Thursday, May 14, 2009

Behar/Bechukotai - Guest Post

Rabbi Hoffman has been writing a new, amazing, piece on each parsha every week for many years. You can subscribe and receive his "Netvort" every week by writing him at
Down to Earth
By Rabbi Joshua ( earthily known as The Hoffer) Hoffman

In honor of Yosef Bronstein and Batya Reichman on the occasion of their recent engagement. Mazal tov !!!

The beginning of parshas Behar presents us with the laws of Shemittah, the Sabbatical year, and the laws of Yovel, the Jubilee year. The Torah tells us, first, that the land shall observer a rest for God ( Vayikra, 25:2), and then, after listing the basic laws of Shemittah, on which the land must lay fallow, we are told that the resting of the land shall be yours to eat" ( Vayikra, 25:6).

Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriah, in his commentary Ner LaMaor, separates the first four words of the last verse-'vehayesa Shabbos ha-aretz lachem and the resting of the land shall be yours - from the next word - le'achlah - to eat, and explains these four words to mean that the purpose of leaving the land fallow and desisting from work during Shemittah is for the benefit of the farmer's spiritual essence. Just as Shabbos during the week serves the function of giving man a break from his busy work schedule so that he can contemplate more spiritual matters and come closer to God, so too is resting on the seventh year of the agricultural cycle meant to bring man back to himself and back to God.

Rabbi Meir Juzint zt'l once answered the question of the midrash, brought by Rashi on our parshah, of why the Torah mentions that the laws of Shemittah were given at Mt. Sinai, since all of the mitzvos were given there, by saying that the year of Shemittah should be spent at Mt. Sinai, in the sense of spending that time studying Torah.

Rav Neriah cites a number of commentaries, including Rav Yitzchak Aramah in his Akeidas Yitzchak, as saying that Shemittah should arouse us from the darkness of our thoughts. He also cites the famed proto- Zionist, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalisher, as saying that a person should not be tied his entire life to his work in the field. Rather, he should spend one out of seven years free for the sake of his soul, and engage in the pursuit of Torah and wisdom.

Rav Neriah brings a second approach to the purpose of Shemittah, which is followed by the Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim (3, 39), the Sefer HaChinuch, and others. They emphasize the social aspect of Shemittah that is geared toward helping the poor.

On shemittah, all lands are to become ownerless, and the poor are to be allowed to eat from whatever fruit and produce that grows there. The Rambam writes that the intention of Shemitah is to have compassion on people, and the Chinuch says that it comes to instill us with character traits such as generosity of the heart. Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalisher, in addition to his explanation that shemittah comes to afford workers the opportunity to develop their spirituality through learning Torah, also says that an additional purpose of shemittah is to serve as an equalizer between rich and poor, since, during shemittah, they are all equal in their access to the produce of the fields.

Rav Neriah says that this social aspect of shemittah is inherent in the continuation of the verse from which he pointed out the spiritual aspect of the year, as we read, " the resting of the earth shall be yours to eat, for you, for your servant and your maidservant, and your hired worker, and the stranger who dwells with you..."

I believe that there is an important connection between these two explanations of the purpose of shemittah, that can be demonstrated through a verse in parshas Emor. The second half of parshas Emor deals with the laws of the various festivals of the year. Interstingly, after the laws regarding Shavuos, and before the laws of Rosh Hashanah, there is a verse about the parts of one crop that a farmer must leave for the poor to take: "When you reasp the harvest of your land; you shall not remove completely the corner of your field as you reap and you shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest: for the poor and proselyte shall you leave them, I am the Lord , your God" ( Vayikra, 23:22).

Why does this verse intervene between the secction on Shavuos and the section on Rosh Hashanah? Rav Dovid Feinstein explained that Shavuos falls during the time period in which we received the Torah, and we must realize that just as the Torah begins and ends with chesed - kindness, so, too, when we accept the Torah anew each Shavuos, we must also accept upon ourselves the need to perform acts of chesed, helping others less fortunate than we are. This is also why the Talmud tells us that when someone wants to convert to Judaism, he must be told about these laws of the gifts a Jew must leave in his field for the poor, so that he understands the importance of chesed in the Jewish religion.

After the end of the Shemittah year, during Sukkos, there is a mitzvah of Hakhel, as taught in parshas Vayeilech. The mitzvah involves gathering the entire nation in the Beis Hamikkadash and reading sections of the Torah to them. The Rambam, in his description of this mitzvah, seems to compare it to the original acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. After a year of immersion of Torah study, then, the nation, gathers together to re-accept the Torah, with a new appreciation for its teachings. Part of this re-acceptance must be a new commitment to helping others, as well, just as they helped the poor during Shemittah.

In this way, the two dimensions of Shemittah that we have seen in the various commentators come together, and serve as a guide for the way we should live our lives during the coming six years in the agricultural cycle.

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