Parashah of the week: Behar

“My Sabbaths shall you observe and My Sanctuary shall you revere, I am the Lord” Leviticus 26:2


The Torah tells us to have reverence for the “sanctuary” in the final verse of the sidrah. This command seems to appear out of place in a portion which deals mainly with laws governing financial relations among people that are aimed at limiting the degree to which the wealthy can exert control over the less privileged. 

To explain this seeming anomaly, the classical commentator Sforno writes that this verse relates to the case described several verses earlier of a Jew who, due to severe financial straits, sold himself in the service of a non-Jew. 

After presenting the relevant laws, Sforno explains, the Torah proceeds to address the somewhat parallel situation of Jewish exile, when the entire nation is driven from its land and lives under the control and authority of foreign peoples. The Torah instructs that in such a situation, it is especially vital to show respect and reverence to “My Sanctuary”, which refers to our institutions of prayer and Torah study, as they become increasingly key to our survival and continued growth.

The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-93)  proceeds to develop this approach differently. In his view, the term “My Sanctuary” refers not to any kind of institution, but rather to everything that is considered sacred and hallowed to the Jewish nation. All our values and principles to which we hold dear are included under the term “My Sanctuary”.

According to the Netziv, the Torah here warns that under conditions of exile, when we live as a minority population under foreign rule and subject to foreign influence, it is especially critical that we show respect and reverence to our traditions and values.

Under such circumstances, we will be exposed regularly to either explicit or implied denigration of our beliefs and practices, and our way of life will be viewed, at best, as a curious relic. Therefore especially in exile, we must exercise extreme care to not only adhere to our traditions and values, but to look on and speak about them with respect and reverence.

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