The world as it ought to be
Behar — Leviticus 25:1-26:2
May 11, 2011
Many scholars credit the ancient Israelite tradition with introducing the linear vision of history. Prior to the rise of the religion of ancient Israel, these scholars assert, the human view of history was cyclical: What was would be again; what would be again was what already was. But the biblical view of history is linear: it begins at a specific point in time with creation, moves forward, and eventually culminates in the fulfillment of God’s redemptive vision for all humanity — the messianic era. For ancient Israel, history is charged with possibilities.
Those possibilities, of course, are not necessarily all of one character; some are positive, some negative. In this week’s concluding portions from the book of Leviticus, several of these differing versions of the flow of history are articulated.
Leviticus 25 opens with a discussion of the Sabbatical (every seven) and Jubilee (every 50) years. During the Jubilee year, as the Torah describes it, property that had been sold out of the ownership of a family or clan would be restored to them. The impulse here seems to be to remind the Israelites that their rootedness on the land was not to be taken for granted nor should it be squandered because someone had fallen on hard times and had to sell their property.
We have no evidence of whether this socially conscious but potentially socially disruptive prescription was ever put into effect. However, the view of history that lies herein suggests that one can in effect move in a line — but backward, not forward. In other words, history is indeed linear, but what happened once can be undone or reversed.
In the closing portion of Leviticus read next week, there is an admonition in which the Israelites are warned that failure to comply with the rules of the Torah will bring severe punishment. The catalogue of doom narrated is daunting, culminating in the threat of destruction and exile.
The vision of history underlying this vision is one in which history can also be reversed: The Israelites can be driven off of and out of their land, the covenant with God in effect abrogated. Here as well, what happened once can be undone or reversed.
This section concludes with a small message of hope, however. Leviticus suggests that notwithstanding all these terrible punishments, God will “remember the covenant with Abraham and remember the covenant with the land” and eventually have compassion on the Israelites, restoring them to a relationship with God. Here we see history being reversed once again and, despite everything, moving forward.
Perhaps it is human nature to understand one’s place in the world by looking back or looking forward. For many of our ancestors, and for many of us, where we are is not where we’d like to be, or where we suppose we ought to be. Some Jews look backward in order to look forward. For example, in our liturgy, when we pray for what could happen in the future, we often pray for the restoration of what happened in the past. Thus in traditional liturgy, prayers for the restoration of the ancient Temple worship system are included, as are prayers for the restoration of the line of David, with a monarch of his line sitting again on the throne in Jerusalem.
Other Jews look forward without looking backward. While admiring and respecting what once was, what once was is viewed as a closed chapter of Jewish history, for which we no longer yearn and to which we no longer look for models of redemption.
Thus, the majority of contemporary Israelis and Diaspora Jews celebrate the State of Israel as a modern democratic state and yearn for neither a theocracy nor a monarchy. The majority of contemporary Jews neither pray for nor would be enthralled with the restoration of the ancient Jerusalem Temple service. For these Jews, history is indeed linear, and the hope for the future is for a future not yet realized, rather than for a future modeled on the past.
Underlying whatever vision of Jewish history we pursue is a common sense that the world as we know it is not the world as it ought to be. The message of the idea of the Messiah — whether one believes in a personal messiah or a messianic era — is that God’s purpose for creation is not yet fulfilled. History is an open-ended opportunity. Part of our work as Jews is to ensure that we contribute to the shaping of history as a place where God’s hope for humanity comes ever closer to realization.
Richard Hirsh is executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Wyncote, Pa.