You Think You’re Better than Us? Behar-Bechukotai/ Shavuot 5778
From the time he was seven, everyone knew that Jonah was going to be a lawyer. He could argue his way out of culpability for any backyard tussle, and he could easily persuade even the most hardened babysitter that he deserved at least fifteen extra minutes before bedtime. It had something to do with his inalienable rights and civil justice, and he always secured a favorable settlement.
In 6th grade he came in first place on the middle school debate team, and in his HS yearbook he was voted “Most likely to work 120 hours a week,” a sure sign that he would pursue a legal career (the only other people that work 120 hours a week are mothers, and he didn’t qualify).
High school was a blur of resume building, SAT studying, and community service. It’s never easy to get into Harvard, and it was going to be that much harder for Jonah, who could only go if he got partial or full scholarship. But Harvard gave him a full academic scholarship so that he would join their debate team, and he didn’t let them down. Getting into Yale Law was easy in comparison, but he fought a three year non-stop battle to graduate at the top of his class. In his second year at Yale, law firms began fighting for him, offering him ridiculous money, perks that would suit the dictator of a mid-size third world country, and promises of much more to come.
Jonah started with one of the top four-name law firms in the country, Burnham, Oswald, Seward & Smith (affectionately known by its acronym), and made boatloads of money, but he quickly grew restless. He had a goal of joining the exclusive Thirty by Thirty Club ($30 Million by 30 years old) and it wasn’t going to happen with Burnham Oswald, so he moved out, opened his own firm, and started working a bit harder.
For the next four years no one outside of the legal world saw Jonah, save for the occasional PR bit on TV whenever one of his mergers or acquisitions hit the financial media. Fifty seven days before his thirtieth birthday his banker called him to congratulate him on hitting thirty, and four days later he took his first vacation in nine years, a few days of R&R in Turks and Caicos. Seeing shiny happy families on vacation made him realize that he really had no life. He realized that without a family all the riches in the world are worth nothing, and for the first time ever, Jonah thought about dating, marriage and family.
Unfortunately, Jonah was about as comfortable dating as a fighter pilot in a burning cockpit. He hadn’t dated in years, he could barely talk for five minutes without trailing into undecipherable legalese, and his favorite place to hang out was behind a stack of due diligence papers. But there were three paralegals working in his office, Joan, Amber, and Fern, and he thought they were pretty nice. Maybe something could happen…?
Jonah asked Nate, one of his few childhood friends, to speak to them and see if any of them would want to go on a date with him, and Nate happily obliged. Joan was very nice but said she would rather keep the relationship more professional. Amber gave Nate the kind of look you give someone who asks you if you want to run daily triathlons, and suggested some high end dating services. But Fern said, “Sure, he’s a great guy, he always treats everyone well in the office, I’d be happy to go out on a date with him.”
Eleven months later Fern and Jonah got married in a small ceremony on Long Island, and Jonah started a new chapter of life. Adjusting to family life was Challenge #1, his largest client suing him and almost bankrupting him was Challenge #2, and a child who got lymphoma was Challenge #3, but Jonah and Fern worked through it all, and soon they were back up on top. Jonah’s firm became more prosperous than ever, Fern and the kids jetsetted the globe in their private jet, she had enough fur and diamonds to supply Bergdorf Goodman, and they lived the dream life he worked so hard to have.
Could you ever imagine someone saying to Fern, “What makes you think you’re so special? You were just a paralegal like Joan and Amber! Why does Jonah give you diamonds and Bentleys while he just gives them holiday bonuses and three weeks of vacation time? Who gives you the right to think you’re special?”
No one would ever say that, because Fern stood at the altar with Jonah and said “I do.” She was the one who committed to be with him “through poverty and wealth, sickness and health, till death do you part.” And she had been through challenging times with him, and stuck it out. Of course now she is special! Of course it is fair that Jonah treats her differently and loves her more. She chose him, and he chose her.
People often feel uncomfortable with the concept of the Jews being the Chosen Nation. There are many Jews who feel like its racist or arrogant to think you’re the Chosen Nation, after all, aren’t all people created in the image of G-d? And of course, there are many non-Jews who use this as a claim against the Jewish people, claiming that we are a conceited and bigheaded people who think we are more special than everyone else.
The simple response to this is that EVERY religion out there thinks they are the Chosen People. No one is walking around saying my religion is awesome, we are second best! It’s not like Muslims and Christians, who make up half the world’s population, think that no matter what you believe you’re OK. According to Christians, if you don’t believe in JC you are doomed to eternal damnation, and according to Muslims, if you’re not a Muslim… well, er, to be politically correct I’ll leave it at why don’t you read the Koran and see what is supposed to be done to non-Muslims! (OK, OK I’ll give you a hint… it rhymes with “tie by the Ford.”) For all the talk of Chosen Nation, Judaism is the one religion that does not believe you have to be part of it in order to earn a place in the World to Come.
