Parshat Behar: Fine Lines & Fresh Starts

As a child, there was nothing more intimidating than sitting in front of a blank page with a drawing utensil in hand. With each line, a poorly drawn figure or shape would emerge - sinking me further into regret. Because every pen stroked line seemed indelible. Each marking permanent. Inerasable. Not even with those dual erasers that "claimed" to erase both pen and pencil. But they never did! They just smudged the whole thing and made it worse. Leaving me stuck with a giant rubber mess. To the point where I wanted my garbage fire of a drawing to be put out of its misery. I felt terrible for the poor little paper which never asked for any of this. Battle-scarred by my incapable hands that blundered even the simplest cloud, tree, or stick figure family.

Because quite honestly, I enjoyed the clean surface as it was. So sparkling fresh. Full of potential! Without imperfections and unsightly pen smudges. But sadly, you must do something in art class. I couldn't just wave about a blank page and claim it's unearthed potential as "visionary perfection" to my 4th-grade art teacher. That wasn't an option.

And such is the way my brain works. Bizarre, I know. But I don't think I'm alone. I presume many of us are hard-pressed to put "pen to paper." And horrified "when the rubber hits the road." Because, when we make decisions, we draw lines not merely in the sand - where they fade away after the tide rolls in - but draw biographical lines that have real-life consequences. In the adult world, property lines are drawn. Age caters to the lines already engraved on our skin. Lines are drawn between socioeconomic classes and race. Our lineage (from Latin linea ‘a line’) shapes our DNA. We leave home, crossing state, county, and country lines. But might it be possible to shake the Etch A Sketch and dissolve the appearance of the lines already drawn? Start over perhaps? As Julie Andrews would say:

Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start
— Sound of Music

Because, if you think like me (not suggested), you might feel cornered by your current status in life. Imprisoned by your own doings. After all, mortgage and school loans simply don't go away. In fact, “99% of people who applied for public service loan forgiveness have been rejected.” But there is a sort of biblical loophole “RESET” button that won’t leave you indebted to the world forever. In parsaht Behar, we read about a Jubilee Year in which the Israelites are thrown a lifeline and pulled back to shore. Back home. Back to freedom.

“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…You shall sanctify the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release (freedom) throughout the land for all its inhabitants; it shall be a Jubilee Year for you, you shall return each person to their ancestral heritage and return each person to their family.” [1]

But what exactly does “It shall be a Jubilee Year” practically mean? What did it do? According to our sages, “The expression [comes from the root meaning] ‘to bring home,’ reflecting the extraordinary function of this year. Namely, to release slaves and to enable them to return to their original homes. [2] This also includes the soldiers of war who leave their homes to guard in the service of the king and the matters of state; in the Jubilee year, they all return to their homes and ancestral land. Even if they have no ancestral land they go back to their main family and all the family heads are gathered together.” [3]  

According to a Kabbalistic approach to the word Jubilee,” Rabbi Bahya ben Asher explains, “The word is derived from the expression, ‘sending forth its roots by a stream’ (Jeremiah 17:8), a hint that all the succeeding generations are traced back to their original roots, to the prime cause which determined their development. This is the reason why the [Jubilee] is calledfreedom…’”[4] Alternatively, Rabbi Ibn Ezra explains, “This word means ‘liberty.’ Compare, ‘like a flying swallow’ (Proverbs 26:2). The term there denotes a bird which sings as long as it is free; but if it is forced into captivity, it will starve itself to death.”

In a sense, The Jubilee Year is time to trace one's biographical lines back to where they began - “with liberty and justice for all.” Not completely erasing our past, but also not getting stuck in our present circumstance. It’s an attempt to restore the people of Israel. Not entrap them in their own confining mess. Because nobody wakes up and decides that they want to grow up to be a slave. Nobody willingly forsakes their own liberation. Which is why we are reminded that all people trace their roots back to free people. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Saks points out:

“For Aristotle, slavery is an ontological condition, a fact of birth. Some are born to rule, others to be ruled. This is precisely the worldview to which the Torah is opposed. The entire complex of biblical legislation is designed to ensure that neither the slave nor their owner should ever see slavery as a permanent condition…Judaism is about ideals like human freedom that are realized in and through time, by the free decisions of free persons.” [5]

Because without the ability to travel “in and through” time with the liberty to release ourselves from notions of permanence - we will indeed starve to death. Society will cave in on itself like the death of a red star. We will continue to be slaves to others, our current conditions, and the idea of ownership. Which is why “The Jubilee laws bring home to people that the land and freedom are Divine gifts.” [6]

As our Torah suggests, Judaism is a religion that contradicts an understanding we’re meant to “Get in line! Fall in line!” And certainly “Stay in line!” But without a new fresh start we fall victim to a recurring narrative. Alternatively, God advises us not to live life as Bill Murray in Groundhog Day - living in a inescapable, permanent loop. Rather, our laws, holidays, and theology are all orbit around restoring hope for a better future - and the belief that the lines currently drawn, in your favor or not, can all be revised and regrouped.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
— Emily Dickinson

[1] Vayikra 25:8-10
[2] Chizkuni, Leviticus 25:11:1
[3] Haamek Davar on Leviticus 25:10:1/25:10:3
[4] Rabbeinu Bahya, Vayikra 25:10:1-3
[5] “Evolution or Revolution? Behar 5779” by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
[6] Stone Edition Chumash, p. 697

Aaron Sataloff