September 28, 2023
September 28, 2023

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Real Property Transactions: A Judgment Call

The bulk of parashat Behar relates to matters concerning shemitah in the yovel. We are given laws dictating that every seventh year the land must lie fallow. This is shemitah. After a series of seven shemitah cycles, that is to say after 49 years, the 50th year will be the yovel year. In this year, not only will the land lie fallow, but real property that may have been acquired in the prior 50 years will return to the descendants of those people to whom the land had been apportioned in the time of Joshua. As such, the last few pesukim of parshat Behar would seem out of place.

The pesukim that conclude Behar instruct that we are not to make for ourselves idols (אֱלִילִ֗ם), not to erect a statue (ֶ֤פסֶל), or pillar (מַצֵּבָה֙) or a stone slab (אֶ֣בֶן מַשְׂכִּ֗ית), upon which to prostrate ourselves. Why such specificity, would not a prohibition on idols be sufficient? Thereafter, we are told to guard Shabbos and revere Hashem’s sanctuary. How do these instructions have any connection to the preceding laws concerning land rest and redistribution?

In the 21st century Western culture is not uncommon for people to create a separation between that which they consider religious in character and that which they consider secular in character. To some contemplating God, praying, giving tzedakah, going to shul and non-Jews going to church, these are all religious activities. Earning a living is—in the opinion of some—a secular activity. To some people, these are parallel endeavors that shall never intersect. Although this view is more popular today than thousands of years ago, it existed even then. It is, however, not the Torah viewpoint.

Jewish law does not divest God from even our most mundane activities. Business transactions and dealings in real estate are all matters governed by Hashem’s laws. A failure to recognize this, thus acting as if Hashem is unconcerned with how we conduct our business dealings, is on a par with creating another deity. Just as some pagan cultures envisioned one god who was good and another who was evil, a god of light and a god of darkness, so too, also removing Hashem from the world of commerce creates a false god of commerce. Indeed, the Romans had their own god of commerce: Mercury.

Thus, knowing the human tendency to dispossess Hashem from mercantile undertakings, the parsha—after dealing primarily with land transactions—reminds us that these laws are not mundane, but imbued with holiness. This explains the final verses of the parsha: “Do not make earning a livelihood so important that you essentially worship it and make it your fetish, or your idol.” The warning is necessary as this notion is so prevalent that, at times, it seems to fill the entire world. The most tangible experience we have of our world is in three dimensions: width, breadth and height.

Hence, the Torah calls upon three objects that can represent these dimensions. The dimension of width is represented by the instruction against making a statue (ֶ֤פסֶל), the dimension of height is represented by the instruction against making a pillar (מַצֵּבָה֙), and the dimension breath is represented by the instruction against making a stone slab (אֶ֣בֶן מַשְׂכִּ֗ית). Yes, we are told that false ideas seem to fill all our dimensions, but remember, in contrast to Hashem, they are static and powerless (Psalm 115).

Hashem exists throughout both time and space. Hashem’s existence throughout the totality of time—past, present and future—is manifested in the parsha by reference to Shabbos, which is the sanctification of time. Hashem’s manifestation throughout space is reflected via the instruction to revere Hashem’s sanctuary. Bear in mind that the sanctuary, the Mishkan, in the desert traveled with the people. Just as the Mishkan could be established in any place, so also is Hashem present in every place. Therefore, no one should believe that they can be dishonest in business—fail to observe Hashem’s law—and, somehow, escape his punishment. This point is further emphasized by the haftarah associated with Behar.

The haftarah for Behar comes from Yirmiyahu. Yirmiyahu’s cousin has fallen on hard times. He comes to the prophet asking that Yirmiyahu purchase from him his ancestral land. Yirmiyahu is a near relative, thus, having both the right and obligation to redeem the land. Hashem instructed Yirmiyahu to go through with this transaction despite the fact that the Chaldeans had surrounded Yerushalayim. Thus, soon the city would fall, rendering the redeemed property worthless. After performing the transaction, Yirmiyahu prays to Hashem—describing Him as “the maker of heaven and earth from whom nothing is hidden,” (32:17). Later, Yirmiyahu will again refer to Hashem as “great of counsel and mighty of deeds, Whose eyes are cognizant of all the ways of humankind and gives each man according to the fruit of his deeds,” (32:19). Not many verses later, the haftarah concludes with Hashem asking Yirmiyahu rhetorically, “I am Hashem, the God of all flesh. Is anything hidden from me?” (32:27).

Humans may audit your books and not find your fraud, but nothing is hidden from Hashem and you will be called to judgment. Remember, the yovel year is not declared on Rosh Hashanah. Yovel is announced on Yom Kippur, the day of judgment.

William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a Board member and officer of several orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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