Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Behar-Behukotai (Haftarot)

BEHAR: “Buy My Field which is at Anathoth”

This week’s reading is the last double Torah portion of the present series, and the last but one for the entire year, so that (except for the holidays) we shall not have cause to write about two haftarot together for some while. The haftarah for Behar (not read this year) is taken from Jeremiah 32:6-27; its choice as haftarah is obvious, describing as it does the practical fulfillment of one of the laws contained in the Torah portion.

A central idea in the background of this Torah portion is that each family or clan in Israel has their own portion in the Land of Israel (cf. Num 26:52-56; 34): the land is divided among the tribes, and further sub-divided among the various clans and extended families of each tribe into nahalot (“homesteads” or “inheritances”). Much of the legislation in Leviticus 25 is intended to protect the “God’s little acre” of each family against forced sale resulting from economic reverses. To this end, it provides a series of options or remedies, ranging from the stipulation in vv. 25-28 (“If your brother waxes poor and sells his inheritance… his next of kin shall come and redeem it… ”), to the institution of the jubilee year, in which every fifty years all land is restored to its original owners (although this appears earlier in the chapter, in vv. 8-17, 23-24, conceptually it is the final, and strongest, remedy). The extended family thus performs the function of “redeemers,” of “bailing out” one of their number who has fallen into poverty (also against debt or even bonded servitude, as in vv. 39-55—but this is not our immediate subject here).

In the passage read as haftarah, Jeremiah’s uncle, Hanamel, asks him to buy a field that belongs to him in the village of Anathoth, some distance north of the city, “because you are the redeemer.” It is not clear what is behind this. Presumably Hanamel had fallen into debt, and mortgaged the field to his creditors as collateral. However, the fact that the sale was executed between Hanamel and Jeremiah alone, in the presence of witnesses but without the involvement of any third party, suggests that it had not yet been actually been sold; thus it was related to, but not identical to, the classical case of the go’el (“redeemer”) described here by the Torah here. In any event, the transaction was duly formalized, with the writing of a double document, “the sealed and the open” (vv. 11, 14; it is not fully clear just what these terms mean), which were sealed away in a jar, “so that they might stand for many days.”

But these were not ordinary times. All this took place during the siege of Jerusalem: the city was being slowly starved out by its Babylonian conquerors (see vv. 1-5), and it was clear to all that the fall of the city and the exile of its inhabitants was only a matter of time. The town of Anathoth itself was presumably inaccessible, and quite probably already in enemy hands. Thus, the whole business seems an empty, meaningless formality.

But that was indeed the point. The reason why this otherwise mundane story of a formal property transaction is recorded here is that it was seen as a sign of trust, of confidence, an expression of hope that some day they would return to the land as its rightful owners; at that point this document, carefully preserved and stored, would mean something.

This story is usually read as a story of hope, of the Jewish connection to Eretz Yisrael, of dogged perseverance and love of the land in face of adversity. After 1967, this chapter was at times cited as one of the ideological prooftexts by the West Bank settlers movement; Anathoth itself—a dusty, wind-swept Arab town on the edge of the Judaean desert, known by the Arabic name of ‘Anata—was one of the dozens of biblical spots to which the Jews saw themselves returning.

But the story can also be read in a different vein. Not as a specifically Jewish or Israeli story, but as a picture of universal human experience. A tale of human beings and their love of their homeland, and of their own little spot of Mother Earth; a portrait of the pain of separation, of exile, of knowing that one is for the time being helpless to resist powerful military forces that are occupying ones homeland and pushing one away. Ones only comfort lies in the dream that one day one may return—if not oneself, then ones children, ones grandchildren or, if one is childless, as perhaps Hanamel was, whoever is nearest and dearest.


And here comes the hard part. Is it at all possible, in the midst of a life-and-death struggle, to see the human aspirations of the other side? To know that, just as one has returned to ones homeland after two thousand years, there is another people, whose own subjective reality is one of connection to the very same small piece of land, of longing for it in exile, of feeling the bitterness of separation. For weeks, I have hesitated about sending out this piece. Not only because I don’t want to cause divisiveness and controversy; not only because the task I have undertaken here is to engage in Torah and not in politics (as if the two can be isolated in hermetically sealed compartments); but because, like many people in Israel today, the past eight months have shattered my sense of certainty about what is happening here.

