Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Parshat Behar: Give it a rest

In Uncategorized on May 13, 2011 at 11:18 am

One of the most dramatic and radical Biblical ideas is the concept of a mandated day off, or year off, or a do over every seven years when it comes to cancelling a debt.

Rashi, quoting the midrash,  is puzzled by the following verse:

And God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them that when you enter the Land that I will give you, you shall let the land rest, a sabbath for God.

Rashi’s question?

What’s the connection between Mt. Sinai and the Sabbatical year?

In other words, why is this subject the one to be discussed on Mt. Sinai? These laws are not going to be observed for quite some time, what’s so important that cannot wait?

The answer lies in the verses that follow. The laws of the sabbatical year are enumerated in great detail, and although many commandments are not given the same treatment in the Torah, it is assumed that these details were rendered at Sinai, and that in fact there is noting special about the sabbatical year, it was chosen merely as an example. Some commandments will be more be given deper treatment in Deuteronomy, but here we learn the fact that the entire package was given at Sinai, even if much was not mentioned explicitly.

Still, why was this particular issue selected as the example when there are many subjects that require great detail as well? Why is it the commandment that requires land to lie fallow, debts to be cancelled, and freedom to those enslaved that gets the center stage here? Why, too, is it “a sabbath for God” and not for the Land?

The Torah as a whole has a deep appreciation for creativity and industry. Even in the desert we were builders, and the rituals commanded in Leviticus were often reminders that what we have done was not by our hands alone. For it is a human tendency to magnify ones contribution and minimize the  work of others.

Rest had to be mandated in all aspects of life because left to our own designs we would not take the time one day a week, or let the land lie once every seven years, or afford a neighbor a second chance to get on his feet by cancelling a debt (the Biblical version of bankruptcy).  Even if we know that we would be happier, the land would be healthier, and the society would benefit, such forward thinking often eludes us.

The Torah is unequivocal because these enforced vacations are for God, and His world and not exclusively or primarily for you. Your enjoyment is a bi-product, but for the world to be sustained the way God wishes we need to be in it for the long haul.

It could be that the reason these particular laws are detailed is because they are in the broadest sense, the framework within which the world works. Rest and relief from pressure of all kinds is a necessary component for industry and creativity.

Embedded in Jewish consciousness is the concept of a day, or a year of ingathering and nondoing that cannot be put off with the excuse that there is something more important that needs to be done. Other than the saving of life itself, there is nothing more important.

A side note. Once, I was watching the detective show Kojac in Israel in order to practice reading the Hebrew subtitles. Kojac says to his sidekick Stavros: “What’s that got to do with the tea in China, Stavros?” The Hebrew subtitle quoted Rashi, saying, “What do the laws of the sabbatical year have to do with Mount Sinai Stavros?

Many Israelis are unaware of how much Torah they actually know.

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