The more in depth response is based on a Midrash about the Jews at Sinai. The Medrash (Tanchuma, Vesos Habracha, Chap. 4) says that Ha-shem offered Himself and the Torah to all the nations of the world, but they all said “We’d rather keep this a bit more professional” or they downright scorned it. Then Ha-shem came and offered the same unique relationship to the Jewish people, telling them they could be “My treasure from all the nations,” and they immediately accepted. At the altar of Mt. Sinai, we, as it were, entered into a covenant, a marriage with G-d when we said, “I do! Na’aseh Vinishma, We will do and we will understand!”
It has not been an easy relationship. Being married to G-d is not always painless, and we have been more challenged than any other nation on earth, yet we remain steadfast in our relationship. We don’t give up on G-d, and we don’t give up on His Torah, which is our nuptial document, and He doesn’t give up on us. Of course we are the Chosen Nation! We chose Him, and He, in response, chose us.
Shavuos is rapidly descending on us, it starts next Saturday night (and there won’t be another email from me next week!). Shavuos is the holiday where we celebrate our marriage to G-d through our nuptial document, the Torah. Every year on Shavuos, we renew our vows so to speak, by once again affirming that we choose Him and His Torah, and this is the cause of the immense joy of Shavuot. Every other holiday has “props” to get us into the spirit, matzahs, succa’s, Four Species, marror etc. But Shavuos it is simply an “Atzeret” a day of holding back from everything else and reveling in our relationship with G-d and his Torah.
It goes even deeper. Just as Jonah realized that without a family all his riches were worthless, all that he built would go nowhere, so too G-d, who created the whole world, said that if no one was willing to enter into a covenant with him, then the entire world wasn’t worth it, and the whole world would be dissolved (Rashi, Genesis 1:32). When we entered the covenant with G-d at Sinai, we not only got ourselves into the best relationship ever, we also gave further existence to the whole world! Every Shavuos when we reaffirm that relationship with Ha-shem and his Torah, we once again give life and sustainability to the entire world. There is no greater Tikkun Olam than that, and there is no greater joy than that.
Have an Uplifting Shavuos!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In Bechukosai, the second Parsha that we read this week, we find the Torah outlining the cause and effect relationship of the world. When the Jewish people as a nation are Jewishly involved, world affairs will be favorable for them. When the Jews lose focus of their mission, and attempt to melt into the background as just another nation, the nations of the world will violently remind them that they are different. In one of the Torah’s descriptions of the Jews’ exile from their homeland it says,”vi’avaditem bagoyim” (Lev. 26:38) which translates as “and you will get lost amongst the nations.” This seems like a strange verb to use to describe our exile. Interestingly, there is a special mitzvah that uses the same root word, “hashavat aveida” returning lost objects. What is the connection?
Let us look at one of the key laws of the mitzvah, and through that we will be able to understand the connection. When is one required by Torah law to return a lost object, and when can he rely on the age-old adage, “Finders keepers, losers weepers?” The Mishna teaches us that when there are identifying marks on the object that indicate that it belongs to a specific owner, we are required to try to locate the owner and return it. When there are none, one can keep it (of course, one who returns it even in these cases is laudable, but he is not required to do so by Torah law).
For example, if one finds loose change in the mall, there is no way for the owner to identify it as his, and the finder can keep it. However, if one finds a bracelet on the street, he must try to return it. The way to do so is by putting up signs saying, “I found a bracelet on this date, in this area. Whoever lost it please contact me at this number…” When people call, you can ask them what does it look like? What color stones are in it? How big is it? If the person properly identifies the bracelet through these identifying marks, you return it to them, and pat yourself on your back for the mitzvah you just earned. In this way, finders get heavenly reward, losers get their object, and there are no weepers!
This is possibly what G-d is telling us in the statement, “you will be lost amongst the nations.” We will be like a lost object. If there are identifying marks on us that indicate that we have an owner – G-d – then we will be deserving of being returned to our rightful owner and rightful place. But if, G-d forbid, we will be so lost amongst the nations that there is nothing that says “this nation has a master,” then we won’t be worthy of redemption.
We see this idea reflected in the statement of the Sages. They tell us that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt because they did not change their language, dress, or names. Those were the identifying marks that made them into a nation deserving to be returned to its land and Owner.