For years, many of us felt that the Arab Palestinians also had a just cause, like any other national group seeking self-determination. The poverty, squallor and crowding of their living conditions, compared with the modern comforts and amenities enjoyed today in most of Israeli Jewish society, only increased the natural sympathy one might feel for them. I remember sensing this strongly once, while standing guard at an Israeli Army base, seeing the Gazans passing by in the street below at 5 am, going to work on bicycles or in ancient jalopies.

But this past summer (this essay was written in Spring 2001), when Arafat turned down what seemed the last, best offer for peace of the Barak government, his good will was thrown into question. This feeling was reinforced once the violence began just before Rosh Hashana, and as it has continued with growing intensity ever since. If Arafat is holding out for a total Right of Return, what does that say about where he is as far as accepting Jewish autonomy at all? Not to mention his approach, not only to the issue of the Temple Mount, but even to the Western Wall, which has suddenly been described as sacred to Islam. Was Arafat’s strategy one of Sof ma’asehe bemahshava tehilah—of envisioning all along some sort of violent confrontation after exhausting the diplomatic channels?

I also vacillate between a socio-economic, and a religio-mythic interpretation of the conflict. Is the heart of the conflict practical problems that can ultimately be solved through comparison and through investment in “building a better life” for the Palestinians, or is it rooted in issues of identity, of cultural differences, and of Islamic imperatives that find it impossible to tolerate any non-Moslem rulers in the area?

Yet having said all that, we as Jews cannot merely retreat behind a cloak of self-righteousness, but must also engage in heshbon nefesh, in examining our own collective role in creating the present impasse. Just as part of maturity in an individual lies in the ability to criticize his or her own faults, so is it too in the case of a nation. A few basic truths, both theological and social-historical:

1. Tzelem Elohim. We may not for a moment forget that our opposite numbers in this bloody confrontation are also human beings, created in the “Image of God,” with all that implies.

2. Ahavat ha-ger. Prior to Pesah, we commented on the fact that love of the stranger is one of the basic lessons derived from the Exodus, which was the constitutive experience of the Jewish people. As Intifada El-Aksa has intensified, drawing an ever greater toll in life on both sides, we have seen more and more acts of cruelty and barbarism. We must nevertheless look beyond the present situation, and our own fear and anger, and try to understand in depth what is happening. This includes the attempt, difficult as it may be, to empathize with the other—the stranger, the outsider, who is weaker, both militarily and economically. Understanding the attachment of a person to his land—to his fig tree, to the olive tree that his great-grandfather may have planted—as exemplified in this week’s haftarah, is one example of this.

In a broad historical perspective, the Arab/Palestinian question has been the Achilles heel of the Zionist movement. We have never really come to grips with how to live together with this people, who see this land as their home in the same way as we see it as ours. Hayyim Weizmann’s statement some eighty years ago, “We are bringing a people without a land to a land without a people,” expresses this blindness in elemental terms. During the early days—the era of the pre-state Yishuv and the early days of the state—there was no real option. But since 1967, the territories have served as an albatross around our collective necks. Yeshayahu Leibowitz prophetically saw from the very beginning how morally destructive the occupation would be, and that in the end no good would come of it.

3. The history of the twentieth century has taught the futility of subjugating another nation, and the potency of national consciousness, which simply cannot be suppressed indefinitely. The experience of the 20th century: of decolonialization just about everywhere—in North Africa, Asia, India, Pakistan, East and Central Africa, even South Africa—seems lost on us.

Of course, Eretz Yisrael is our historical homeland; nevertheless, to two million Arab Palestinians, we have functioned objectively as an occupying force. And, as experience shows, there is no such thing as “benevolent occupation.” It is a comforting myth that we deal ourselves, so as not to face the reality; one is reminded of the plantation owners in ante-bellum south, or of bosses in Jim Crow South, who spoke of their kindness to “their niggers,” and the latter’s lack of appreciation and “uppityness.”

