Rabbi David Walk
Many years ago I taught World History. I've always loved history. Even as a kid I enjoyed reading books which were heavily concerned with historical issues and that included fiction. My mother introduced me to historical novels, and I learned, perhaps, more historical facts and context from these works of imagination than from textbooks, but, like a nerd, I read those, too. But enough about me. The key to understanding history, I believe, is to view the connections between events. To be able to see that event 'x' could happen only because event 'y' had occurred. That's why it's normally important to see chronology in Torah, too. Even though our Sages have said that there isn't strict chronology in our Bible (ein mukdam oh mi'uchar b'Torah), that means that in a minority of instances the juxtaposition of material is based upon considerations outside the normal flow of history, like spiritual or cognitive goals. With that in mind, I want to tackle a very famous conundrum about the initial idea in this week's Torah reading.
Our parsha begins, 'And God spoke to Moshe at Har Sinai, saying...when the children of Israel arrive in the land which I give you, they must give rest to the land, a resting of the Lord (Numbers 25:1-2).' This statement gave rise to the famous question of our Sages, 'What's the special connection between the mitzva of the 'giving rest to the land' or the sabbatical year (shmitta) and Mt. Sinai?' Rashi is one of the many commentaries who raises this query, and gives the traditional answer: Just like shmitta which was given with all its detailed rules at Mt. Sinai, so,too, all the mitzvot were given with all their details at Mt. Sinai. Okay, I can buy that, but that answer leaves unanswered the core question, which is 'Why is shmitta the paradigm for this rule?'
First a little chronology. As the book of Leviticus is ending, the Jews are getting ready to leave Mt. Sinai and head for Israel. The first issues in the book of Numbers, like the census, making trumpets, and sending scouts, is all preparation for entering the land. So, this last mitzva discussed before departing the sheltering shade of the holy hill is about the new agricultural reality of living on our own land, and no longer depending on the manna.
The Noam Elimelech (Reb Elimelech of Lizhinsk, 1717-1787), in the name of his brother, Reb Zusya of Anapoli, explains the importance of this idea. Initially he asks, what's so special about this whole idea? Isn't it normal for the one who gives life to then give sustenance? Don't we expect our parents to feed us? But the Jews entering Israel didn't understand this, and they asked what will we eat in the eighth year. They believed that they ate miraculously in the desert, but how could they survive in Israel without farming one year in seven? The answer is that it really makes no difference because both miracles and nature come from God. That's the big message of shmitta. We always are reliant on God.
The Kli Yakar (Reb Shlomo Ephraim Lunzshitz, 1550-1619) adds another point which not only did I find clever, but I believe feeds into another fascinating idea. He says that as the Jews were getting ready to depart from Egypt, God instructed them about Shabbat (most authorities believe that the mitzva of Shabbat was given at Marah, just after the crossing of the Sea) and Sefirat Ha'omer. One requires us to count seven days and the other commands that we count