Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, May 5, 2014

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            If you had to suggest a subtitle for the book of Leviticus, what would it be?  Please, nothing negative, like the Book of Boring.  It is true that it is the only book in our Chumash without a story line.  But I think that something like the Book of Holy Things might work, or, perhaps, Sacred Stuff.  These are appropriate suggestions because the book begins with lists of items (animals, birds, grain. oil, wine) sanctified by being offered on the altar in the Mishkan.  Then we have laws about how people can sanctify themselves through positive behavior patterns, and then special laws for the sacred sect of Cohanim.  Last week we had the list of holy times like Shabbat and the holidays.  Finally this week we turn our attention to the holy place, Israel.  The presentation of the laws of shmittah (sabbatical year) and  yovel (jubilee) followed by some special real estate rules for Israeli property are to let us know that the Land of Israel is quite different from any other place.  This material is especially appropriate this year because our parsha coincides with Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's independence day.  So, let's see if we can find something significant to say about the Holy Land.

            Before I get going on my topic, allow me, please, a minor rant.  I don't get the attitude of many religious Jews towards the land of Israel.  Over Pesach a marvelous young man was giving a thoughtful class on the concept of gratitude.  He explained that much of the Haggadah is built around this important concept.  The choice of our Sages to relate the story of the exodus based upon the verses (Deuteronomy 26:5-8) recited by farmers when they bring their bikurim (first fruits) teaches us the importance of giving thanks, because that's the major thrust of the section.  Then he explained that the Dayeinu song is expressly included to teach us how thankful we should be to God.  As he listed the events in the Dayeinu poem for which we must show appreciation, when he got to Torah he said, 'That's the greatest gift of all.'  I found that interesting.  There was no mention of the fact that the culminating items in that list are Israel and the Holy Temple, and even more significant is that verses he chose to discuss are about our gratitude for the Land of Israel.  Perhaps, most telling is that the most famous expression of thanksgiving ever written by our Sages is the Grace after meals.  The second blessing is about giving thanks and the major items specified are the food which I just ate and the land of Israel.  It seems that when the Sages want to teach us to say 'thanks' they always use Israel as the paradigm of a gift which requires our saying 'Thank you'.  Doesn't that mean that the greatest gift of all is the Land of Israel?

            I think that this young man is a reflection of an educational bias.  Many institutions teach that Torah is the greatest gift of God and, therefore, not concentrating on it day and night is a terrible slight to the Giver of this gift.  I understand and am sympathetic to that idea.  However, we don't instruct them that Israel is the gift that Jewish Law demands that we show appreciation and that our liturgy requires us to pray that Jews should return there.  If we leave the Torah on its shelf we're horrible ingrates, but if we turn our backs to Israel it's no big deal?  What am I missing?  We pray towards and about Israel, but Torah study is more important?  That attitude made sense when enemies ruled Israel and travel there was dangerous, but today shouldn't Israel have a more central place in the consciousness of a seriously religious Jew.

            What is so important about Israel?  Allow me to give an analogy.  I think that Torah study is comparable to medical school, and Israel is metaphorically the hospital.  One must study hard to be a doctor, and that study should never end for a serious physician.  But it's the practice of medicine which is the goal.  That practice is best done in a proper clinical environment. Sometimes we have to do procedures outside the perfect setting.  We call those emergency situations.  But the hospital is the location totally dedicated to furthering the medical agenda.  So, too, we must study Torah diligently to be successful spiritual Jews.  We perform religious acts wherever we are, but Israel is the Big Leagues.  Nachmanides even suggests that mitzvah performance outside of Israel is practice to prepare us for living in Israel (comment to Leviticus 18:25).

            This analogy can be reinforced by the famous question asked at the beginning of this week's Torah reading.  Why are the laws of shemitta mentioned as having been given at Mt. Sinai?  Although there are many answers to this question, the Sfat Emet suggests that at Mt. Sinai the Jews rose to the spiritual level of the angels.  Living in Israel and keeping the mitzvoth which are special to the land can keep us close to that level achieved when God descended upon the mountain to communicate with us.  Living in Israel according to its unique laws is a continuation of the revelation at Sinai.  The sanctity of Sinai was temporary; that of Israel is eternal, which becomes the permanent Sinai.  Sinai was the MASH unit; Israel is the everlasting hospital structure.

            So, what does all this mean to us during this week of Yom Ha'atzmaut and parshat Behar?  Obviously it could be the wake up call to make Aliyah.  Not much chance of that happening.  But it could mean that we should put Israel back on our radar screens.  Many of us only think about Israel and what we can do to help when there's an emergency there.  I think that God desires that Israel be in our thoughts and actions all the time.  This is a good week to commit to more activity on behalf of Israel.

            It's clear from our Torah reading and our prayers that living in Israel is the default position for Jewish residence.  And we should think about it.  But for most of us the die is cast with the Diaspora.  So what to do?  Encourage and support others, especially the young, in their Zionist aspiration.  And one more thing:  Recognize that we're not living the ideal.