Thursday, 11 May 2023

Written by Dr. Hannah M. Altorf

A few weeks ago, my brother stayed with me and we visited the Victoria and Albert museum. At his suggestion we went to the architecture section. As he was absorbed and took great care to look at every maquette, my mind and I wandered off. At some point I found myself looking at the model of a modern house and wondering where I would live: in the nicest part of the building, on the top floor with the brilliant view and sundeck, or in the basement, with only the surrounding wall as outlook.

Parashat B’har could have been written with such thoughts in mind. It introduces the jubilee laws. They seek to ensure that Israelites who fall on hard times are not doomed to stay poor for ever, but will regain the land that they had lost in their poverty. After forty-nine years, on the tenth day of the seventh month, on Yom Kippur, the horn will sound and they will return to their holding and to one’s family and the family home. (Leviticus 25: 8ff.) Even the land gets respite in that year, as it will lay fallow. The jubilee laws thus translate holiness into economical and social practices. They bring drama with a horn blast that is heard around the country, but also with the guarantee that poverty will not oppress generation after generation. No one is doomed to stay in the basement forever.

Even when the parashah offers a powerful image of social repair, one cannot help noticing the more troubling, tribal nature of the text. The parashah distinguishes between achicha, your brother, and the ger, here specified as the ‘resident alien’ or ‘sojourning settler’. When it is our brother who needs to sell his land or it is our brother who needs to sell his work, then we are told to make sure that we do not treat him as a slave. (Leviticus 25: 29) And if our brother ends up in the possession of a ger, then a brother, an uncle, a nephew or any relative should redeem him.

The Hebrew uses a singular masculine, achicha, your brother, and scholars have debated to what extend this term can be understood to include anyone of any gender of the community. Most translations use kin, rather than brother. Yet, even if we understand achicha to include every Israelite, man or woman, the text still does not suggest treating everyone the same. Our brother, and his children, will be freed upon the jubilee, but the same is not true for the ger, who is not freed, but stays as possession. (Leviticus 25: 45, 46)

The particularist nature of the text comes again to the fore when we are told the reason for this distinction. The brother and his children are in close relation to God. Avadai hem, declares God, which is most often translated as, ‘they are my servants’, but can also mean, ‘they are my slaves’ or even, ‘they are my worshippers’: ‘Avadai hem, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt.’  (Leviticus 25: 42, 55) These words appear twice, with the same trope or ta’am, that is powerful in its simplicity. (munach, katon, do-mi-do, do-re-do) Sung in a quiet voice they can suggest close intimacy, even when we puzzle over the paradox that we cannot enslave those who are God’s slaves.

This particularist approach appears at odds with the more universalist ambition that characterises contemporary thinking. We do not hold that only some people and not others should be redeemed from slavery. On the contrary, article one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘all human beings are born free’ and article four adds that ‘no one shall be held in slavery or servitude’. Of course, these attempts of defining universal rights are controversial. It has been argued, for instance, that any attempt at universalism is doomed to fail and can only impose a particular worldview on everyone. That said, I am not ready to give up on these declarations just yet. They fill me with hope and inspiration, not unlike how I imagine a horn blast that is heard throughout the land.

It is of course possible to explain the particularist tendency of the parashah with historical comparison. In the ancient Near East, monarchs could cancel debt and adjust economical equality. This is of importance and interest, but we should not allow it to deflect from the direct challenge that the text poses. No matter what ancient monarchs did and did not do: have we designed a house, where only the top floor has a good view or can the people in the basement also see the moon and the stars? Should we move rooms ever so often, or redesign the house?

There is a famous saying in Pirke Avot, the text that is often studied in the period of the Omer: ‘(Rabbi Tarfon) used to say, It is not your duty to finish the work, but you are not free to neglect it.’ It is not up to us to find a solution to poverty or to think up an entire ideal state. Indeed, such designs often end in disaster. It is certainly not what one can do in the space of a d’var torah. This week’s parashah can be a reminder of our intimate connection to other people. Where the covid pandemic separated us in our different houses and the boxes of our zoom calls, we may not have reconnected again and realised that even the poor relative is our brother. We may need to listen carefully for the still, small voice: he is your brother and they are mine.

And sometimes that brother’s attention to detail allows us to wonder and look again.

Student rabbi dr. Hannah M. Altorf



The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.