Parshat Behar contains a number of mitzvot which at first glance don’t seem to be clearly connected: Shmita and yovel (the sabbatical and jubilee years), the prohibition against mistreating others financially and verbally and the mitzvah of tzedakah. Yet, the commentaries point to a common theme which runs through these mitzvot.
Starting with Shmita, the Rashi (citing the Talmud) sees a chronological connection which results in a downward spiral of consequences: One who is not careful about observing shmita and benefits from the produce of the seventh year, will lose his land in the yovel year when it is returned to the original owners (in biblical times). This may lead to taking financial advantage of others in selling property. Soon after, one will become destitute and eventually sold into slavery.
Similar negative ripple effects occur with regard to verbal mistreatment, as seen in the Talmudic story about the shaming and ostracism of Rabbi Eliezer. As a result of the verbal mistreatment he endured, Rabbi Eliezer’s tears caused damage to the world and to others. The message: the effects of ona’at devarim, verbally mistreating others can lead to limitless consequences of hurt and pain.
Also, the language “if his hand falters,” is understood by the midrash as the mitzvah to give tzedakah quickly, to stop a downward spiral of poverty before it gets too far. It is likened to a load on the back of a donkey – if the load falls partially it is easier to pick up than if it falls all the way down to the ground. So too, with helping others.
Parshat Behar is the great equalizer. These mitzvot share the message that the world ultimately belongs to God and by gently recalling our origins as strangers and slaves it is a reminder to act ethically and show compassion to those who are alienated and vulnerable. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson