Parashat Behar (a bit late): Sabbatical and Ger V’toshav: a Guide for Parents

This is a few days late, but it is my thoughts on parashat Behar, which is in the book of Vayikra, Leviticus.  This portion introduces the laws of shmita, or the agricultural Sabbatical year (the seventh year in a 7 year rotation).  It also introduces the yovel, or Jubilee year (the 50th year in a 50 year rotation).

The esteemed former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Ismar Schorsch, had a wonderful turn of phrase when commenting on this Torah portion some years ago.  He said,” The DNA of Judaism is the number seven.  Imprinted deep in the creation story of the Torah, the number seven pervades almost every facet of biblical practice and many of its narratives.”

The double helix of our DNA accounts for all of what we are as physical human beings, and in fact is the blueprint of our physical human-ness.  Schorsch’s comment was astute: that the number seven, and, by extension the Torah, is the DNA of Judaism, the ‘double helix’ of our souls – it is the blueprint of our spiritual being.

The number seven not only determines a weekly cycle of seven days, stemming from the original work week, God’s week of creation, but also a Torah mandated agricultural cycle of seven years, in which we are commanded on the seventh year to give the land of Israel a rest by allowing farms and fields to lie fallow.  We are not permitted to sow any seeds or stake any claim in whatever grows there naturally; it is considered ownerless, available to whatever person or animal happens upon it, rich or poor.  This teaches us two important lessons.  One, a philosophical lesson that ultimately God/Torah plays a vital role in our sustenance, whether it be physical or spiritual.  Two, a practical lesson that any good gardener will tell you: rotate your crops.  By commanding us to let our fields to lie fallow for a year, this allows the land to regenerate itself and the nutrients in the soil needed for healthy crops.  This is the shmita year, still observed in Israel today.

Yet again, the number seven determines another kind of cycle called the yovel, or Jubilee year.  We are told to multiply 7 times the seven years between shmita years, to get 49 – and the 50th year is the yovel, during which all land bought and sold during the previous 49 years is to be returned to its original owner, on top of the shmita restrictions.  All Israelite indentured servants and their families are to be set free as well.  This again brings home the idea that it is God/Torah that plays the most vital role in not only our sustenance, but our freedom.  God is the administrator of the Land of Israel, and technically we are only leasing it – there is never any permanent transfer of ownership.

As I began to look closer at this Torah portion, I noticed in addition to the agricultural and slavery laws, there are several times where the Torah uses the expression “ger vetoshav”, or ‘resident stranger’.  I had previously associated this phrase with Avraham Avinu, when in Genesis he refers to himself as a “ger toshav” a ‘resident stranger’ while speaking to the Sons of Chet, asking them to provide him with a place to bury Sarah.  Through the concordance, a reference book used to help determine how words and phrases are used in the Torah, and how many times they are repeated, I learned that “ger toshav” or “ger v-toshav” is not used frequently at all in the Torah, yet it is used three times in the Torah portion Behar.

In one case, Leviticus 25:23 states, “And the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine (God’s), and you are resident strangers with me”.  This appears to imply a particular legal status that does not give one the right of permanent land acquisition.

In another section, Leviticus 25:35, the Torah refers to a circumstance where one’s “brother” may fall on hard times, and we are required to support him, even if he is a “ger vetoshav” – a stranger and a resident.  Now how could a brother be a “ger v’toshav”?  Rashi, a medieval French commentator, notes that perhaps in this verse the Torah means two different kinds of people: a “ger” – a true stranger to us, and a “toshav” one who may reside with or near us, ie perhaps a relative or friend.  Either way, we are required to support him – whether we know this individual or not.

In the third case in Leviticus 25:47, the Torah refers to a circumstance where a “ger v’toshav” grows wealthy, and a relative of yours becomes poor and sells himself to the ger toshav as an indentured servant.   We are required to redeem this relative as soon as possible, or he will be released during the yovel – whichever comes first.

In these last two cases, “ger v’toshav” implies a status of someone who was not originally part of the community, but who is now in some way connected or resides in the community.

Interlude:  I promise that the following will relate to the interpretation above.

Years ago, when my boys were tiny, I was writing a drash on this Torah portion for a speech I was giving at a Women’s League of Conservative Judaism luncheon.  Lev Aryeh, at the time 4 ½, ran crying into the room, chased by his YOUNGER brother Asher, at the time 2 ½, who was carrying a medium-sized, non-fatal looking object and screaming “I’m going to hit you!”

