Weekly Torah Portion – Parshat HaShavua Behar
By: Rabbi Nissim Mordechai Makor
Bible scholars and critics have tried to explain the Mitzvot in terms of logic in order to make sense of Hashem’s Torah. For instance, you may have mistakenly heard that the meaning behind the prohibition against eating pork is that historically disease (trichinosis) was connected to eating this forbidden animal. But now, with government inspection, the contracting of trichinosis is virtually impossible and therefore some claim that the prohibition against eating pork is no longer applicable
The fallacy of this kind of reasoning is twofold: 1. You eliminate Hashem from the process, 2. You turn a benefit into a reason.
Hashem gave us the Torah on Mt. Sinai. The reasons for the Mitzvot are sometimes revealed and sometimes not. But whether or not we understand a Mitzvah does not detract from its relevancy. In fact, sometimes, the least understood Mitzvah can be of great importance.
An example is the Mitzvah of Shmitah – literally to abandon (the land). Many people believe that this Mitzvah exists so that the land can lie fallow and rejuvenate itself. In fact the opposite is true, it exists for the farmer to be rejuvenated not just the land.
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Let us begin with the concept of Shabbat. When Shabbat is first introduced in the Torah (Bereishit [Genesis] 2:1-3), Hashem has created a world in six days and rested on the seventh. When Israel was commanded to observe the Shabbat (Shemot [Exodus] 31:16-18), the following language is used: “It is an everlasting sign between Me and the Children of Israel that in a six-day period Hashem created the heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested (Shavat) and was refreshed (Vayi’nafash).”
The Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno – Rome and Bologna, Italy, 1470-1550) comments that the word for refreshed comes from the root word Nefesh (soul). He points out that the term refers to the Shabbat itself, that Shabbat is refreshing. Shabbat was endowed with an extra degree of spirituality to better enable Jews to realize the goal for which they were created in His image. We are partners in Hashem’s creation. Just as He created in six days and then ceased and was refreshed, so too, we (who are created in His image), must be creative for six days (making Him obvious to the world) and on Shabbat become refreshed.
This is a beautiful concept, but in practical terms, it is very difficult to accomplish. How does Hashem expect us not to be creative on Shabbat, to eat, clothe ourselves and function without doing anything? Yet we do it. We prepare ourselves prior to Shabbat so that no distractions can remove us from its sanctity. This is symbolized by the blessing of two Challot (loaves of bread) on Shabbat. When we were in the desert after leaving Egypt, only enough Manna fell daily from heaven for the Israelites to eat on that day, any excess would rot. But on Fridays, a double portion would fall for Friday and for Shabbat (Shemot 16: 19-21).
However, there was trepidation that maybe there would be no Manna for Shabbat, so Moshe said: “This is what Hashem had spoken: tomorrow is a rest day (Shabbat) to Hashem. Bake what you wish to bake and cook what you wish to cook; and whatever is left over, put away for yourselves as a safekeeping until the morning. They put it away until the morning, as Moshe had commanded; it did not stink and there was no infestation in it.” (Shemot 16: 23-24)
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman of Gerona, Spain, 1194-1270) explains that the extra Manna did not have to be divided between the two days (Friday and Shabbat). Moshe had instructed them to use whatever amounts they needed for Friday – for the Shabbat was blessed, miraculously Manna would remain for them all to be satiated on Shabbat.
Intrinsically, Shabbat is the vehicle that Hashem has given us to find that Pintele Yid (Jewish essence) in every Jew. Shabbat provides us with a dose of Hashem’s image which refreshes our souls.
Similarly, Shmita has a profound identification to refreshing one’s soul. Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai (100 -160 C.E.) quoted from the Tractate Brachot 35b said: “If a man continually plows in the plowing season, sows in the sowing season, reaps in the harvest season, threshes in the threshing season and winnows when the wind blows, what will become of the Torah?” According to Bar Yochai the purpose of Shmita is to renew one’s spirit. The Amei Ha’aretz (usually translated as the ignorant, but literally “people of the land”), who are often overwhelmed with work must have an avenue to re-jew-vinate. Shmitah allows them to take time off of their hectic schedules and connect with a teacher who will help them reconnect with their souls.
Similarly, Reb Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) on the Mitzvah of Hakhel – when the king reads the Book of Deuteronomy to the entire assembled nation (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 31:10-13) at the beginning of the Shmitah year states: “The purpose of Shmitah is to enable the people to study Torah for an entire year out of seven, in the same way, the Shabbat allows them to study one day out of seven.”
It couldn’t be made clearer. Shabbat is a day of refreshing rejuvenation. Our focus is on that which has been prepared in advance so that we may delight in Hashem’s blessings. The proper attitude on Shabbat produces an atmosphere that is reminiscent of a time when we were totally dependant on Hashem’s graciousness. We sanctify the day through our resting from the creative process and experience a soothing spirit of contentment.
Once a parent came to me with a problem. His son had just finished high school and wanted to take a year off to study in a Yeshivah (Talmudic academy) in Israel. He felt that the young man should begin in earnest his pursuit of a career. After all, the parent reasoned, he had completed 12 years of day school education. I advised the parent to allow his son to take a year off and study, because, I explained, once his son began his career, this opportunity might never come again. He allowed his son to spend the year in Israel and has never regretted it. Today, his son is a true Ben Torah (Torah scholar) and also has a lucrative career. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all could take a year off of our careers and spiritually regenerate ourselves?
Shmitah provides the agrarian that experience. One year in seven, we allow the land of Israel and its caretakers to refresh themselves. And what will they eat during those years? Like the Manna on Erev (the eve) of Shabbat, Hashem will provide. “And if you will say: What will we eat in the seventh year? – behold! We will not sow and not gather in our crops! I will ordain My blessing unto you in the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for a three year period. You will sow in the eighth year, but you will eat of the old crop; until the arrival of the crop in the ninth year, you will eat the old.” (Vayikra 25:20-22)
For the past two thousand years, the land of Israel was a wasteland, unable to sustain the handful who lived there. Today we see that it is a land flowing with milk and honey. Tomorrow, we will surely see that the people and the land of Israel will again observe the Shabbatot (Sabbaths) of the week, of the years and of the new era of mankind, renewed, rejuvenated and refreshed.