Parshat Behar-Bechukotai: The Slippery Slope
Rachel and Evyatar HaCohen are former Beren-Amiel shlichim at the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Palo Alto, California, USA
The portion of Behar focuses mainly on laws pertaining to Jewish life in the Land of Israel, and, more particularly, on commandments that express the special bond between the People of Israel and the Land. For example: the laws of the Sabbatical year, shenat haShemittah, and the Jubilee, shenat haYovel; as well as some laws pertaining to proper individual conduct within a Jewish society in the Land of Israel: sale of property, fraud, inheritance, the status of houses within walled cities, Jewish slaves, Levite cities and so forth.
Although the division of the Bible into chapters was a Christian undertaking, the portions – parshiot – as we have them today, are based on an age-old sacred Jewish tradition. Hence, where one portion ends and another begins is not arbitrary. It is therefore somewhat baffling that the portion of Behar ends with two verses that are seemingly unrelated to the rest of the portion, and which should have ostensibly been included in the following portion:
“You shall make you no idols, neither shall ye rear you up a graven image, or a pillar, neither shall ye place any figured stone in your land, to bow down unto it; for I am the Lord your God.”
“You shall keep My sabbaths, and reverence My sanctuary: I am the Lord.”
But before we attempt to answer, let’s examine some interesting statistics.
According to the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, the percentage of assimilation has increased by approximately 200% in the last 50 years, with Russia and Northern California in the lead – with an 80% and over 70% assimilation rate respectively. They are followed by France, Britain, America, Latin America – with a 50% assimilation rate; Australia, Canada and Turkey – at 40%, and Mexico taking last place with an assimilation rate of 15%.
It is becoming more and more difficult in recent years to live in the Diaspora and remain connected to Judaism. The change has not come about abruptly but has been a gradual one. It is of this, precisely, that the Torah warns us in our portion.
This is what Rashi says on the verse mentioned above:
“You shall make you no idols…” – the Torah warns the individual who has been sold to a non-Jew, lest he say to himself: ‘Since my master commits incest, I, too, can do so; since my master worships idols, I, too, can do so; since my master desecrates the Sabbath, I, too, can do so.’ For this very reason, the verses are written in this fashion, and the portions in this order. First the Torah warns us of the Shemittah, for if one lusts after money and is suspected of profaning the Seventh Year, he will ultimately land up selling his property. Hence the proximity to the verse – ‘And if thou sell something unto thy neighbor…’ And if he does not repent of his ways, he will ultimately sell his estate; and if he changes not his conduct, he will end up selling his home and borrowing money with interest. And the latter actions are more severe than the former. If he still does not repent of his ways, he will eventually sell himself [as a slave]. If he still repents not, not only will he find himself the slave of an Israelite, but even the slave of a gentile.” (Rashi on Vayikra 26:1)
Rashi warns us of this slippery slope, from which no Jew is safe. This predictable deterioration, which is both a spiritual and a materialistic one, begins at a time of great abundance, when one does not observe the laws of the Shemittah and does not lay fallow his fruits and fields. This ultimately leads to his being sold to a non-Jew as slave. Once this takes place, and this unfortunate Jew has reached the lowliest state possible – the slave of a non-Jew – the road to assimilation is a short one.
The reader might wonder: “But surely this state of affairs only holds true for days of yore, when idolatry was a matter of practice and people were generally less aware. Today, no one would ever blindly follow a non-Jew, even if that non-Jew is one’s master. Furthermore, slavery no longer exists in most parts of the world!”
But he who reassures himself thus, does not quite understand how assimilation manifests itself. It does not happen in a moment of “illumination”, when one suddenly takes the decision that it simply does not pay off to be Jewish and that it is far better to become a Christian, a Buddhist or anything else.
Silicon Valley, where we were fortunate enough to serve as shlichim for three years, is one of the most expensive areas in the USA, being the global center for hi-tech and innovation. There are about 50,000-250,000 Israelis living there, and a far higher number of Jews. The average Jew living in the area can choose between one of two education systems: Private Jewish education (without going into the question of any particular Jewish denomination) at the cost of about $25,000 per child per annum; or, alternatively – the public education system, which offers excellent education and is absolutely free.
It goes without saying which education system is chosen by most Jews, and even more so by the Israelis. In an attempt to preserve the children’s Jewish identity, they make do with Hebrew lessons after school hours, or sending them to the local Jewish Community Center.
But what they do not take into account is life itself. How is a Jewish child, who goes to school with Jenny, Mark, Jan and Joel, supposed to deal with the fact that every Christmas and New Year s/he hangs out with his/her classmates rather than celebrating Chanukah at home? And what happens to such a Jewish child when his/her own school does not have a break for the Jewish Holidays and is therefore required to go to school on Pesach or on Yom Kippur?! And we haven’t even spoken yet about staying connected to the Hebrew language, the Land of Israel or the State of Israel. Of course, there is nothing of the sort. Moreover, in many public schools there are people who hold anti-Semitic views and, more particularly, anti-Israeli ones.
A child, or teenager, placed in such a situation will most typically abandon Jewish traditions for lack of a suitable social network and community. At the same time, s/he will alternatively start interacting with other traditions that present themselves at school or in the neighborhood. Next, the child will lose all interest in his/her own traditions and country of origin, and look upon him/herself as natives of their surroundings.
All the prohibitions relating to assimilation, as mentioned in our portion, and the deterioration process as explicated upon by Rashi, stem from that emotional “glue” that inevitably forms between people who socialize on a daily basis, in our case – Jews and gentiles. Children are not the only ones who are affected. After all, who can refuse going to a party at the workplace meant for ALL employees? And if everybody goes out for a drink after work, why should we not join in the fun? Surely if we don’t attend someone will take offense, or think ill of us. It might even cause us problems at our place of employment …
The Torah, which keeps warning us against idol-worship and profaning the Shabbat, cautions that this might even happen while safely residing in our own Land. It begins when one is not careful about keeping the natural cycles of the Chosen Land – letting the land lie fallow on the Seventh year – and can deteriorate into idol worship! This is all the more true when one lives abroad, where the dangers are greater.
It would therefore benefit Jews who happen to live in the Diaspora if they joined a Jewish community which preserves our age-old tradition; perhaps even to use the Hebrew language in their homes. Even better if they remind themselves constantly of their roots, their origin and their homeland by celebrating both the Jewish as well as the national Israeli holidays, and even putting up a little Israeli flag in their homes. By so doing, they might keep the flame of the Jewish People burning for thousands more years.
 From the year 2021, based on data from the years 2008 and 2016.
The school in which we served as shlichim is one of a kind, and we doubt there is another like it to be found anywhere in the world. The school comprises some 200 students, from toddlers of 18 months through eighth graders. The school population is very diverse, boasting students from the entire Jewish Orthodox spectrum: secular, traditional, modern Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Lubavitchers – all of whom study under one roof, boys and girls alike. The school is the only Orthodox school in the entire Silicon Valley, and draws its students from three large centers: Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and San Jose. The community of Palo Alto is also comprised of a mix of Israelis who have relocated, the ultra-Orthodox who live in the area, and modern Orthodox Jews – all of whom belong to the same community headed by Rabbi Yitzhak Feldman.