Posted by: Subway Conductor | May 15, 2020

Derasha on Behar-Bechukotai

 

This week we have a double portion. Behar discusses the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee. It is in connection with the Jubilee that we encounter the famous verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all its inhabitants.”  (Leviticus 25:10) Bechukotai is one of two portions that contain the blessings and curses which spell out the consequences for observance and non-observance of the commandments in the Torah. The curses are particularly frightening because of the eerie resemblance they bear to much of Jewish history. It is customary to read these passages in a low tone

In the first portion, Behar, there is a verse which at first seems somewhat obscure, but it highlights a very significant idea in the Torah. “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him, as a resident alien (ger toshav) he shall be with you.” This verse bases our obligation to help our fellow Jew who becomes impoverished on the treatment that we owe the resident alien. Note the Hebrew word ger, which means “stranger.” The Talmud offers several opinions as to exactly what the term ger toshav means. The accepted opinion is that it refers to a non-Jew who has adopted the seven Noachide laws. That is to say, he observes the basic laws of morality – not to murder, steal, or commit adultery. These laws are referred to as the Noachide Laws because they were given to all of humankind since all are the descendants of Noah. It is one of the great contributions of the Torah that it insists that we treat a stranger –  a non-Jewish resident of the Land of Israel – with respect and dignity. The Torah commanded us to “love your neighbor” only once, but thirty-six times it is reiterated to love and treat the stranger fairly.

I have spoken many times about the centrality of the exodus from Egypt and the fact that it is an aspect of more Jewish practices than any other event in Jewish History. What is the reason why references to the exodus are found in connection to Shabbattefillin, the shema, and every holiday? I believe that the exodus is built into Judaism in a way unlike any other event or feature of Jewish History because it is meant to teach us an essential lesson. “Do not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) The history of our slavery and redemption are etched into the fabric of Judaism more than anything else, because the concept that we need to treat the stranger in our midst fairly is to be etched into our souls. Not only does the Torah emphasize this concept, but the words of the prophets repeat it often. It is precisely this concern for the stranger that characterizes how a Jew should live.

It has always been disturbing to me that it is often stated as a matter of fact that, whereas Christianity is a universalist faith, Judaism is exclusive. Nothing could be further from the truth. The difference is that Judaism has never insisted that everyone must convert to Judaism. A non-Jew may live a righteous life by observing the basic rules of human decency and morality that we mentioned earlier. G-d is concerned with the well-being of all human beings and desires them to live righteously. This point is driven home most powerfully in the book of Jonah. This prophetic book, which is read on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, tells how an Israelite prophet was sent by G-d to Nineveh to warn them that they would be destroyed because of their wickedness. The Ninevites repent and G-d forgives them. What needs to be noted here is that Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire – the power that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel – the so-called “ten lost tribes.” The repentance of the Ninevites – our enemies – serves as a model for us on the Day of Atonement. The view that G-d is concerned for and has a relationship with all humankind is made clear in many biblical passages. And in the Mishnah it is stated that “the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come.” So, how is Judaism an exclusive religion?

The command to care for the stranger stands at the heart of Judaism.

“For the Lord your G-d…. upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:17-19) I believe that this is why we began our career as a nation as slaves in Egypt and why that experience is kept alive in our memories by almost every Jewish ritual and holiday. In order that we will never forget to live in accordance with this great lesson.


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