Casting off yoke of slavery means we are accountable


Leviticus 25:1-27:34

Jeremiah 32:6-27, 16:19-17:14

Behar-Bechukotai provides a reminder of the result of tikkun olam, the work perfecting an imperfect world or the failure to be so engaged. The passages are a litany of blessing and curses that accrue, depending upon the path taken.

Bechukotai is a warning and a wake-up call — a list of disasters, catastrophes and retributions for failing to take responsibility for bringing God into the world, and a list of blessings for being a conscientious partner of the Eternal. This tension between responsibility, or lack thereof, is brilliantly expressed in two simple phrases:

The first is one of many reminders of God's role in redemption: "I the Lord am your God who brought you out from the land of the Egyptians to be their slaves no more, who broke the bars of your yoke and — vaolaych etchem kom'meyoot–who made you walk erect" (Leviticus 26:13).

The technical term for a word that appears only once in the entire Bible is hapax legomenon. "Kom'meyoot" is such a word. It is an abstract noun derived from an intensive form of the Hebrew root kum, meaning "to stand" or "arise." In this context, this term is a reminder that emancipation makes us feel tall and causes us to stand straight. When we cast off the yoke of enslavement, we can feel that the world belongs to us when our liberty is accompanied by accountability for our actions.

The Hebrew word hayrut ("freedom") is similar to another Hebrew word achrahyut ("responsibility"), for there can be no genuine freedom without responsibility. We may throw off the yoke of oppression and the things to which we are slavishly bound, but in so doing, we assume two different kinds of yokes referred to by Jewish tradition — ol malkut shamayim — the yoke of the heavenly kingdom and ol ha mitzvot — the yoke of the commandments.

We can assume our rightful place in the Jewish community only when we stand tall, taking on the covenantal responsibility of acting as one of God's workers. Even though the rare word "kom'meyoot" is found in only one other place in traditional texts, in the grace after meals, nevertheless, it reverberates in more than daily prayer and activity; it echoes in all that we do, all that is upright and principled.

In modern Hebrew the word "kom'meyoot" has come to mean "without fear," or "sovereignty, independence, autonomy." Thus, the phrase for Israel's war of independence is milchemet ha kom'meyoot. But "kom'meyoot" is even more than that, it is spiritual posture.

A second phrase, found in the same chapter as the word "kom'meyoot" reads, "As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. Kol aleh nidaf — the sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight…they shall fall though none pursues" (Leviticus 26:36).

The text presents insight into the nature of high anxiety. Those who are fearful will find that their fears, whether or not they are realistic, will own them. The slightest rustling of a leaf will make them tremble as if they were being pursued by unknown terrors. Panic will overtake them and fright will make any action impossible. Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote "As a Driven Leaf," a historical novel about Elisha ben Abuyah, an apostate of the rabbinic period who was tortured by his pursuit of absolute truth. His futile search resulted in a life that resembles a leaf endlessly buffeted about by gusts of wind and furious storms.

The contrast between "kom'meyoot" — spiritual posture, standing tall and proud, and "kol aleh nidaf" — the sound of a driven leaf putting the fearful to flight, even though pursued by no one, is striking. This contrast is even more powerful when considering the accompanying Haftarah, selection from the prophet Jeremiah that echoes the theme of blessings and curses.

Jeremiah suggests that those who pursue only worldly, material gains are like a tamarisk tree that only grows and inhabits the parched desert wilderness. His image alludes to an individual who achieves only to live a barren, sterile existence.

May all who read Jeremiah's words discover "kom'meyoot," spiritual posture in their lives, a posture that resists "kol aleh nidaf," the sound of a driven leaf putting the fearful to flight, even though pursued by no one. Such an upright life is not barren but a blessing:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord,

And whose trust the Lord is. For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters,

And that spreadeth out it roots by the river,

And shall not see when heat cometh,

But its foliage shall be luxuriant;

And shall not be anxious in the year of drought,

Neither shall cease from yielding fruit (Jeremiah 17:7-8).