Counting comprises the focal point of this parsha Behar. Upon settling the land of Israel we are commanded to count six years of harvesting the land and in the seventh year we are commanded to allow the land to lie fallow, in Hebrew a Sh’mitah year or Sabbatical year in English:
Six years you may sow your field and prune your vineyard and gather the crops. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord. You shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. (Lev. 25:3-4)
Next, we are commanded to count forty-nine years and declare the fiftieth year as the Yovel year in Hebrew or the Jubilee year in English:
In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, it shall be the Day of Atonement. You shall sound the shofar horn loud throughout the land. You shall make the fiftieth year hallowed and it shall be a jubilee for you. In the fiftieth year, the Jubilee Year, you shall not sow, nor reap. You may only eat the growth direct from the field. In this year of jubilee, you shall not wrong another in buying or selling property. (Lev. 25:9-10)
What is all this counting about? Perhaps the parsha is coming to teach us additional lessons on how to live as a community. Perhaps we need to stop every six years and remember what it means to be a human being. As we count down years and days we are given another chance to experience redemption via God’s revelation.
In both our parsha Behar and in last week’s parsha Emor the language used commanding us to count is similar: v’safar’ta l’chem, (“You shall count”) (Lev. 23:15, 25:8). We are commanded to count time. For while the physical universe may be timeless, our relationships with one another are time bound. In our counting we are ever mindful of the fleeting essence of time, the ephemeral nature of our lives, and, ultimately, the most precious commodity of all, time itself.
In addition, the parsha tells us that this fiftieth year is hallowed, using the same Hebrew root (kuf-dalet-shin) that we use for describing the Sabbath or the holidays as kodesh (“hallowed” or “holy”). (Perhaps, then, it is no accident that at the end of the parsha the Torah reminds us to keep the Shabbat, counting six days of creation with the requirement to rest on the seventh day. (Lev. 26:2)) During the Jubilee year the land is restored to its original owner and debts are forgiven. It is a holy year, in which human beings are once again restored to their rightful place in the universe as valued, respected individuals created in God’s image; no person is a slave to another. The Jubilee year is a Sabbath of the soul for the whole society. We are commanded to see the whole year in special relationship to each other as humans.
We have sanctified time, every week and throughout the year, through rituals we do or blessings we make — candles, wine, challah. But now, in yovel, we sanctify time and take another look at our relationships, righting power imbalances and recalibrating our attachment to possessions.
In God’s commanding us to measure time – from one yovel to the next, from one sh’mitah to the next or from one Omer to the next – we are ever aware of the prism of time within which we build our lives. With this appreciation of the passage of time we are able to use the tradition to forge meaningful relationships. In short, our awareness of time is the necessary ingredient that propels us forward and links us with God and with our fellow human beings. Every seven years we seek to right our relationship with God, every 50 years we seek to right our relationship with each other. Thus, by observing the sh’mita and yovel we recognize our connections – first to God and then between ourselves. Indeed we are commanded to seek relationships of meaning and worth.
Chaplain Deborah Schmidt