For centuries, formal Jewish study began not with Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, and not with the Mishna, the first codex of lived Jewish law, but with Leviticus, also known as Torat Kohanim, or the Book of Priests. While focusing in many sections, like last week’s portion of Emor, on practices and obligations of the priestly class, Leviticus addresses all Israelites as a “nation of priests” whose relationship with holiness is nothing less than a matter of life and death.
Seeking holiness is the ethos of the Hebrew Bible from Adam and Eve on down. If wondering and worrying about holiness lives most vividly in Leviticus, then the heart of Leviticus is the “Holiness Code” (Lev 17-26) with which this week’s Torah portion, Behar, concludes.
Holy Moses! This puts Behar in a pretty dramatic spot. How can any set of verses conclude a litany about holiness, which the Hebrew Bible claims is the essence of the meaning of life? Only by hitting us squarely in the places where so much of mundane life is lived and so much of holiness is lost and found. Behar wants to talk about our pocketbooks and our obsessions to show what it means to engage the ultimate truths that holiness holds.
What’s in Your Wallet?
The answer to the question “What’s in your wallet?” in ancient days was quite different than the answer to the same question today. For one thing, the answer in biblical times was almost universally “nothing” because subsistence was the name of the game. We might know stories about the wealth of the pharaohs or King Solomon or the occasional tribal fat cat, but for the 99% who were not royals, chieftains, or members of the priestly class stationed at the top tier of Temple life, life was a hand-to-mouth struggle.
The economy of Leviticus revolves around animals, land and slaves, not money. But the irony of comparing issues of wealth or poverty then to now — and perhaps one of the most powerful reflections on the human condition that one could ask to learn from an ancient text — is that the economic challenge to pursuing holiness remains the same: When it comes to seeking holiness, nothing requires more effort or more intense partnership between humans and a higher power than confronting the scourge of debt.
Our portion lays out clear rules about avoiding any kind of financial servitude, including prohibiting interest on loans (Lev 25:37), restricting service of indentured servants and laborers (Lev 25:40) and banning servitude of these types for the offspring of those stuck in it (Lev 25:41).
The most extreme form of debt is slavery, a fall into the red so deep that it offers no possibility for redeeming one’s basic human station. Leviticus demands that all people have direct access to redemption from debt, which shackles people from moving towards holiness.
Redemption from debt is not limited to people. In fact, the land itself must be redeemed as well. Behar outlines sabbatical years in every seventh year — just like there is a Sabbath of rest every seventh day (Lev 25:1-7). Nothing can be planted in the sabbatical year and both people and animals can eat only what the untended land offers. (Check out some of the work the organization Hazon is doing as next year’s sabbatical approaches — yes, it remains a very live issue, particularly in the Land of Israel.) A Jubilee, the 50th year of each cycle of seven sets of seven years, serves as a complete societal reset, not only in terms of planting and eating, but also in terms of redistributing properties towards societal balance (Lev 25:8-12). In addition, the Jubilee is the year where all slaves are set free.
Imagine how radical this system for wiping out debt and harmonizing humans, animals and the land would be if implemented in full today. Take all of the debts you hold — all of what is or is not in your wallet including credit cards, mortgages, student loans, payment plans to healthcare providers, and on and on. Now simply erase them. The same, of course, is true of whatever others owe you. It just disappears. Holy Moses indeed — this is a radical program for holiness.
Obsession and Idolatry
When it comes to obsession in days of old, we can guess by the sheer number of prohibitions in the Hebrew Bible that people could find all kinds of way to busy themselves. But the ultimate term for an obsession leading people away from holiness is idolatry, which is the final word of Behar and the Holiness Code in Lev 26:1:
You shall not make for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the LORD am your God.
It is possible to understand the Hebrew Bible’s abhorrence of idolatry in many ways. Differentiation between Israelite religion and that of its neighbors; an honest to goodness divine judgment about what kinds of worship works and what kind doesn’t; assertion of priestly power; or any number of mysteries too ancient to discover. It might make the most sense to understand the terror about idolatry as a broad definition of the worldly attentions that can distract, distort, or usurp pursuit of holiness.
The most famous idol ever is probably the golden calf, which some rabbinic legends hold was actually created out of the precious metals the Israelites had lifted out of Egypt. Melded by Aaron, Moses’ brother and the first Israelite priest, the golden calf so disrupts the pursuit of holiness that Moses smashes the first set of Ten Commandments meant to make the pursuit of holiness real. It’s no wonder Behar wanted to make the Israelites remember what and with whom they are dealing with at the close of the Holiness Code.
“Be Holy!” says Lev 19:2, read two weeks ago. In summarizing a primary biblical goal already expressed fully in just two words, Behar, which is the shortest Torah portion in Leviticus, keeps it simple: If you want to be holy, remember that you are no man’s slave — and that no man is your slave; nor is the land your slave; and remember too that all forms of wealth are of only transient value. Then, once the nitty gritty of debt and redemption has been reviewed, the Israelites are asked not to be distracted by obsessions that sway the senses as they go and seek and serve. Just like traditional study of the Hebrew Bible, this is the place — codes and questions of holiness — where the biblical journey begins.
Dr. Stephen Hazan Arnoff is Director of Culture, Community and Society at Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel’s first four-year liberal arts college. He served as Executive Director of the 14th Street Y in New York City 2007-13, overseeing the tripling of the size of the Y’s core programs and the founding of LABA: A Laboratory for New Jewish Culture. He holds a doctorate in Midrash and Scriptural Interpretation from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and publishes, lectures, and teaches on art, religion, music, and Judaism widely. Most recently, he contributed chapters on Bruce Springsteen and the Bible to Reading the Boss: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Works of Bruce Springsteen (Lexington Books) and Bob Dylan and religion to Dylan at Play (Cambridge Scholars Publishing). He is currently completing a book on religion, myth, and rock and roll and blogs at http://talkinhavanagilahblues.blogspot.com.
ON Scripture — The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.