Shabbat BeHar-BeHukotai: Love Your Mother

This week we finish reading the Book VaYikra, Leviticus, with another double parashat hashavua. The name of the first of the two, BeHar, offers already a nice little learning. The word behar, actually three words in English, means “at the mountain” and refers to Mount Sinai. The first verse goes on to specify:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם–וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ, שַׁבָּת לה’. HaShem spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the People of Israel, and say unto them: When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a Shabbat unto HaShem.
From this our teacher Rashi asks a famous question: Mah inyan shemitta atzel Har Sinai? “What does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?” This is the Jewish version of a phrase you may know – “what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” In both cases the question concerns the apparent lack of relationship between two subjects – in our case, letting the land rest, called shemitta, and Mt. Sinai. Why is Mt. Sinai mentioned here, at this moment? It might be more than just a subtle reminder that in just another week we will reach Shavuot, the day on which we commemorate standing at Sinai to receive the Torah.
Many answers have been offered by different commentators, wise teachers and curious students:
1. you might think that letting the land rest is merely an economic matter and not spiritual, and therefore we recall the moment we stood at Mt Sinai in proximity to it to remind you.
2. the shemitta year is only one out of seven, yet its impact blesses the other six (by letting the land restore itself naturally for a complete year). You might think that Shabbat, only one out of seven, is a small thing, yet it was commanded at Mt Sinai and, if we rest, it will bless our entire week.
3. The Sefat Emet teaches that this mitzvah is so central that all of Torah depends upon it, and that is why Mt Sinai, which we associate with the giving of the Torah, is mentioned here:
Letting the land lay fallow – letting go of our need to work it, to work, to be productive, to control our future – leaving that in G*d’s hands, that is the foundation of the entire Torah, which necessitates a measure of submission to God’s will and a relinquishing control in this world. To embrace a life of Torah, one needs a measure of letting go. (from Steven Exler, The Bayit)
And, finally, a contemporary teacher asks: What does it mean that the whole Torah is dependent upon the laws of Shemittah?
It means, very simply, that the entirety of our religious lives, our spiritual lives, are built upon the very physical reality of a functioning earth. None of the world of Torah gets off the ground – literally – unless the ground is healthy. We cannot do anything without an earth which is nourished, sustained, sustainable, and healthy. If we have no clean air to breathe, no clean water to drink, no clean soil to plant in, then we have no foundation in which to root – literally – our religious lives. It is a simple, basic truth: we need to take care of our earth to have a future upon it. (Steven Exler, The Bayit)
As the following parashah, parashat BeHukotai, makes very clear, if we fall from Mt Sinai, we and the earth will suffer together. Our ancestors understood the existential linkage between our ethical behavior and our world’s physical existence. On this Shabbat before the secular holiday of Mothers’ Day, may we consider that other Mother of ours, the planet upon which we live, breath and find our meaning.

Yom Kippur 5775: Shabbat Shabbaton, the “Mother of all Shabbatot”

The human being is a messenger who forgot the message. – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

This evening at sundown begins Yom Kippur, a Shabbat like no other. It is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the “Shabbat of Shabbatot” – we might call it “the Mother of all Shabbatot.”  (ShabbatOHT is the plural of Shabbat.) The concept of a shabbat shabbaton is also applied to the Shemitta year, which we have just begun. I will have more on that for you when we reach Sukkot. For now, suffice to say that the shemitta year is a year when the Land of Israel is supposed to have a Shabbat from being worked – no sowing seed, no manipulation at all of the soil. We are to eat only what the land itself will give of its own accord, and in that way to “revert” to a “more natural” relationship with the land – without imposing ourselves upon it.

According to well-established rules of Torah study, we can learn something from the fact that both Yom Kippur and the Shemitta year are called Shabbat Shabbaton. Perhaps it is just this simple: we are not to impose our will on the world during a Shabbat Shabbaton. We step back from overt, pro-active, interactive, goal-oriented behavior. We are to stop considering what’s in it for us, how we should respond in order to encourage a favorable outcome, and so take refuge in planning our future, even if it’s only the next hour we are considering. During a shabbat shabbaton, we are to Be Here Now, and consider: what is this Now? what have we wrought? Leave the question of what we can do about it for later – we escape to that too soon. Stay here, in the question: what have we done?

