The parshiyot of Behar and Behukotai, which we will read this Shabbat, contain a variety of halachic and conceptual content, from halachot of shmita to the details of various pledges a person can contribute to the Temple. At the center of these is a covenant – promises that if we take the right path, we will be rewarded; and if we don’t, God forbid, we will be punished.
Behukotai begins as follows: “If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them...,” followed by a list of promises, both material and spiritual, of a life of abundance, riches and happiness.
One of the promises in this list is “And I will grant peace in the Land.” There are commentators who understood this promise to refer to peace between us and neighboring nations. According to this interpretation, it relates to proper relations between states and between nations that will guarantee a life of serenity devoid of worry about wars and the price they exact from citizens. But according to another interpretation, this does not refer to external peace but to internal peace. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra explains briefly, “And I will grant peace in the Land – among you.” And Nahmanides expands on this and writes, “And I will grant peace in the Land – that there will be peace among you, and you will not fight with one another.”
The value of peace and how to make it
The value of peace cannot be overestimated, whether we are discussing peace between countries or peace among citizens and groups in a population. In the reality we live in, it seems that peace between countries is easier to achieve than peace among various segments of society. We often witness the gaps that create social tensions that are hard to solve. Striving for peace and unity is the first step we must take. The desire to live together, even at the price of all sides needing to compromise, is the basis for peace. Social rifts will never be solved without mutual trust and goodwill.
But even when goodwill exists, the critical question is: How does one make peace? How can people live in peace when there are such essential differences between us in faith, in lifestyle, in what we think proper government should look like, and in an array of public issues? We live in a time of ever-growing separation between camps, of identities that do not allow for serious discussion that strives for agreement. How can we overcome the tide?
The seed to the solution can be found in parashat Behar. Let’s examine two commandments relating to the yovel, the 50th year, as it was practiced in the past. Based on the laws of the Torah, once every 50 years there is a sort of “restart” of socioeconomic status. A person who sold land to his friend gets the land back in the 50th year. Even a person who was sold into slavery is released and liberated in this year of freedom. The Torah explains these two commandments clearly:
“The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me.... For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as a slave is sold” (Leviticus 25: 23, 42).
The basis for peace and unity is release from possessive and patronizing perspectives. The Torah tells us to release our grip on the land and release our grip on one another. Based on a profound religious conception of God alone being the master of all creation, we are called upon to be less domineering and capitalistic. You should never rule another person, and your hold on the land should be released. Is the Land ours? The Torah teaches us, “for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me.” We are guests on the land and are allowed to enjoy it, but the sense of ownership should disappear.
Disagreements between people based on different opinions and positions do not have to lead to social rifts and separation. Respectable discourse that strives for unity and agreement is possible. But for that, the sense of ownership and rulership must dissipate. All sides need to take a step back, not just tactically but a significant retreat from the need to enforce their opinions everywhere and on everyone. This is the way we can advance toward real and honest peace for the long term. ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.