Sermon: Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Written by Student Rabbi Nicola Feuchtwang — 16 May 2023

I once did an exercise with a class of 12-year-olds here at Alyth, where I asked each of the children to speak about their own position in their family – as an eldest, or a youngest, or an ‘Only’ or what Israelis call a ‘Sandwich’– and what made it challenging; and then to listen to their friends comment on what they thought was better about that particular status than their own.  The general conclusion seemed to be that having siblings could be very challenging indeed at times – although it was probably better than not having any – although of course other people can also become ‘family’.

Rivalry and companionship; shared experience and memory, both good and difficult; mutual responsibility and also care….

‘Our relationships with our brothers and sisters should be the longest and most enduring relationships of our lives….longer than those with parents, or partners or our own offspring.’[1]


This was the editorial comment on a piece of research which I read back in the 1990s, when it was my privilege to be the Medical Advisor to Barnet and other local authorities on matters relating to Adoption & Fostering.  It was an endlessly fascinating role which even many doctors know little about – so much of our learning was with and from colleagues in public health, mental health, and particularly social work.

That research I mentioned was about the lives of children for whom the well-intended efforts to ensure their safety had led to them being placed separately from their siblings – and in some cases resulted in complete loss of contact between them for many years.  Even for those children who settled well into new families and built solid relationships, there could be long-term feelings that something crucial was missing from their lives, impacting on their identity and sense of self.

But are our ‘siblings’ only those with whom we share at least one biological parent?  Or do they include the ‘mates’ we choose for ourselves – and others whom our family or society foist on us?


The Hebrew word ‘Ach’ at its simplest means ‘brother’ in the biological sense – but it also comes to mean much more: a sibling of any gender; ‘kin’ more generally; ‘fellow’; anyone from the same tribe, or with whom you share a significant part of your life.

(Hinei ma tov uma na’im shevet achim gam yachad[2] – How good it is when Achim sit/live together – probably never meant just ‘other boys with the same Dad’)


The first part of this week’s parasha talks a great deal about ‘Achicha’ – Your Ach.

Just before the section which Joey read for us, there is a passage which instructs us that if our ‘Ach’ finds himself in financial straits and ‘stretches out his hand’, we have an obligation to support him. (Rashi and some of other commentators say that we have an obligation to try and prevent him falling in the first place). We should allow the person to live side by side with us. Even if things get so bad that he ‘sells himself’, he must nevertheless be accorded at least as much respect and dignity as a foreigner who has chosen to settle in the community; paid a proper wage for his labour, – and set free in the Jubilee year.


There is much that is that is wonderful and noble in our texts, but – as Rabbi Hannah sometimes puts it – also stuff that is difficult and ‘icky’.  For me this parasha gives us generous doses of both.

Should we be proud that our tradition repeatedly tells us to not to oppress the stranger because we know what it’s like to be a stranger – or should we be deeply concerned that despite our own slavery experience, it seems that our texts cannot conceive of a society without slavery, without some human beings effectively the property of others– even as we appreciate that in Israelite society at least there were to be constraints on how slaves could be treated.


Should we glow warmly at these ancient verses about recognising the need to take care of others when life is not going well for them?  Or be disturbed, perhaps even shocked, when on closer reading we realise that (depending on the translation)  “Achicha” – your “brother” or “kinsman” or “fellow” here actually referred only to our fellow Israelite and that we did not owe this humanity to Others?  Both the progressive liberal position, and its opposite voiced by some of our more extreme Jewish ‘brothers’, have used this same text as validation.


Should we be Impressed that Torah  can actually conceive of a society in which a Ger Toshav (‘resident alien’) – a stranger/foreigner who has settled in the community might prosper to the extent that they are in a position to acquire slaves locally, and come to the rescue of someone who has fallen on hard times  – (something which has only become a serious reality for Jews in Europe in the last couple of hundred years since Emancipation)– or should we be uncomfortable that Torah instructs that Israelite slave’s Achim relatives to do everything in their power to get the Israelite out of the clutches of the Foreigner?




Who, then,  is our ‘Ach’ to whom we owe concern and care nowadays?

After all, identity as an individual or a collective is a complex synthesis which includes clarifying what we are NOT.  Isn’t it only natural to feel most at ease with those we consider to be ‘like’ ourselves, and to be wary of those whom we perceive to be different; to be quick to lend a hand when the problem is close to home and much less worried if isn’t?


The editors of the Liberal Siddur Lev Chadash included a reading for this parasha which said:

‘We tend to forget, to shut our minds to the suffering of fellow human beings far away – or not so far away, because we have our own problems, or we are too busy, or because there is so little we can do.

And sometimes we commit an even graver sin, allow ourselves to think that all receive what they deserve….’[3]

And they cite the C12 Spanish Moses Ibn Ezra:

‘The worst conclusion is when people think that the poor are the less worthy.’


And our own Reform siddur quotes Leo Baeck:

‘It is easy to revel enthusiastically in one’s love of humanity, but it is more difficult to do good to someone solely because he is a human being. When we are approached by a human being demanding his right, we cannot replace definite ethical action by mere vague goodwill….’[4]


Perhaps we can find the beginning of an answer from the original verse in Torah:   ‘when he stretches out his hand’…  If we see someone reaching out for help, we must not look away, but should look the person in the eye, literally and metaphorically, see their distress and their humanity in that moment.


There was a song which became an anthem for Vietnam war veterans and indeed a whole generation:

… The road is long

With many a winding turn

That leads us to who knows where, who knows where

But I’m strong

Strong enough to carry him

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

… So on we go

His welfare is of my concern

No burden is he to bear

We’ll get there

… For I know

He would not encumber me

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

… If I’m laden at all

I’m laden with sadness

That everyone’s heart

Isn’t filled with the gladness

Of love for one another

… It’s a long, long road

From which there is no return

While we’re on the way to there

Why not share?

… And the load

Doesn’t weigh me down at all

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

… He’s my brother

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.[5]


Shabbat Shalom


[1] As remembered from a BAAF publication in the 1990s

[2] Psalm 133:1

[3] Siddur Lev Chadash 1995 p285

[4] Forms of Prayer 2008 p553

[5] The Hollies 1969