer is a viable
commodity in their arsenal of life’s values. Yet it is obvious that it is
the one and only value that can help us weather the uncertainties,
contradictions, cruelties and dangers that make up current Jewish life.
The Torah itself charts no easy way to acquire faith – in fact, it has very
little to say regarding the subject of faith itself. However, at the
conclusion of the public reading of the book of Vayikra (as at the
conclusion of all of the other books of the Torah as well) we rise and
strengthen ourselves in our belief and faith. May it so be.
Rabbi Berel Wein