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.

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Shabbat Shemot: can you feel your own galut?

Our parashat hashavua (“parashah of the week”) finds us far from home and ancestral memory; we are in Egypt, which seemed like a good idea at the time. But “there arose a king who did not know Joseph” (still a Jewish way to say “things are going to get worse now”), and our comfortable, protected status as guests of the crown ended. In a shockingly short time, we were enslaved, and the Egyptians who had been our neighbors became our willing persecutors. If this sounds familiar, it is because this story has happened to us more than once, most recently in Western Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

The fall from prosperity into slavery and persecution begins very early in the book Shemot (Exodus), within ten verses of the beginning of chapter 1. Late in chapter 2, in the middle of our parashah, just at the beginning of the reading for the second year of the Triennial Cycle, we read:

And it came to pass in the course of those many days, that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel groaned by reason of the bondage. (Shemot, “Exodus”, 2:23)

Why, the commentators ask, is it written only here that the Israelites cried out because of their suffering? What took them so long? One early modern commentator offers:

“Until this point, the Children of Israel were so deeply sunk in their galut that they could not even sense it. But now, when the first budding of their redemption began to emerge, they could begin to feel the depth of their suffering.”  (Hiddushei ha-Rim, “Innovative Interpretations by Rabbi Yitzhak Meir of Rothenberg, 1789-1866).

According to Jewish tradition, G-d responded as soon as the Israelites cried out for relief. Why not earlier? we might ask in outrage: is this not a form of blaming the victim? I should have to scream before someone helps me?

No: rather, one has to realize that one is suffering before one becomes ready to accept the help that was already there, and available. When you are immersed in suffering, you do not believe in the reality of escape. Perhaps your thinking is that you do not deserve it, or that it’s not so bad, or that it’s too embarrassing to admit.

Galut, “exile”, is most painfully exile from oneself, and from G-d. The worst kind of suffering is that from which we do not believe there is relief. And the most important blessing we can be to each other is to do what Jews have always done when confronted with exile of any kind: stay together, help each other, and remind each other that it is when we can see and react to our galut that we begin to be able to heal it.

What suffering might you become aware of? what relief is already nearby, if you are ready to admit your pain? Go ahead; reach out for it, and in so doing may you realize your own strength to help others toward it as they help you. As we recited according to the minhag (custom) for finishing Bereshit last week and and getting ready to read the next book of our Torah: hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, “strong, let us be strong, and let us strengthen each other.”