Torah is a sacred text. We kiss the scroll when carried around the room to convey that it is precious. We relate to the Torah as a love letter from God and yet, for many of us the Torah is also a human document with a history.
Dr. David Lieber, the chief editor of the Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary used in our synagogue, taught Bible at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He taught his students that for generations our ancestors told tales of creation, liberation, and God’s expectations. Those varying oral accounts were woven together into the written text that we read every Shabbat. The Torah, he emphasized, is distinctive as our people’s attempt to see the world through God’s eyes and is an act of spiritual genius. Just as Mozart composed music that still stirs our emotions and Shakespeare wrote plays that continue to describe the human condition, so the Torah transcends time and place. The goal of Torah is primarily ethical, guiding us on how to live in relationship with a Creator who sees all people as created in the Divine image.
This week, the Torah reading begins with laws of Sabbatical and the Jubilee years. These laws offer hope to those in need of a fresh start. Every seventh year the land is to lie fallow, a reminder to the farmer that the land ultimately belongs to God. As the psalmist would proclaim, “The earth is the Lord’s” (24:1). During the Sabbatical year, all are invited to gather produce that grows on the land and more, all debts are cancelled. On the fiftieth year, all lands previously sold due to financial hardship revert to their original tribal owners. Such laws also honor the land as needing time to rest. This is holy legislation: a perspective that transcends the immediate material interests of the powerful. When reading Torah each year, I marvel over the precision of the choice of words, the invitation for interpretation, and most profoundly, the perspective that the Torah demands of us. We are bidden to rise above self-interest and to act with goodness, duty, and values from the vantage point of a caring Creator.