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Rabbi Kalmar's Sermon Behar Bechukotai 22 iyyar 5780

“When Faith in God is a Bad Thing and Wednesday’s Supreme Court Decision” (May 15 / 16, 2020)

This past Wednesday the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the extension of the Stay At Home order put in place by Governor Evers, ruling that the Department of Health Services overstepped its authority when extending the order to May 26th. Those who had brought the lawsuit in the first place asked for a 6 day stay before stopping the order to put other proposals in place. However, the court did not grant that request and merely ended the order. This has thrown the State into a state of confusion as each local government entity has scrambled to make their own orders. There were those who rushed out to bars to celebrate and there were those who rushed to twitter to cry out ‘shame!’ We are a state and a nation that is riven by opposing viewpoints about this virus – ironically turning liberal and conservative monikers on their head. While the virus knows no difference between liberals and conservatives, treating each in the same deadly way.


In the parsha of Behar we find the section about Shemittah, the seventh year when the land lies fallow, and the Yovel – the 50th year in the cycle, when the land was left unplanted for two years in a row. Following this section we find the following verse – 25:35

If your brother becomes destitute and his hand falters beside you, you shall support him [whether] a convert or a resident, so that he can live with you.


להוְכִֽי־יָמ֣וּךְ אָחִ֔יךָ וּמָ֥טָה יָד֖וֹ עִמָּ֑ךְ וְהֶֽחֱזַ֣קְתָּ בּ֔וֹ גֵּ֧ר וְתוֹשָׁ֛ב וָחַ֖י עִמָּֽךְ:


What is the connection between these laws of the shemittah and the yovel and the laws of helping out your poor brother who has become destitute?


  1. Moshe Shternbuch, in his Ta’am ViDaas, explains that the nature of one who keeps the shemittah and the yovel laws is that it plants in the person a sense of faith in and reliance on God. God promises that no harm will come to the person if he does not plant during the shemittah and yovel years. The person lives this way for a year or two and develops a heightened sense of faith in God. This is a beautiful thing. But says Rav Shternbuch, it comes with a dangerous consequence. The person who has developed this heightened sense of faith gets used to saying – God will take care of everything. And when they see a person who is poor coming to ask them for help – their response to the poor person may be – God will help you – I don’t need to help you. You should rely on God. There is a danger that one’s own faith may lead them to act in a cruel way towards another.


Rabbi Joshua Hoffman pointed out that this idea of Rav Shternbuch was pointed out by the master of the Mussar movement, Rav Yisrael Salanter. He said that people get their priorities all wrong. People are supposed to worry about their own spiritual concerns and to worry about their fellows physical needs. Instead people worry about their friends spiritual concerns and their own physical needs. There is a story that R. Moshe Leib Sasov once said that everything that exists in this world has a purpose and a reason for existence. So he was once asked what was the reason that atheism should exist? He answered that one should act as if God does not exist when a poor person comes to ask you for your help. You should not say “Let God help him” but you should run to help him.


I think this teaches us a powerful lesson about helping others. Sometimes when a person is in a tough situation – when they are financially poor or when they struggle with mental illness – we think to ourselves – they are in that situation because they brought it on themselves – and we harden our hearts against them And Shemittah and Yovel and the faith in a just and good God who takes care of us should lead us to act in the same way God does – by taking care of others instead of hardering our hearts against them.


But I also think this message has something to tell us about how we think about others viewpoints on the crisis that is dominating our lives right now.


Some of us may have faith in God – that He will protect us from the virus, and are desperate to open up the economy and get back to some sort of norm on Main street. Some of us may have faith in God that the economic devastation will not harm us that badly and are fearful for our lives and the lives of our loved ones. The problem is that many of us are willing to denigrate the other viewpoint – we harden our hearts and our minds against those who do not think like we do. And when we do that, we hurt our ability to stand together against one of the biggest challenges we as a world and as a nation have had to face in the past 75 years. May God give us the wisdom to act prudently as we try to navigate this threat to our health and future. And may we act with patience, kindness and caring towards those with whom we passionately disagree, working hard to understand one another and to work together.

Wed, July 6 2022 7 Tammuz 5782