We live in a world fraught with peril for the Jewish people. Most Europeans believe that the biggest obstacle to world peace is Israel. The president of a powerful and wealthy Middle Eastern country with a budding nuclear program has promised to wipe Israel off the map. People all around us believe that Israel is an apartheid state, and the Jews are bloodthirsty maniacs with aims for world domination. We often feel that there is nothing we can do to change this sorry state. The Torah here comforts us by telling us that when we show ourselves to be different and unique, when we put marks on ourselves that say “this nation belongs to an owner, G-d,” then we can bring ourselves closer to being returned to our home, and to our Owner!
The first of the two parshios we read this week, Behar, begins with the laws of shmita. This mitzvah commands us to leave the land fallow every seventh year. One may not work the land at all, and anything that grows on its own is left to be taken by anyone who needs it. (If you had to be poor for a year, this would be a good one to pick.) After seven shmita cycles there is a Jubilee year on the 50th year, and the land lies fallow once again. In addition, many fields and homes revert back to their original owners. Jewish servants who requested to stay with their masters past the normal 6 year term are now sent home. Thus, when buying a field one always had to take into account how many years remained until the Jubilee because that was the amount of time he would own the field. (As Jews, we sometimes have strings attached to our deals, but at least these were known to everyone, not like some fine print clause written in Azerbijanian!)
The next part of the Parsha deals with redeeming the land. The idea is as follows: G-d gave each person a portion of the Holy Land, which they bequeathed to their families. There could be no greater family treasure than the family’s share in G-d’s land! (Timeshare salesmen try to get you to feel this way about their “week in paradise for your family, every year, forever!”) Therefore, if someone sold his land, it was probably out of great necessity, and the Torah gives the person a chance to buy it back if they, or a relative, can come up with the money. Depending on what type of property it was and where it was situated, the times at which one can redeem it are different. For more details see Leviticus 25:23-34.
The last part of the Parsha deals with Jewish servants. I know that we who live in a post- Emancipation Proclamation world look unfavorably on labor provided by servants or slaves (although who do you think made your shirt?). I’ll will try to show you that a Jewish servant was the farthest thing from the Atlantic slave trade of the 1500-1700’s. The sages say, “He who buys himself a servant, has acquired a master for himself.” A Jewish master was responsible for supporting his servant’s entire family, he couldn’t force him to do demeaning labor, if there was only one pillow or blanket in the house it had to be given to the servant, and when the servant would leave, the master was required to give him a hefty severance package. (All these benefits and no union dues to pay??? Sounds impossible, but with Torah it’s all possible!).
A Jewish servant would sell himself if he needed funds and couldn’t find any other job, or if he simply wanted the security of servitude (a job in which his whole family was supported and he couldn’t get fired, downsized, discharged, restructured, laid off, terminated or forced to resign!). The Parsha concludes with a reiteration of the mitzvos of keeping Shabbos and not serving idols. This was to remind any Jew who sold himself to a non-Jew that he still had to keep his Jewish practice and couldn’t start desecrating Shabbos or serving his new master’s idols.
The 2nd Parsha we read is the last one in Leviticus, Bechukosai. The major theme of this parsha is the concept that the deeds we do have a direct effect on our world. The world is like a finely tuned violin, and our actions like a bow being stretched across the strings. If we play it properly, the most beautiful and harmonious sounds emanate. However, if we play it improperly, the result is jarring and disturbing. It is not so much a punishment as a cause-and-effect relationship with our actions.
In line with that idea, the parsha starts off by saying that if we follow G-d’s Torah properly then our land will produce incredible yields, we will live in peace, (and the Pistons will win the Finals). However, if we refuse to follow G-d’s Torah and instead chose to ignore the role He plays in our world, then He will remove Himself from the picture, and the world will begin to crumble around us. Throughout this difficult period, G-d will wait for us to turn back to Him. If we continue to deny His reality, the devastation will become more and more severe. Ultimately, G-d promises that even during the most trying times our people will endure, He will not totally abandon us; rather He will be with us in our exile. In the end we will return to Him, He will remember the covenant He has with our Fathers and bring us back to our land in peace.
The Parsha then moves on to the subject of different items one can consecrate to the Temple, such as property, one’s own value, or his animals. The Torah discusses how a person pays for each, and if and when one can redeem them back for himself. The final verses of Leviticus deal with the second tithe a person gives on his crops, and the tithe on animals.
As we say in Shul (synagogue) when completing one of the Five Books of the Chumash: Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!!!
Quote of the Week: I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. – Charles Swindoll
Random Fact of the Week: Abraham Lincoln faces to the right on the penny while all the other presidents face to the left on US coins.
Funny Quip of the Week: It’s OK to let your mind go blank, but please turn off the sound.
Have a Piquant Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham