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You Only Live Once (Behar)

When he isn’t busy cheering for the Toronto Raptors, Jewish Canadian entertainer Aubrey Drake Graham – better known by his stage name, “Drake” – likes to offer advice on life. His motto, as he refers to it in a hit single featuring fellow rapper Lil Wayne, is simple: You only live once. Fans love the saying. In fact, the acronym into which they’ve condensed it – “YOLO” – has spread all over Facebook and Twitter. It seems like everybody’s saying it these days.



To be sure, Drake’s catchphrase isn’t without its critics. As many have rightly noted, it is sadly ironic when individuals cite “YOLO” as their inspiration for engaging in behavior which is harmful, dangerous, or potentially even fatal – a phenomenon which is unfortunately quite common. But the fact that some choose to interpret the saying in this way does not render its message any less powerful. You do, after all, only live once. That is a universal truth, and it is an important one to internalize.

It also seems to be the message hiding beneath the surface of this week’s Torah portion.

This week’s Torah portion is called Behar. Among its laws are the requirement to let the land of Israel rest once every seven years, by not tilling its soil (שמיטה, or the “Sabbatical”); the stipulation that once every fifty years, nearly every plot of land which was purchased in Israel reverts to the ancestral family which originally owned it (יובל, or the “Jubilee”); the imperative of supporting the needy; the prohibition of lending money on interest; the obligation to treat servants with dignity; etc. In short, everything in our Torah portion seems to be about agriculture and economics.

Yet there’s another layer here. The great English novelist Daniel Defoe tells us that nothing in life is certain except for “death and taxes.” If we take a broad definition, then it’s not hard to find taxes (or a loosely related concept) mentioned in our Torah portion. But what about death? At first glance, our text has nothing to say on this score. Should we look a little closer, however, we will uncover a whole series of subtle references to human mortality tucked away in this week’s Torah portion.

Perhaps the clearest example occurs at the end of the third reading. Addressing the Israelites, Hashem declares: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for it is mine – you are [but] strangers and residents with Me” (Lev. 25:23).  This verse, with its striking formulation, immediately calls to mind one found much earlier in the Torah. At the end of Sarah’s life, Abraham, her husband, turns to the leader of the Hittites with the following petition: “I am [but] a stranger and a resident among you: grant me a “holding” for a burial site with you, that I may bury my dead from before me” (Gen. 23:4). In Hebrew, the underlined portions are nearly identical: Abraham says גר ותושב אנכי עמכם, and Hashem modifies it to גרים ותושבים אתם עמדי. Moreover, the word “holding” – אחוזה, in Hebrew – with which Abraham refers to Sarah’s burial plot, is the same word which Hashem uses throughout our Torah portion to describe the ancestral plots in the land of Israel.

In fact, the very language of our verse – “the land (ארץ) is Mine: you are but strangers and residents with Me” – hints to this idea. To be a “stranger and resident,” in the Bible’s idiom, is to be an impermanent dweller; a sojourner; a tenant. Hashem uses this phrase to describe the legal status of the Israelites in the land of Israel because He does not want them to make the mistake of thinking that they can “do whatever they want” with it – rather, they are only “leasing” the land, and are doing so on condition that they abide by the moral guidelines according to which they took possession of it. But Hashem’s statement is accurate on another level as well. Aren’t we all ultimately “impermanent dwellers” on this planet? Aren’t we all “just passing through?” In Biblical Hebrew, the word ארץ means “the land” (i.e., of a country), but it also means“the earth” (see for example Psalms 115:16). When Hashem tells us that we are “strangers and residents” on His ארץ, then, He may well be referring to both.

A field in Israel

A field in Israel

There’s more. When the nation enters into Israel in the days of Joshua, each clan is allotted its own plot of land. What if somebody chooses to sell his or her land? According to the laws of the יובל, or “Jubilee,” which are outlined in this week’s Torah portion, this “sale” is in fact no more than a lease: it only lasts for a maximum of fifty years, after which time the property reverts to its original owners. When the Torah describes this procedure, it tells us that “in the Jubilee year, you shall return each man to his ancestral holding” (Lev. 25:13). We have already seen above that the word “holding” – אחוזה, in Hebrew – connotes “burial plot” in certain instances. What is even more fascinating, though, is the image of people “returning to the land” which this verse evokes. It was, after all, these very words which Hashem first used to introduce death into the world: “you were fashioned from earth (lit. “dust”), and to the earth shall you return” (Gen. 3:19). So we find yet another allusion to burial contained within the laws of the Jubilee.

Of course, the Israelites do not return only to their land during the Jubilee – they also return to their family members. The picture painted by our verse is one of massive ingathering. That, too, is interesting, because the Bible will often record that a particular individual was “gathered unto his people” as a euphemistic way of telling us that he died. A few examples: “And Abraham expired and died at a good old age, mature and content, and he was gathered to his people” (Gen. 25:8). “And Isaac expired and died, and he was gathered to his people, old and fulfilled of days; his sons, Esau and Jacob, buried him” (Gen. 35:28). “When Jacob finished instructing his sons, he drew his feet onto the bed; he expired and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 49:33).