4. A related point: suppression by force only breeds more hatred and more violence. There can be no such thing as “victory” in a war against a civilian population. From my home, I can hear the sounds of war: the mortars and cannons being fired against Beit-Jallah. Even though these are being shot by “our side,” the sound is not a reassuring one and does not add to my feeling of “security”; sooner or later, this violence is bound to rebound against us. Again, a lesson that may be learned from the Torah: “and as they oppressed them, so they grew and so they burst forth.” This statement holds true not only of or ancestors in Egyptian bondage, but is a truism of human psychology. It seems ironic that a people as psychologically oriented as the Jews, that gave the world the founder of modern psychology, should be so blind to the simple insight that suppression and humiliation of another people can only lead to more hatred and violence. All the more so, when combined with unemployment, poverty, hopelessness, and daily humiliations and affronts to ones human dignity—the uprooting of olive groves; the demolition of houses (built “illegally” because our bureaucracy makes it next to impossible for Arabs to build additions to their homes to accommodate “natural growth”); the endless roadblocks and inspections; etc.

Meron Benveniste once commented that, ironically, both the Jews and the Arabs have suffered at the hands of Western Europe. The one—through Anti-Semitism, pogroms, and ultimately through the Holocaust; the other—from colonialism and the exploitation of resources and people that went with it. Rather than eat each other alive, we must try to build some sort of modus vivendi, perhaps even to some extent of a common Middle Eastern culture—simply because there is no other alternative but more death and destruction.

BEHUKOTAI: “The Sin of Judah is inscribed with a quill of iron”

A few belated comments on the haftarah for Behukotai: Like its companion for Behar, the haftarah for Behukotai is taken from the Book of Jeremiah, but in this case (16:19-17:14), rather than a piece of history from Jeremiah’s personal biography (although one with far-reaching implications), it is a prophetic rebuke to the entire people. In this lies its connection to the parsha. The first half of the Torah portion, Leviticus 26, is a frightening warning to the people of the terrible consequences of rejecting God’s laws: drought, famine, disease, and finally exile. Here, too, Jeremiah focuses upon the transgressions of the people, particularly idolatry, and the dire results to be exacted. “The sin of Judah is inscribed with a quill of iron, with a stylus of emery on the tablet of their hearts…” (17:1). This may be read in two ways: that the sin is indelibly written upon their characters, making it difficult for them to turn back; but also, that God can “read” their transgressions as if written in a document. They shall persist in their sins, but soon all their wealth and treasure shall be given to others.

I see the heart of the haftarah in the four verses, vv. 5-8, in which the man who places his trust in other men is contrasted with one who trusts in God: the former is cursed, and is described as a desert shrub, easily uprooted by a slightest gust of wind that comes along (those who have ever spent any period of time in the Negev will know this metaphor as a concrete one); the latter is blessed, like a tree planted by a flowing river, with long and extensive roots.

This is followed by an interesting psychological observation: that the human heart is, more than anything else, crooked, deceitful, perverse, and hence difficult to know (v. 9-10). Only God can “search out the heart, test the “guts” [lit., kidneys]” so as to give him his just recompense: that is, to know a person’s true character and intentions, beneath the cloud of lies so often used by people to fool their fellow man.

But, so as not to end on a totally bleak and pessimistic note, the passage concludes by invoking the “high and glorious throne” set aside from the beginning, the Temple; and God himself, who is the “hope of Israel… the source of living waters” (vv. 12-13). The final verse is a simple prayer to God for healing and for salvation (a phrase used, almost verbatim, in the eighth blessing of the weekday ‘Amidah).

The Italians and Yemenites, who read the above haftarah on Shabbat Behar, read here Ezekiel 34:1-25 (Italians) or 1-27 (Yemenites). This chapter is an admonition to the leaders of Israel, based upon an extended use of the metaphor of shepherds and flock: they have “milked” and “sheared” their flock, but not guided them in a responsible way. In the end, God will take over their job, and shepherd His own flock in a loving, caring way (v. 11ff.).


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