Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

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Parashat BeHar: My Jubilee

15 Iyar 5760

Shabbat Shalom.

Our Torah portion this week, Behar, contains the Torah’s central explication of the laws of the sh’mita, or sabbatical year, and the yovel, or Jubilee. I will focus on the latter, the Jubilee. As you will see, I hope to bring the yovel to a personal and community level, but first, let me put it in its larger context.

The key introductory language of our Torah text reads as follows:

You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years – so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim liberty (deror, “release”) throughout the land for all the inhabitants thereof. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, neither shall you reap the aftergrowth or harvest the untrimmed vines, for it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you: you may only eat the growth direct from the field. (Lev. 25:8-12).

As the text states, the yovel comes in the 50th year, the year-long culmination of a succession of seven sabbatical cycles. In it, the land is given its rest – the agricultural practices of sowing, reaping, and harvesting are suspended; specific land holdings are returned to the original owners; debts are forgiven; and indentured servants are freed.

While there is some doubt historically whether the yovel was actually observed, and while halakhically, its observance was limited to pre-exilic Eretz Israel, there can be no doubt at all about the powerful effect of the idea not only there and then, but throughout the history of western civilization since. Pope Boniface VIII incorporated the ancient Jubilee into “modern” (i.e., medieval) practice, declaring the year 1300 to be a Jubilee year. A Renaissance pope, wishing a better shot at a Jubilee within his own papacy, put it on a 25-year cycle, and so it has remained ever since.

The declaration of proclaiming liberty throughout the land was enshrined on the Liberty Bell and has become an emblem of our national spirit. In Pete Seeger’s words,

It’s the hammer of justice,
It’s the bell of freedom,
It’s the song about love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.

In our time, Pope John Paul II has declared the Millennial Jubilee as an occasion for apology and seeking forgiveness for the wrongs committed against Jews and others during the past thousand years. I know that many Jewish spokespersons have criticized the Pope for not having gone far enough. Nevertheless, I would quote Father Howard Nash, pastor of the Church of St. Bernadette, who, speaking at this year’s Connecticut ADL Torch of Liberty Award dinner, stated, “An apology cannot change the past, but it can change the future.” I would say we are fortunate indeed to be living during the reign of this great Pope. He has set the Church on an epochal change of course. As a result, the new Millennium holds promise of far better relationships between Catholics and Jews than the one just past. We should accept the Church’s invitation and seek out constructive dialogue with our Catholic brethren starting now.

Less familiar but also quite significant is an international movement that has arisen under the banner of Jubilee 2000 to cancel the debt of the poorest countries by the end of the year. As reported in the 24 April 24 2000 edition of The Nation by Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches,

Grounded in biblical mandates of jubilee calling for the forgiveness of debt, the freeing of slaves and the return of lands so as not to perpetuate generations of impoverishment, this movement seeks to promote meaningful debt cancellation for the world’s poorest nations in order to reduce poverty and prevent further environmental degradation. There are now Jubilee 2000 campaigns in more than sixty countries, creditor and debtor alike.

Grounded as it is in our own tradition, surely we should add our collective voice and support to this global effort.

With the general context thus set, I ask you to indulge me in the personal pleasure I have gained all year long from having been born in 1950. Not knowing that the entire society around me would be celebrating the Jubilee, I found myself a year ago contemplating the approach of my own 49th birthday. Having studied the yovel in years past, and being a product of the havurah movement, which looks for personal meanings in traditional practice and text, I decided that it wasn’t my 50th birthday, still a year off, that was so significant, but rather it was my 50th year, beginning at my 49th birthday, soon to begin. And so, not realizing I would be sharing the occasion with the entire rest of western civilization, I took on the observance of my own personal Jubilee year – not as a commandment (since it is not), but as an opportunity for personal growth disciplined and illuminated by tradition. What follows, then, I offer as my personal Jubilee Report.

The first thing I had to face was that I could not afford to let my fields lie fallow for an entire year – not with two children in college and one at the Ezra Academy; it was not my turn. But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t observe the year at all. What I attempted to do was to reorder my priorities, to alter my time management habits, to make way for sustained commitments in keeping with the yovel – this despite the direct, measurable financial cost in lost time at work.