Yom Kippur is a day of prayer and fasting and, well, more prayer. Why does it take a full twenty-four hours? Why fast? Why repeat the confession of sin so many times? It may be as simple as what you already know in your own life: what is important gets repeated. What is even more important is repeated even more. So often that we begin to be able to hear it. And fasting is meant to express regret, and willingness to change. That’s why we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, as an object lesson. If the people of Nineveh (Babylonians!!) could find atonement for sin, so can the Jews – or so we are encouraged to believe.

But, we are still finding it difficult to understand the day: how do we find the modern relevance of a very ancient ritual meant to express repentance for misdeeds?

Some things cannot be explained rationally, although they can be described. The ritual roots of our Yom Kippur observance come from the ancient Jewish response to life-threatening drought. Yom Kippur is, simply, a human response to the terror of death. But it is also much more than that, if only because we are so complicated, and human beings have not changed all that much in only a few thousand years. It’s not easy to explain – one must first be open to the experience.

A few years ago a Jewish public intellectual wrote the following in a private notebook:

The High Holidays are gone and I am impressed once again with the two spirits that dwell in the breast of Judaism…. First, the rationalist (in the Aristotelian sense), which provides rational explanations for religious practice, and the second which takes religious practice as primary and, contemplating it, derives profound human meanings from it. I believe the second is more authentically religious, but also the most dangerous, since it can open doors one didn’t know existed. The first, however, is more “conservative” as well as more popular with rabbis and clerics, since it provides them with plausible explanations for the laity.

When I was at Commentary, we published only anthropological-rational explanations for the holidays. Even then I knew it was a sterile exercise. Judaism does not explain the holidays; the holidays explain Judaism.

(Irving Kristol, cited in

Never mind trying to figure out ahead of time what you are doing on Yom Kippur. First, let yourself really experience it – join a Jewish community for the prayers (if it was good enough for Franz Rosenzweig, it’s good enough for you to drop by on Yom Kippur day at any welcoming shul.)  Open yourself to the more dangerous spirit of the day, and let’s look for those doors together, as a people standing before G-d, whatever that means.

Shabbat Behar: Between the Peak and the Valley

mah inyan shemitta eytzel har Sinai?  This is the classic Jewish form of the question you might recognize as “what does that have to do with all the tea in China?” or “what’s Hecuba to you, or you to Hecuba?”

“What does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?”

This week’s parashat hashavua is named Behar, for “on the mountain”, i.e. Mt. Sinai. The first topic mentioned among the many mitzvot of this parashah is shemitta, a seven-year cycle of Shabbat rest for the agricultural land, the fruitfulness of which the ancient Israelites depend for their very lives. The shemitta command teaches that everything needs a Shabbat, not only the people and animals mentioned in the Shabbat mitzvah we repeat in our prayers every week on that day, but also the land itself.

Here we are, deep in the details of the Book called VaYikra (Leviticus), learning law after law, deriving social and personal ethics, hearing stories to illustrate the cost of transgression. In our minds, we’ve left the Sinai moment – that moment of thunder and awe and revelation – far behind. This is precisely what leads to the question: “what does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?” Asking the question is a way of saying that there is no apparent connection between two issues or concepts raised by one’s interlocutor.

But shemitta has a lot to do with Sinai, in the way that real life does maintain a link to the rare special moments that we experience as different – as different from everyday life, one might say, as the valley is from the peak. We live our lives in the valley of every day life, not on the mountaintop. Yet we would not know one from the other without the balance of both in our lives.

The same is true of Torah: elevating, beautiful commandments like love your neighbor as yourself, and difficult aspects such as the seeming acceptance of human conditions that we find barbaric. One of them, slavery, is legislated in this parashah. Why, we ask from our liberated place in the world, does Torah not simply abolish slavery?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers an explanation based upon the difference between chronological (Torah) and logical (philosophy) understandings of life:

There are profound differences between philosophy and Judaism, and one of these lies in their respective understandings of time. For Plato and his heirs, philosophy is about the truth that is timeless (or, for Hegel and Marx, about “historical inevitability”). Judaism is about truths (like human freedom) that are realized in and through time. That is the difference between what I call the logical and chronological imaginations. The logical imagination yields truth as system. The chronological imagination yields truth as story (a story is a sequence of events extended through time). Revolutions based on philosophical systems fail—because change in human affairs takes time, and philosophy is incapable of understanding the human dimension of time. The inevitable result is that (in Rousseau’s famous phrase) they “force men to be free”—a contradiction in terms, and the reality of life under Soviet Communism. Revolutions based on Tanach succeed, because they go with the grain of human nature, recognizing that it takes time for people to change. The Torah did not abolish slavery, but it set in motion a process that would lead people to come of their own accord to the conclusion that it was wrong. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; to see the full article, click here.)