Even where this phrase isn’t used, the text goes out of its way to emphasize when significant leaders merit burial in their ancestral plot of land. So, for instance: “Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Hashem, died at the age of one hundred and ten years, and they buried him within the border of his ancestral heritage…” (Joshua 24:30). “Joseph’s bones… were buried in Shechem, in the portion of the field that Jacob acquired… and the land became a heritage for the children of Joseph” (ibid 32). “Elazar son of Aaron died, and they buried him in the Hill of Pinehas his son, which was allotted to him on Mount Ephraim” (ibid 33). “Samson’s brothers and all his father’s household came [to the Philistine temple] and carried him away; they brought him up and buried him between Zoreah and Eshtaol, in the burial plot of Manoah, his father” (Judges 16:31). “Samuel died and all of Israel gathered and eulogized him, and they buried him at his home in Ramah” (I Samuel 25:1). “David lay with his forefathers, and was buried in the City of David” (I Kings 2:10).

So there’s definitely a connection here. For some reason, we seem to find a motif of “death” superimposed upon the section of the Torah which deals with the laws of the Jubilee. What might that reason be?

David Brooks

David Brooks

Earlier this year, some students at Yeshiva University were invited to hear New York Times columnist David Brooks (another Jewish Canadian!) speak at the 92nd Street Y. Brooks’s topic was “moral heroes,” and he used the paradigm laid out in R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s classic essay The Lonely Man of Faith to introduce a distinction between what he called “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” As he explains:

The resume virtues are the ones you put on your resume, which are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones which get mentioned at the eulogy, which are deeper: Who are you? What is the nature of your relationships? Are you bold, loving, dependable, consistent? And most of us, including myself, would say that the eulogy virtues are the more important. But, at least in my case, are they the ones that I think about the most? The answer is no.

Resume virtues represent the worldly, ambitious, external side of our nature – Soloveitchik’s “Adam I.” It is the side of us which wants to build, and create: create companies, create innovation. Eulogy virtues represent the humble side of our nature – Soloveitchik’s “Adam II.” They form the side of us that wants not only to do good, but to be good – to live in a way, internally, that honors God, creation, and our possibilities. Adam I savors accomplishment; Adam II, inner consistency and strength. Adam I seeks success. Adam II seeks love, redemption and return.

These two sides work according to different logic. Adam I’s is an economic one: input leads to output, risk leads to reward. But Adam II’s is a moral logic, and often an inverse logic: You have to give to receive, you have to surrender to something outside of yourself to gain something inside yourself, you have to conquer your desire to get what you want; in order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself; in order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.

We happen to live in a society that favors Adam I and often neglects Adam II. And the problem is that this turns you into a shrewd animal, who treats life as a game. You become a cold, calculating creature, who slips into a sort of mediocrity – where you realize there’s a difference between your desired self and your actual self. You’re not earning the eulogy which you want – which you hope – somebody will give to you. You don’t have conviction; you don’t have emotional sonorousness; you don’t have commitment to tasks that would take more than a lifetime to achieve.

Brooks beautifully articulates the thematic meaning which our Torah portion, through its thinly veiled allusions, seeks to communicate. On its surface, our Torah portion offers us a description of the things which drive “external” man: property, industry, wealth, status. But when we probe its depths, we suddenly remember that we must focus on developing our own depth. That is because we do not live forever. Perhaps, by acquiring land, we can conquer space – but we cannot conquer time. And so the Torah, in its gentle way, encourages us to devote the bulk of our attention towards cultivating those aspects of ourselves which Brooks so aptly terms “the eulogy virtues.”

It is not fun to accept the fact that we are limited, nor is it comfortable to talk about that greatest limit of all: the one which sets a deadline on all of the good we can do in this world, on all of the love which we can share. But our days are limited, unfortunately. And though we certainly should not dwell on this reality, for that is unhealthy, we must at least recognize it if we are to make the most of the time that we have.

That is the idea behind the laws of שמיטה and יובל. Once every seven years, the rat-race must grind to a halt. Once every fifty years, sons and daughters and mothers and fathers who have found themselves separated by the demands of business must return to their borders and reunite. “ושבו בנים לגבולם.”

Our Torah portion outlines some of the large-scale policies which train us to focus on what matters. The small-scale version, which occurs every week, is called Shabbat. Shabbat, much like the שמיטה and the יובל, is God’s invitation to spend one entire day doing the things and being with the people which make life most meaningful. It is a blessing which enriches and ennobles the existence of all those who partake in it.

May we all experience that blessing this Shabbat, and on all Shabbats.

Shabbat shalom! 

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