From the very beginning, the Torah directs us to sanctify time. The first day in the Torah concludes “וַיְהִי־עֶרֶב וַיְהִי־בֹקֶר יוֹם אֶחָד—there was evening, there was morning, one day” (Gen 1:5). We are commanded in the first mitzvah given to our people as a nation “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים” (Ex. 12:2). This month shall be for you the first of months, this renewal shall be for you a beginning of renewals.
Both days and months are units of time associated with astronomical phenomena; the rotation of the earth, and the revolution of the moon. But there is one set of cycles that the Torah introduces which is entirely divorced from any overt natural occurrence; the cycle of sevens. While we are introduced to the concept of the week in Breishit, we are introduced to a broader cycle of sevens in Emor, the counting of the Omer.
Behar-Bechukotai takes this into overdrive, building an entire structure of time upon this cycle of sevens. Count six years, and the seventh is a Shabbat, a Shmita year. Count seven sets of seven years and the fiftieth year is the Yovel, the Jubilee.
Behar-Bechukotai, and this whole cycle of sevens, is not about obsession with a number. They serve a broader purpose; that of making time holy. Of creating space in a world of physical time for spiritual time. This is the process that we find ourselves in today, of finding particular ways of sanctifying each day of the Omer count.
But we also create and ritualize gaps in time. We separate one day of the week from the other six; one year from the week of years. We make space in our physical world for purely spiritual time, devoted less to renewal than to reflection and release.
Even in our physical world, there are gaps in time waiting to be sanctified. It’s always struck me that our astronomical markers of time do not line up perfectly; a lunar year of twelve months lasts at most 355 days. A solar year lasts 365 ¼. We are left with a gap of time, ten days, in which the solar and lunar cycle aren’t aligned.
At a practical level, this gap was repaired by the institution of leap years. But the particular length of this gap, ten days, is striking. We know of ten day gaps in time.
Masechet Rosh Hashanah 8b records a discussion of this particular gap of time with relevance to the section of our parshah devoted to the releasing of slaves in the Yovel year.
אָמַר רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל בְּנוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן בֶּן בְּרוֹקָא: מֵרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה עַד יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים לֹא הָיוּ עֲבָדִים נִפְטָרִין לְבָתֵּיהֶן, וְלֹא מִשְׁתַּעְבְּדִין לַאֲדוֹנֵיהֶם— אֶלָּא אוֹכְלִין וְשׁוֹתִין וּשְׂמֵחִין, וְעַטְרוֹתֵיהֶן בְּרָאשֵׁיהֶן. כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִגִּיעַ יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים, תָּקְעוּ בֵּית דִּין בְּשׁוֹפָר, נִפְטְרוּ עֲבָדִים לְבָתֵּיהֶן וְשָׂדוֹת חוֹזְרוֹת לְבַעְלֵיהֶ
Rabbi Yishmael, son of Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Beroka, said: From Rosh HaShana until Yom Kippur of the Jubilee Year, Hebrew slaves were not released to their homes because the shofar had not yet been sounded. And they were also not enslaved to their masters. Rather, they would eat, drink, and rejoice, and wear their crowns on their heads. Once Yom Kippur arrived, the court would sound the shofar, slaves would be released to their original houses, and fields that were sold would be returned to their original owners.
Behar-Bechukotai presents a model of a world to strive towards, one in which inequality is recognized and repaired, in which the full humanity of all is realized and restored. In which masters and slaves can sit together at one table eating and drinking and rejoicing, building up the world. May we all work on building that world together.