Learn from Congregation B’nai Chaim: A hidden lesson for new beginnings

Hefsiba "Jen" Cohen

There’s a season for everything, and right now, we are in what seems to be the season of counting. We are counting the Omer, the seven-week countdown from Passover to Shavuot, of the Feast of Weeks.

How fitting it is that, during this count, we have been reading the scripture portion from Leviticus 25 about the counting of seven years, Shmitah, the land’s rest when all fields were to be left fallow – unfarmed and unharvested, and also the Yovel or Jubilee year, after 49 years, when all land holdings were reestablished.

While the tragedies of COVID-19 have been unspeakable, much of the world has had a short rest, and it has already brought amazing results. Smog has lessened, less-traveled water canals have revealed more wildlife, seismologists have reported less earth tremors due to less traffic and nature everywhere seems to have had a bit of a breather.

Despite this analogy, biblical mandates of fallow land and a release of land holdings still seem like confusing issues that don’t really pertain to us in 21st century America, but a beautiful lesson is hidden in this text. The Torah never disappoints, and a curious placement of texts invites us to look deeper into what is going on as we read of the Jubilee year:

Leviticus 25:8 commanded Israel to count 49 years. Verse 10 seamlessly continues that the 50th year is to be celebrated as a jubilee.

Those two verses look seamless in concept, but out of nowhere, as if “cut and pasted,” in the middle of these, however, is verse 9 which commands that the ram’s horn or shofar is to be sounded on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Why talk of the Day of Atonement, literally, in the middle of the instructions for counting Jubilee years?

Let’s examine the concept of Jubilee for a clue as to what is going on. Ancient Israel had roughly half a century to do what they wanted to do with their land, short of selling it to other nations, but after 49 years, the land was required to go back to its original holders – thus the Jubilee was a total “reset” button. A family who may have lost their lands to pay debts had a chance to start over.

So, why is the Day of Atonement of verse 9 inserted “smack in the middle” of a sentence about the Jubilee? The Torah reminds us of the importance of renewal and new beginnings as it invites us to make the parallel between the land and ourselves. If a literal renewal and return is important for a holy land, how much more important is renewal and return for what was to be a holy people?

The Torah uses the word, “teshuvo” from the root word, “shuv,” in describing the land to “return” in the Jubilee year. This idea parallels our own spiritual “returning,” or “teshuva,” for restoration and new beginnings.

Suddenly, it all makes sense. The Day of Atonement reminds us of righting wrongs and restoring relationships with God and humanity – a chance for new beginnings – and if God sees fit to give the land restoration, how much more should there be restoration for us too?

Hefsiba Jen Cohen is a student rabbi and co-principal of the Lamad Academy Religious School.

Congregation B’nai Chaim is located at 29500 Via Princesa in Murrieta. For more information, visit them on Facebook for at http://www.bnaichaim.com.