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Drash on Parashat B'chukotai 2022

Drash on Parashat B'chukotai            

Rabbi Esther Jilovsky PhD
Temple Sinai, Wellington, New Zealand

Language is in a constant state of flux. It’s always changing. A couple of years ago, the Oxford English Dictionary made headlines in the Jewish world for the number of Yiddish-derived words it had included in its new edition, including chutzpadik, kvetching and kibitz.[1] Thanks to the vast numbers of Yiddish speaking Eastern European Jews who immigrated to English speaking countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, Yiddish words such as chutzpah, shlep and klutz have become part of our common vocabulary. But perhaps lesser known are the Hebrew-origin words that have also found their way into English.

This year, Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, marking seventy years on the throne. A ‘jubilee’ is generally a milestone anniversary, at least twenty-five years in the making. To feel ‘jubilant’ is to rejoice or be happy. Both these terms can be traced back to the Hebrew word יובל yovel that crops up (no pun intended!) in this week’s parasha, B’Chukotai. The Torah tells us:

בִּשְׁנַ֤ת הַיּוֹבֵל֙ יָשׁ֣וּב הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה לַאֲשֶׁ֥ר קָנָ֖הוּ מֵאִתּ֑וֹ לַאֲשֶׁר־ל֖וֹ אֲחֻזַּ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ

‘In the jubilee year the land shall revert to the one from whom it was bought, whose holding the land is.’ (Leviticus 27:24)

The jubilee year—called shnat hayovel in Hebrew—is a special and rare occurrence, one that only happens once every fifty years. Last week’s parasha B’Har informed us that: ‘you shall hallow the fiftieth year’ (Leviticus 25:10). The fiftieth year is kadosh: special, set aside, holy. It comes after the seventh shmitta year, the sabbatical year that falls every seven years. Meaning ‘release,’ a shmitta year is a Shabbat for the land and for the Eternal, a year when ‘you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard’ (Leviticus 25:4). It’s a time to pause, to let the land breathe, and to subsist either from crops that were planted before the shmitta year began, or from food that grew naturally.

This year 5782 is not only a shmitta year but marks a very special jubilee in the Progressive Jewish world. Next week, we will celebrate fifty years since the ordination of Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, the first woman rabbi to be ordained by a rabbinical seminary.[2] On 3rd June 1972, Rabbi Priesand was ordained as a rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, United States. She explains that: ‘I decided I wanted to be a rabbi in 1962 at the age of 16.’[3]Rabbi Priesand was ordained alongside thirty-five male rabbis. She reflects: ‘I did not think very much about being a pioneer, nor was it my intention to champion women’s rights. I just wanted to be a rabbi. I had no female mentors; no women on the faculty; no women rabbis to whom I could turn for advice.’[4] It is almost unimaginable how much the Progressive rabbinate has changed in half a century. HUC-JIR has now ordained over 800 female identified rabbis, who together with women rabbis and cantors ordained by other seminaries have changed the face of Progressive Jewish clergy to better reflect the diversity of our communities.

When it comes to what it means to celebrate a jubilee, the Hebrew word יובל yovel holds the clue. Another meaning of the term is ‘ram’s horn’ or shofar, because a shofar blast marks the jubilee year. A great sound of celebration, of coming together. A sound that in ancient times marked a sacred assembly, such as the Day of Atonement, or the beginning of a new year. A jubilee is a cause for celebration. An English word that we may not realise comes from Hebrew. Just like we might not always realise the backstory of something, it doesn’t mean it’s not significant. Today, women rabbis lead congregations all over the UPJ region and indeed all over the world. But just fifty years ago, this was not even remotely possible. We’ve come a long way. This jubilee marking the ordination of women rabbis is certainly a reason to celebrate!

[1] https://www.timesofisrael.com/oxford-dictionary-gets-new-jewish-themed-entries-some-are-likely-to-offend/

[2] Rabbi Regina Jonas z”l received private ordination in 1935 in Berlin, Germany.

[3] https://jwa.org/feminism/priesand-sally

[4]  Rabbi Sally J. Priesand, “Foreward,” in The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, by Rebecca Einstein Schorr and Alysa Mendelsohn Graf (New York: CCAR Press, 2016), xix.

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