Dvar Torah on Parshah Behar
Before I begin my d’var Torah, I would like to dedicate my drash and this day to honor the memory of my dear Grandparents, Bessie and David, and Lucille and Harold, and to honor my parents, Daniel and Arlene Cirlin, who provided me with a wonderful home, a Jewish education, and an amazing Bar Mitzvah 40 years ago. Thank God, my Mother is here today, and my Father, may his memory be for a blessing and may he rest in peace, is Behar Sinai, in his resting place at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park in Los Angeles. I know he is here today in spirit.
Well, how to begin. How about, today, I am a man. So begins many a Bar Mitzvah’s dvar Torah. In a tribal world, perhaps, at the age of 13, But in our society, at the age of 13, we are really just on the cusp of becoming a “man”, and it is a process that continues throughout our lives, in a spiritual journey into manhood, just as the Jewish people, whether secular or religious, were and are on a spiritual journey into the Promised Land, and a deeper relationship with Spirit.
Let’s face it, birth is a peak experience.
The Torah is symbolic of the journey each person is on, from our unconscious “paradise” in the womb in which we are totally unaware of our selves and totally dependent on our Parent, and then we are born, and cast into a world of choices and ever expanding awareness of our need to know in order to make better choices. Along the way, we realize that we are not just individuals but we are part of a larger “life”, the life of a people who are on a journey to the land. The journey through the wilderness is a time of growth and developing faith, but it is also a time of dying, when old parts of ourselves that are attached to old ways are dying off, and we are going through a process of purification and healing our wounds. During this journey, we have another peak experience, in which we come together with “our people.” That is the symbolism of Behar Sinai to me. It is a rebirth on a higher level of consciousness.
One of the things that I find so resonant about Behar is that it is about forgiveness and the return of our people to their ancestral land, both as individuals and as a people. And it is about being socially responsible with each other and with the land. In the parsha, God commands the Israelites to observe a Sabbatical Year every 7th year, just as we are commanded to observe a Sabbath, every 7th day. So, for a whole year, the farmers were to rest and let the land rest, to have a year for study and renewal, a year for spiritual growth. It so happens that if you observe Shabbat for seven years, once a week for an average of 52 weeks in a year, you will have observed 364 days of Shabbat over the seven year period, which is almost exactly equal to one year. Although this might seem to be challenging to our modern way of doing things, it might actually work – but what seems to be necessary is to have a way of preparing for it, just as we work for 6 days in preparation for Shabbat, so that we can have that day of rest and be at peace with ourselves. In the secular and non-jewish world, it is hard to do. With enough support and some inner direction in the jewish world, it is possible. It seems to be a way for us to remember, just as we do on Shabbat, that there is a “time-out”, a time for the Infinite and for each other, and for the Creation and the Creator – a time to give back, to give ourselves space and time to grow in ways that we might not if we were to simply go on doing what we always do. I think it is significant that these commandments are in a parsha known as Behar, or Behar Sinai, when actually story of the tablets and Moses’ receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai came much earlier, in the book of Shmot, or Exodus. It is also significant to me that the cycle of 7 years is to be repeated 7 times and then in the 50th year, there is to be a Yovel, or Jubilee. Yovel actually means Ram’s Horn, and the Jubilee is supposed to begin on Yom Kippur in the 50th year with the blast of the shofar. Another mystical coincidence is that the portion I read at my Bar Mitzvah in 1970, Acharei Mot, contains the commandment to observe the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, on the 10th day of the New Year. This seems to be like a magnified Shavuot. We celebrate Shavuot on the 50th day following the beginning of the counting of the Omer, which is related to the wheat and barley harvest, which is begun the day after Pesach. We count 49 days, observing the passage through 7 of the sefirot, and on the 50th day, we celebrate Shavuot, also with a blast of the shofar. Although the Torah does not specifically mention it as a commemoration of receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the rabbi’s have connected Shavuot to that. And the commandment to observe the Yovel is contained, where else, but Behar Sinai. It is said that one of the reasons for Israel’s exiles was that the Shemitta or Sabbatical Years were not observed, and that caused a disturbance in the force – it seems to be saying that we need to have that break in the worldly ways to stay in tune with the Divine flow. I think that is what Rabbi Shefa is saying in her drash on Behar.
In the five verses corresponding with the day I was born, which was Monday, therefore it is the 2nd portion of the week, there are some really meaningful passages for me personally. When I was in Israel, I learned deeply about the meaning of lashon hara, which is literally “evil speech”, and the danger of speaking about others when they are not present. I have felt that way since I was a child, although I have been as susceptible to it as anyone. I really don’t like talking about other people and when I have an issue with someone I would rather talk with them personally. Of course, sometimes I need a sounding board to try to put things in perspective or to heal a relationship with someone who isn’t in my life. I have seen the negative effects on people’s morale, both in business and in social life, when there is a breach of confidence due to communication like that. It happens especially when the communication is negative, but it can also happen when others are praised and then we build up expectations that they should always be like that, or you actually meet the person and think, hmmm, not so great, I don’t know what they were thinking. It’s better to stop ourselves from having such discussions, and definitely better not to gossip. There is also a verse about dealing fairly with our neighbor, and just dealing fairly in business or exchange in general. I know from personal experience how difficult it makes our lives when we don’t get the information we need to make fully informed decisions, and when agreements are broken. I know that I have to do a much better job of making my agreements clear and keeping them, and when they need to be revised, of make amends, and amendments.
I remember having a correspondence with my friend Yosef who was learning at the yeshiva. Being an American, of course I believed in an evolutionary path and one in which making amendments is vital. It’s really not possible for me to conceive of living without being able to modify and change when necessary, and when new awareness that is clearly needing to be integrated comes into play. For me, that includes the changes that have occurred through reform and renewal that have allowed and encouraged full participation and leadership of women, and that help us to live a fulfilling Jewish life with the Spirit of the law, even though we don’t necessarily observe the letter of the law. I remember asking Yosef, what is the process for amending the Torah. It seems kind of funny now. There really isn’t one. It is said that we are neither to add or subtract from the Torah. It is complete as it is. So, what we do is interpret and adjust for our lives and our soul’s desire. For some of us, it means returning to a stricter observance or even being ba’al teshuvah and moving to Israel. For others, it could mean learning to meditate, to say brachot, to light the Shabbas candles, or to plant a tree in Israel. And there are plenty of good people, many of them living in Israel, who are secular. To me, it is still a priority to respect each other on our journey and know that whatever we are doing with our lives, whether it is according to the Torah or according to the Constitution, or according to our own conscience, we can learn and share with each other for mutual benefit when we stay curious and have a sense of wonder and appreciation because we are here. Every thing that we do involves ways of bringing the Jewish way of life into our daily practice.
It isn’t really traditional for a 53 year old man to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his Bar Mitzvah with an aliyah and by reading the portion of the Torah corresponding to his birthday. You may wonder, as I have, what am I doing this for? Well, the simple answer is that is a rite of passage, an act of Renewal of my relationship to my Spiritual source, to the Jewish people, to my family, and to myself. In the course of my journey I have made several discoveries that have deepened my connection to being a Jewish man, including learning relatively recently that my birth Parsha is Behar. And when I read it, I realized that it resonated with my soul in a way that the portion and haftarah I read at my Bar Mitzvah, Acharei Mot, simply could not and did not. Acharei Mot means “after death” and refers to the death of Aaron’s sons, and the instructions for the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. It so happens that after my first Bar Mitzvah, I had to face the death of the peace movement, when 4 students were killed at Kent State, and the death of my Grandma Lucille, who was my main connection to Israel, and who had lived here in Berkeley, and been a strong supporter of Hadassah and in the Sisterhood at Congregation Beth El. In doing this today, I feel that I am receiving an opportunity to heal that relationship and to renew my birth connection to my Jewish identity. When I found out that Behar was my birth portion, I wanted to embody it. So I decided to begin to learn it, to study it, and to chant it, and I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity to emerge into a new vibrational relationship to Judaism that will grow more organically because it is connected to my birth.
So, it has been 40 years since I was called to the Torah for Acharei Mot, and now I have come to what seems to be my own Promised Land – I have no illusions that settling down will be easy or without challenges, but I do have the understanding and faith that those challenges will be good for me, and that by embracing the process I will grow into the soulfulness and the inspiration that is the promise of the land.