I was so taken aback by Asher’s vehemence – and yet not surprised.  This is a kid with a serious temper.  His “terrible twos” began at 18 months.  His quick temper is countered with a hilarious wit – he really told jokes, and played jokes – actual jokes at 2 ½.  Even today, it is often impossible to discipline him because we are just laughing so hard.  He looks nothing like me, and little like my husband – he is blond as a cornfield, which neither I nor Joshua are.  We had to go back several generations on both sides to find that blond hair.  He is little like us in his personality.  He is athletic and quick on his feet, which definitely does NOT run in the family, and things just roll off his back in a way that I envy.  There are fleeting moments of recognition in his genetics, but I often wonder “Who is this kid? Did he come from me?”  Lev Aryeh shares more traits with Joshua and me – he looks like me, he has similar interests and characteristics as myself and Joshua, even at this young age.  And yet, he is his own person, with quirks, habits, and traits that are God-given and all his own. He is unbelievably insightful and intuitive.  The things that come out of his mouth constantly amaze me, and I think “Who is this kid?  Did he come from me?”  And Miss Shayna, the bracha we weren’t expecting . . . well let’s just say we look at her and think, “Oh my Lord, REALLY?  Who is this little girl?”

Those years ago, as I made an attempt to ignore the boys’ screaming at each other, I watched them out of the corner of my eye as much as for their safety as for anthropological research.  At the time, I taught a parenting class.  Unbeknownst to them, my sons were (and now all 3 are) my own personal lab rats.  We have a practiced system of beliefs and methods we employ to try to positively discipline and encourage our children.  And yet, I often find myself going through the motions of discipline and guidance, trying to maintain that air of calm motherhood, when inside I am screaming “Who are you people?  How did you get here? Why are you trying to kill each other and possibly me?”  I have paralyzing moments of self-doubt, wondering how I could have been entrusted with the care and raising of these three people, when I obviously know nothing, nothing at all about them or about what it means to be a parent.

I carried them inside me for the better part of a year, I nursed them and nourished them – I know them as intimately as a mother can; and yet I sometimes feel as if I hardly know them at all.

I realized that, my God, my children are staring right at me from the Torah:  they are my “gerim toshavim” – my resident strangers.  They live here, but I am not at all sure who the heck they are.  And as a parent, I often felt like a resident stranger in their lives – I live here, but I am not at all sure who I am or what my role is.  I am their “ger toshav”.  And believe me, I’m know they have their moments of “Who the is this lady, ruler of how many juice boxes I can have at one time?  How did I get stuck living with her?”  Or on a more serious level “Who am I as a part of this family?  We all live together, but where do I fit in?”  Our role as parents is to give our children the tools to find their own path, their own way of fitting in both to our family and in the world at large.  This is often difficult to do with people who make it hard for you to truly know them – and difficult to try and know yourself and where you fit in as a parent.

As with the Sabbatical year and the Yovel, the Torah is teaching us that ultimately we are stewards over the land, not owners of it.  And the first usage of “ger toshav” in this Torah portion implies that the ger toshav does not have the right of permanent land acquisition either.  I know that my little birds will one day leave the nest – while they are ‘mine’, I do not own them permanently.  I know that my children were given to me as a small piece of the divine spark to keep bright until it is time to release them to shine their lights in the world.  I do not own them in perpetuity.

In the second use of “ger v’toshav”, the Torah refers to the circumstance where one’s “brother” may fall on hard times, and we are required to support him, even if he is a “ger vetoshav”, and even if we are not in the best situation ourselves.  Rashi commented that it could be two people the Torah is talking about – a stranger and a resident.  My children reside with me, but are often strangers.  And they are still in preschool/elementary school.  I can’t imagine what the parents of teenagers must feel.  And yet, as the Torah commands us to support even the strangers that reside among us, I am obligated to support, nourish both physically and spiritually these three human beings who I often do feel deeply connected to, and yet from whom I sometimes feel disturbingly disconnected.  I may not abandon my parental duties and obligations when I am worn out, tired, and discouraged.  It is clear that it is precisely then that I must make the greatest effort to support and care for my children.

The last use of “ger toshav” in parashat Behar relates to the circumstance of a person who becomes an indentured servant to the resident stranger, but has the possibility of being set free by kinfolk or when the Jubilee year occurs.  This works both ways for me as a parent, and for my sons and daughter as children.  In a way, we are indentured to each other.   Perhaps both parents and children will think going off to college or into the world beyond is our own personal Jubilee year! But in my deep love for them, and with my knowledge that I do not permanently own them, as their kinfolk, I will ultimately set them free.

This drash begins and ends with DNA.

Schorsch’s comments about the number seven being the DNA of Judaism are insightful.  7 days of creation – and God rested on Shabbat – the 7th day of the week.  The 7 years of the shmita and the 49 years of the yovel remind us that ultimately our physical AND spiritual sustenance is tied to the Torah and to the Divine.  We continue to pass on this DNA when at a Jewish wedding, we recite 7 blessings over the bride and groom, fête the bride and groom for 7 days following their wedding.

The Torah is my metaphysical DNA, my strength and purpose that helps me as a parent – as I pass down the DNA of my family and through Torah, the DNA of Judaism.  In those moments when I feel like a stranger in my own home, or when my children seem like strangers to me, I can take comfort in knowing that, as in parashat Behar, even as a “ger toshav” I have a role and a purpose, as do my children.  God’s creative power motivates and obligates us to provide for each other.  May I live up to this.  Ken Yehi Ratzon.

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