Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Walk Articel



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

until 49 days. Lo and behold, just as the Jews are getting ready to enter the land of Israel, we are commanded to count seven years for shmitta and 49 years for yovel. He goes on to explain that just like our Sages have taught that freedom was engraved on those Tablets received at Sinai on the fiftieth day (Pirkei Avot 6:2). So, too, we declare freedom (dror) for the land when we reach the fiftieth year. This idea of freedom and counting time is similar to an idea of Rabbi Soloveitchik that the ability to see the significance of time is necessary to become free humans. Slaves, who are always beholden to their masters, possess no freedom to account for their own time.

The Sfat Emet (Reb Yehudah Aryeh Leib Altar of Gur, 1847-1905),wrote in 1875 that both shmitta and Shabbat are mitzvot that are central to the entire mitzva performance system. Concerning Shabbat this is an explicit statement in our Sages, but where does he get this idea for shmitta? He feels that these two mitzvot share the same emphasis on total dependence upon God, and the nullification of all personal considerations before God's will. This total commitment to God, according to the Gerrer Rebbe, comes from the overturn of one power in favor of God's sovereignty. He seems to feel that that this was the reason for the whole Egypt enterprise. With Shabbat, which resulted from the exodus from Egypt we clearly traded up from Pharaoh to accept God as our monarch. With shmitta, the land did that as well. Just as we had to be subservient to another authority, so, too, did the land. It was necessary that we conquer it from other rulers so it, too, could trade up. This time to us. The Rebbe emphasizes that we needed previous obedience to fully accept God's yoke.

I think that this is a powerful idea, but what does it have to do with us? These transfers of allegiance took place so long ago that it's hard to apply this idea to us. However, we often feel the lash of a foreign ruler. That ruler is our own yetzer hara or evil tendencies. That was a fine idea in the nineteenth century, but I think that we have a more powerful example. I'm writing this in Israel between Yom Ha'atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. For two thousand years Israel was ruled by others and became a forlorn backwater. Sixty-eight years of Jewish rule has created this powerful, modern and wealthy state. The land connects to us as we connect to God. Shmitta and yovel teach us that.