Making sense of the sedra: Behar

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Making sense of the sedra: Behar

We must safeguard our resources

Parshat Behar focuses on the laws of the sabbatical year (Shemitah), and the jubilee year (Yovel). Every seventh year, the land must lie fallow and debts are released. After seven cycles of Shemitah, the 50th year is Yovel, when slaves are freed and all land returns to its ancestral owners.

These practices may seem archaic and irrelevant to our modern world, but Shemitah and Yovel are about more than just agricultural best practices. They are a bold statement about the nature of ownership and the inherent dignity of every human being. By releasing debts and freeing indentured servants, the Torah seeks to prevent entrenched poverty and exploitation. It is a reminder that no one should be trapped forever by their circumstances; everyone deserves a chance to start anew.

On a practical level, allowing the land to rest every seven years ensures its long-term health and productivity. Overworking the soil leads to depletion and diminishing returns. The Torah recognises that both land and people need regular periods of rejuvenation. Just as we require a weekly Shabbat to recharge our spiritual batteries, the land requires a Shemitah to restore its vitality.

A key theme that emerges from these laws is the importance of safeguarding – safeguarding the land, the vulnerable, and our spiritual heritage.

The concept of safeguarding is central to Jewish thought. We are commanded to protect the vulnerable, whether it’s the poor, the stranger, the orphan or the widow. We are obligated to build a society of justice and compassion, where no-one falls through the cracks. The laws of Shemitah and Yovel take this idea to an extreme, institutionalising a regular system of societal reset and redistribution.

Nowadays, safeguarding has taken on new urgency. We have become increasingly aware of the scourge of abuse and exploitation, particularly of children and other vulnerable groups. Jewish communities worldwide have recognised the need to implement robust policies and practices to prevent abuse and respond effectively when it occurs. This important work requires ongoing education, vigilance, and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths.

But safeguarding is not just about preventing harm. It’s also about actively nurturing the physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of every community member. It’s about creating a culture of chesed (loving-kindness), where everyone feels valued and supported. This is the deeper message of the Yovel year – that we are all interconnected, and we all have a stake in each other’s wellbeing.

The Torah’s vision of a society shaped by Shemitah and Yovel is an imposing one, but it is not beyond reach. By incorporating these principles into our own lives and communities, we can create a more just and compassionate world. We can start by safeguarding our own spiritual health, regularly hitting the reset button and aligning ourselves with our core values. We can extend this ethos of care and renewal to our relationships and communal institutions, implementing policies and practices that safeguard the dignity of every human being.

The notion of ancestral land returning to its original owners every 50 years underscores that we are all interconnected across generations. We have a responsibility to safeguard the physical, emotional and spiritual resources we have inherited, and pass them down intact to the next generation. As the Talmud says, we are not the owners of the world, only its guardians. As guardians, we’re entrusted to safeguard its resources and its people. We have the power to make a difference in the lives of others, by working together to build a society of justice, compassion and opportunity.

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