Years ago I slogged through a course in Rabbinic Hermeneutics. The title alone can still send shivers through my spine, and truth to tell, I didn’t even make it through the class; I dropped it in utter defeat. Rabbinic Hermeneutics can roughly be translated as “What were they thinking and how did they possibly come up with that conclusion?” It’s like an analysis of how the Rabbinic mind works…clearly, unlike mine.
But the simplest (of course!) concept stuck, and it comes with a verbal and aural tag. It’s called, “kal v’chomer”, roughly, “how much more so.” As in, an obscure Biblical law against taking a baby bird away in front of the mother bird to spare its feelings, teaches us, kal v’chomer, if we keep a mother bird’s feelings in mind, how much more so do we keep our fellow humans’ feelings in mind. That sort of thing.
To really get into a kal v’chomer explanation, take your right hand, stick out your thumb, and make a motion like you’re scooping ice cream with your thumb. Now, as your thumb becomes vertical, say an exaggerated “If…” covering two descending notes. Go ahead, think up a “how much more so” argument, and try it. I’ll wait. See how much weight it adds to your position?
Which brings me to this week’s Torah portion, Behar, as you knew it would. This one is all about the Jubilee year, which is every fifty years. Just as a week is built around six days of work and one day of rest, we’re told to work the land for six years, let it lie fallow for one, and after this cycle goes 7 times, we hit the Jubilee year. At that point, in this ideal agricultural scenario, lands sold under financial distress or debts accrued during those 49 years would cancel out, revert back to original ownership, maintaining a system of balance for those who may fall onto bad times. And just to underscore the main point, the text says, “the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine” (lev. 25:23). Don’t forget who the real owner is.
So, following the kal v’chomer model, one could say, “If (don’t forget to do the thumb-thing) we are so concerned that the land is rested and is treated well, how much more so should we be aware that we are rested and treat each other well.” And indeed, the portion also has instructions on how to avoid humiliating members of the community who are having tough economic times. But I want to take it a step further, toward a metaphorical cliff.
Acknowledging the metaphor that the land is us, and our behavior to it (each other) has consequences, how do we accept the way we’re treating the actual land (and each other) in Israel? We read all throughout the Torah about how not to treat the resident alien in our midst, and specifically in this portion about how we must not treat people like slaves and keep people down, with no hope of getting out from under the weight of economic hardship.
So, (thumb at the ready) if we are not to treat the land as if it were permanently in servitude, and if (thumb-dip again) we’re not to treat other people the same way, how much more so are we off-base in Israel itself, in how the Arab Israeli and non-criminal Palestinian are treated? At this year’s LimmudChicago, I heard a presentation by Rabbi Brant Rosen and members of his congregation, recounting their trip to the West Bank, visiting both Israeli and Palestinian towns. It was so disturbing to see in pictures the contrast between the two, the humiliation and hardship imposed on Palestinians in their access to basic utilities and resources. I’m not saying there aren’t other reasons for disparity in fortunes in the West Bank, but I am saying that this is not the way to treat people who are, as the Torah puts it, under our authority. “You shall not rule over them ruthlessly, you shall fear your God.” (Lev. 25:43) We’re told over and over, we know what it was like to be slaves, so we should know better. How much more so….
This week is Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, Israeli Independence Day, and I share in the joy of 63 years of the State of Israel’s existence. Some in Israel recognized 1998 as Israel’s most recent Jubilee year. I would only hope and pray that well before the next one in 2048, Israel and her Palestinian neighbors have both figured out how to truly give the land and all the people a rest from intolerance and hate, imbalance and burden, ushering in a true, whole Shabbat, a Shabbat for God.