The Torah’s truth unfolds like a flower, which means that our own interpretations and understandings are as significant for our age as those in the ages that came before us. We often live in the breach, rather than in the fulfillment, of a mitzvah; truth takes time and experience in balancing the peaks and valleys of real, flawed human existence. The Jewish understanding of truth grows, embracing more and more seeming paradoxes until we reach a point where we can see that there are no paradoxes; there is only multi-layered, ever shifting, always limited human perspective.

What is not clear today beckons us onward, as long as we remember that we do not see things as they are, but as we are. And so we must continue to learn, and grow, so that we can see. Everything teaches of chronological truth, and everything connects to everything else – even shemitta at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

parashat Behar-Behukotai: what does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?

Once again we have a double parasha this week. According to our minhag, we’ll read a bit from the first third of both parshas, depending on what catches our eye and looks intriguing. It must be admitted, though, that the first several verses of parashat Behar already contain a world.


“The Eternal spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai saying, speak to the Israelite people and say to them, when you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a shabbat.”  (VaYikra .25.1-2)


First: here we are in chapter 25 of VaYikra, Leviticus, and all of a sudden Mt. Sinai is mentioned? Why here, and why now, after we have moved on to cover so many topics since we received Torah at Sinai.


Second, if we are suddenly to be reminded of Sinai, what is the segue that leads to the land observing a shabbat (i.e. every seven years the land is not to be sown nor harvested)?


In other words, as the tradition asks, mah inyan shemittah eytzel Har Sinai? It’s an idiom that has entered into Hebrew speech: “what does shemittah have to do with Mt. Sinai?” means about the same thing as “what does that have to do with the price of tea in China?”  How are these two concepts related?


In this case, to answer the one is to answer both. Sinai is mentioned, all these verses and stories later, because the Israelites are still at Sinai; they have not left the foot of the mountain yet to go forward toward the land of Israel. For us, the relevance is in seeing ourselves also standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai – even all these generations later. “No matter where I go, I am going to Jerusalem” said Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. It’s a mindset, an act of kavanah. We Jews cannot walk away from Sinai; it looms over us always. It is our metaphor for the mountain of history, of halakhah, of tradition which we inherit, and of the rest we find in its shade; it reminds us to lift our eyes upward to consider the transcendent beauty of our world, and not just the smaller issues we see when we look down at our hands.


And what does shemitta have to do with Mt. Sinai? only this: there is nothing in Jewish life, no obligation nor privilege, which cannot be traced back to the simple awareness we gained at Sinai. There is a midrashic discussion about what the Israelites actually heard or saw at Sinai, in one Rabbi suggested that they did not need to hear all the commandments; just the first few would have been sufficienct, and the rest could have been inferred. For that matter, said another, once you hear the first one, and realize that you are not alone in the world, all the rest can be inferred. Ah, but perhaps then you do not even need to entire first commandment.  Generations later the Hasidic Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov offered a further thought: perhaps all that Israel heard at Sinai was the first letter of the first word of the first Commandment. That is, nothing more or less than the silent letter alef of the word anokhi, “I am”. One need not even hear the first word, the “I”, spoken by G-d. One need hear only the intake of breath, as it were, the opening of a mouth, so to speak – one need sense only that something is about to be.


“To hear the aleph is to hear next to nothing; it is the preparation for all audible language, but in itself conveys no determinate, specific meaning. Thus, with his daring statement that the actual revelation to Israel consisted only of the aleph, Rabbi Mendel transformed the revelation on Mount Sinai into a mystical revelation, pregnant with infinite meaning, but without specific meaning.” (Gershom Scholem, On The Kabbalah and its Symbolism, p. 30)


To be “pregnant with infinite meaning, but without specific meaning”: this is not only a description of the meeting place between God and humanity. It is also a description of any of us, at any moment of any day, if we remember that we are always standing in the presence of G-d.