One may surmise that, with ordinary work suspended, the ancient yovel yielded a rich crop of opportunities for Jewish study. Certainly I felt drawn to use the freedom of my yovel this way. Here I catalogue several such commitments of my yovel, and for each, share with you one thing I learned.

I began by signing up for a course in Biblical Hebrew, taught by Professor Tony Perry through the New Haven Jewish Federation’s Department of Jewish Education. On the first day of class, Tony quoted Dante, “Here begins a new life.” Thus began my yovel journey.

Around the same time, with a small group of lunch buddies, I helped to start a Mishna study group with Rabbi Tilsen. We have been studying Mishna Sanhedrin weekly now for more than ten months. Here I learned that “He who saves a single life is as if he had saved an entire world.” The context in which this teaching appears is so rich it deserves at the very least an entire course. Please note that the study group is open to other interested congregants.

Two or three months into the year, my yovel learning commitment ripened into a teaching commitment. To the Department of Jewish Education I proposed a course of my own design, entitled Hidden Stories of God in the Movies. Many of you here today were present at the birth of this notion about one and one half years ago, when I gave a Devar Torah on “Toyrah Story”, wherein I offered – no sense in beating around the bush – definitive proof that the plot for the 1995 movie, Toy Story, is the Joseph story spliced together with the Exodus story! Other movies covered in the course were Prince of Egypt, in which the brilliant Moses dream sequence illustrates the concept of “hierophany” – revelation of the sacred; Groundhog Day, in which weatherman Phil Connor’s struggle for release from circular time hinges on doing teshuvah; and the Akira Kurosawa masterpiece, Rashomon, which, in its closing sequence, opens to view a deep structure of justice and mercy that remains invisible to the movie’s characters. Time permitting, I would also have included the remarkable 1970s Israeli movie, I Love You Rosa, rich in allusions to the Book of Ruth and the Song of Songs.

Here, in reading Abraham Joshua Heschel’s luminous book, The Sabbath, in preparation for the course, I gleaned that:

To Israel the unique events of historic time were spiritually more significant than the repetitive processes in the cycle of nature…. The God of Israel [is] the God of events: the Redeemer from slavery, the Revealer of the Torah, manifesting Himself in events of history rather than in things or places.

Though seeking God in a visual medium, we looked not for images but for stories, patterns of events that reveal the sacred dimension of life. Heschel continues:

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year…. Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time…. The main themes of faith lie in the realm of time.

My second teaching commitment has taken the form of leading Cosmic Conversations monthly on Shabbat mornings – Cosmic Conversations, the name our Shabbat morning children’s services coordinator, Anne Johnston, has bestowed upon the Torah study group for our 6th to 8th graders. My commitment blossomed from having sat in on two wonderful study sessions for this age group led by Rob Forbes during the High Holidays last fall.

In one of our Cosmic Conversations, we read Parashat Teruma about the design of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, the dwelling place for God’s presence among the wandering Israelites. We found ourselves discussing the question, “Where is God?” Everywhere? Inside us? Between us in our interpersonal relationships? Wherever God may dwell, we concluded, the Torah teaches us that that space is sacred, and that in that space, we are called upon to build a Sanctuary. If God is within us, then we each must build a Sanctuary within. If God is between us, then together we must build a Sanctuary in our midst.

My third teaching commitment has been with my son, Jonathan. We have been studying Parashat Bereshit and Rashi’s commentary on it weekly in preparation for Jonathan’s Bar Mitzva next fall. Here I learned that the first day of Creation is unlike any to follow. The other days of Creation are denoted, as you would expect, using ordinal numbers – second, third, and the like; but not the first day, Yom Ehad – Day One. Rashi teaches that “Day One” is to be understood as the Day of the One, the Day of God, and that God created everything in all its potential on that Day. From that day on, it follows that, as my daughter Sarah has recently begun quoting Martin Buber in the tag line to her email messages —

To produce is to draw forth, to invent is to find, to shape is to discover.

In addition to learning and teaching, I also increased my involvement in various BEKI projects. I would like to focus on two – the removal of the underground storage tank in the rear parking lot, and my work on the Master Space Plan Committee. Here the environmental aspect of the Jubilee observance comes into play. In Leviticus 25:23, the Torah teaches us that we must not permanently alienate the land, for the land is not ours, but God’s:

But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.

