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Parshas Behar:

by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom

Most of the commandments in the Torah are introduced with the formula: "God spoke to Moshe, saying...". At the beginning of our Sedra, there is a unique introduction: "God spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying...". This unusual preface is followed by the laws of Shemitta the Sabbatical year, and Yovelthe Jubilee year. The Torat Kohanim (Halakhic Midrash) was sensitive to the anomalous phrasing here and commented: (quoted in Rashi) "What does Shemitta have to do with Mount Sinai? It teaches that just as the general rules and the details of Shemitta were given at Mount Sinai, so were the general rules and details of all of the Mitzvot given at Mount Sinai." (See Ramban, Ibn Ezra and other commentaries for alternative explanations). This explanation leaves us with several questions:

  1. The notion that the general rules and the details of all Mitzvot were given at Sinai is the subject of a dispute between Rav Akiva and Rav Yishmael (Zevahim 115b, Hagiga 6a, Sotah 37b).

  2. The end of Chapter 26, "These are the statutes, laws and Torot which God gave, between Him and the children of Yisrael, at Mount Sinai through Moshe" seems to form an inclusion, such that all of the commandments and the blessing and curse presented in these two chapters are somehow related to Mount Sinai. This necessitates looking beyond Shemitta for an answer.

I would like to offer an alternative explanation for the unusual wording at the beginning of our Sedra which avoids the first problem and which takes into account the content of the entire two chapters, bookended with "Mount Sinai."

The laws of Shemittat Karka'ot (the Sabbatical year as regards agricultural work in Eretz Yisrael) carry with them two distinct types of prohibitions: Not working the land and not gathering and storing the argricultural produce of the land. In Halakhic terminology, the first group of laws are "Issur Avodat Karka" and the second is the din of "Hefker", wherein the produce of the land is rendered accessible to the public.

These two Halakhot reflect two different relationships:

  1. Between the Jewish people and God; and

  2. Between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

Not working the land is presented here as a Shabbat and, much as the weekly cessation from labor reflects our relationship with God as servants to the Master, in the same way, not working the land for the seventh year is indicative and symptomatic of that relationship. Most masters command their slaves when to work - But the Master of the Universe commands us when to work and when to cease our labors. Note that the weekly Shabbat is mentioned as a remembrance of our slavery in Egypt and the Exodus (Deuteronomy 5:15). The message is clear: We are God's slaves.

Conversely, opening up the land to everyone reflects a relationship we have with the Land that we are not complete owners, merely residents at the invitation of God. The message here is also clear: We are residents in the land, not owners.

These two messages are repeated in the various laws of the Yovel. Insofar as the Yovel is also a Shemitta year, it carries with it the prohibition of working the land (verses 11&12). Additionally, the Yovel expands the relationship we have with the land that no purchase of land is permanent. In verse 23, we are told "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine, for you are sojourners and residents with me."

As the Halakhot of selling and redeeming land continue to unfold, we see in ever stronger terms that our "ownership" of Eretz Yisrael is granted by God and is merely a "holding" (Ahuza) as opposed to an inheritance (Nahala). The pinnacle of this relationship is found in vv. 35-37, where we are commanded to help our fellow in need and are simultaneously prohibited from lending on interest. The lesson here seems to be that since the land was given to the nation, not to individuals (since individuals cannot really "own" it) - therefore, the welfare of our fellow is truly our own welfare. We would not lend to ourselves at interest, as that would be ridiculous the same applies to helping our fellow.

At verse 38, we take a turn, as we are commanded about how to treat our Jewish slaves, if such a tragedy should occur. We are constantly reminded that we are not to overwork them, because "They are my slaves". In the last two paragraphs of our Sedra, this theme is repeated several times. Here, the relationship is essentially between Jews but it is sourced in our relationship with God. We are God's slaves, hence it is inappropriate for us to become slaves to any person (see BT Kiddushin 22b).

Throughout this Sedra, the two themes of "Sojourners and Residents" - that the land belongs to God; and "They are My slaves" that we belong to God are intertwined. We are then enjoined, through the Blessing and Curse (26:3-46) to obey all of the Mitzvot and thereby be able to remain in the Land and maintain our relationship with God (v. 12-13).

These two themes are not new to us. We first find them in Exodus 19:5: "You shall be a treasure to Me from all the nations (slaves) for the entire earth is mine (residents)." As Moshe ascended Mount Sinai for the first time (in that sequence), God presented him with the goal of the entire stand at Sinai - to create a special relationship with Am Yisrael and, through that, to enable a relationship between us and our Land.

Our entire Sedra is, indeed, an expansion of the goal and theme of our stand at Sinai "God spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying..."

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom

Text Copyright © 1997 Rabbi Dovid Green and Project Genesis, Inc.



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