Behar: Let us treasure our opportunities for rest


Leviticus 25:1-26:2

Jeremiah 32:6-27

Few sections of the Torah speak more precisely or more urgently to the predicament of contemporary American life than does this gem of a parashah, Parashat Behar. For those of us who live with the extraordinary privilege of basic financial security, having enough, if not everything we might want, the key challenge of contemporary American culture is the tyranny of time.

Try a simple experiment. Close your eyes for just a moment, and say to yourself, "I have all the time I need." Does your mind immediately respond with a ferocious protest of "That's ridiculous"? If so, you are in good company. American culture is increasingly obsessed with speed. Each new technological advance, each new miraculous discovery, brings us more speed, more productivity, more urgency and higher expectations of instantaneous response. We have less and less tolerance for waiting, less and less patience for living.

When is the time to rest? For millions of Americans, as the drug companies well know, sleep does not come easily, providing even the basics of physical rest. It is no wonder, with our minds and inner workings racing at high speed all day long. Even for those lucky enough to sleep well, when does rest come?

Sure, we Californians, especially, are great at recreation — but that, too, is often practiced at high speed. For all too many, deep rest comes only when illness or disability strikes. That is not to say that illness is the "fault" of the patient who neglected needs for rest, although I have known many people who believed that this was a component in their own illness process. I mean to say that many people run and run and run, until at some point, against their will, they are forced to stop.

The Torah gives us another possibility, articulated magnificently in Parashat Behar.

"When you enter the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of God…In the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of God…(Lev. 25:2,4).

For the Torah, rest is fundamental to the existence of things. Everything that was created — persons, animals, the land itself — is meant to be productive at times and to rest at times. Surely, the fact that the land is to rest makes great sense in ecological terms. Yet I am certain that our text means also to relate the sabbatical year to the weekly Sabbath, to Shabbat, to draw human rest and ecological-economic rest into one cosmic circle. Everything that was created must rest, and rest is a fundamental aspect of creation. We may deny this, but at great peril — to our health, to the health of society, to the health of the earth.

The commentators ask why our verses say repeatedly that this sabbatical is a "Shabbat of God"? Some would say that this is to underline the fact that rest is essential to creation: Everything created by God must rest, from Genesis to this day.

One might say that these words come to guide us in how to use the times of rest that are given to us — not to waste them in mindless and exhausting forms of recreation, but to devote these times to God, to make them godly times. Or, as one commentator has it, perhaps these words come to teach us that sabbatical times — for the individual, for society, and for the earth — are a gift from God, a fundamental need, treasure, a birthright.

May we treasure the opportunities for rest that come our way. May we be ready to use them well — for our good, for the good of the human community and the earth, and for God.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at