We do not hold unlimited ownership rights over land. We are God’s tenants. And like all tenants, we have an obligation to the Landlord to care for the land and not to harm or waste it. Indeed, we have an obligation to the land itself, and the land itself will pay us back if we do not take heed. As the Prophets took note in connection with the destruction of the First Temple and the Exile to Babylon, Leviticus 26:34 teaches that, if we do not observe the shemita, the sabbatical year, if we do not give the land its rest, the land will take its rest:

Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it.

A short while ago, in the 24 March 2000 edition of the New York Times, I noticed an article about a study on world ocean temperatures. (The chief author of the study is Sydney Levitus – one wonders if the family name got shortened somewhere along the way from Leviticus!) By excavating literally millions of data points from ships’ logs and other previously overlooked sources, Dr. Levitus and his collaborators were able to construct a worldwide record of the temperature of the ocean to a depth of two miles over the past 50 years. Perhaps it will not be surprising to learn that the study documented that the world’s oceans are warming, further confirming the phenomenon of global warming. The magnitude of the warming, however, surprised some experts. One prominent oceanographer said that it appeared

…roughly equal to the amount of heat stored by the oceans as a result of seasonal heating in a typical year. That makes it a big number.

In other words, as a byproduct of human exploitation of the land and other natural resources, we have crammed 51 years of solar heat into 50 years of solar time. I cannot help but feel that the earth will make up for this in due course, that the land will have its rest.

The environmental responsibilities of each of us and of our congregation need to be understood in this context. Thus I am pleased to report to you that, though long overdue, the shul’s 40-year-old underground heating oil storage tanks were removed this past fall without incident. There had been no leaks. In this we were lucky since their life expectancies had long since expired.

However, the tanks are just the beginning. Their removal sensitized us to the critical need to continue renovating our entire heating and cooling infrastructure. Our furnace is ancient, insulated by asbestos and heating extremely inefficiently compared with the alternatives now available. Even if fuel costs for the current system did not represent such a financial burden, which they do, we would still have a compelling environmental obligation to lower the amount of fuel we burn and thereby lower our contribution to global warming.

The cooling system is also way beyond its life expectancy. Maintenance and repair costs are huge. So is the risk of a leak of large quantities of chloroflourocarbons, also known as CFCs, which attack the atmospheric ozone layer and thus expose life on earth to increased levels of harmful ultraviolet radiation. Waiting for this system to break down and to patch it again and again is not environmentally responsible. As a congregation we must replace this failing system sooner rather than later, before the next crisis, not after.

Looking at the year as a whole, what new perspectives have I gained and would I most like to share? I turn to my age-mates and say, most simply, this: it’s time for us baby boomers to admit something, however reluctantly – our adolescence is over! …I know, I know, we have already taken on plenty of adult responsibilities; but deep down somewhere, we are still waiting for someone else to take care of us. I know because my yovel year has clued me in to my own feelings about this. It may have taken 50 years plus or minus a few to realize it, but we’re the adults now! Coming of age in Samoa? Early teens. Coming of age in the second half of the 20th century in America? Well, hopefully before we start collecting Social Security!

I do not mean by this that we have to or should stop feeling youthful. As my wife, Marsha, who is a geriatric care manager, likes to quote New York Times health writer, Jane Brody: it is a worthy goal of living to die young…as late in life as possible! What I mean, rather, is that we need to stop looking for others to take care of us; we need to take care of ourselves. We need to stop looking for others to set our agendas; we need to set our own agendas. We need to stop looking for others to take care of our institutions; we need to take care of our institutions.

What is the collective implication for the BEKI community? Most simply, this: let’s get our synagogue in shape – organizationally, programmatically, and, last but not least, physically. We need to expand our commitments of time and financial resources significantly. I mean it. Let’s stop waiting for someone else to provide – let’s provide. Let us see this next decade, which we share, as our sanctuary in time. And let us use that time to rededicate this synagogue, which we share, as our collective spiritual home, our sanctuary in space.

Shabbat Shalom.


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