Perhaps holiness does not inhere in our realm, but, rather, we take steps in hopes that Hashem’s world will burst through and touch ours — if only temporarily.
As the children I’ve raised and the students I’ve taught know, I love stories. I especially appreciate a story with an unexpected ending and a powerful moral. This week’s Torah portion is just such a story.
Nearly a thousand years ago, the French rabbi Rashi pondered the beginning of Behar and echoed a famous midrash when he asked, “What does shmita (the Sabbatical year for the land of Israel) have to do with Mount Sinai?” That question grew from how shmita is introduced in Behar: “Hashem spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai saying … in the seventh year the land must have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of Hashem.”
Why is shmita singled out to be mentioned with Sinai if all the commandments were given there? This question has become a modern-day idiom — the Hebrew equivalent of “What’s this have to do with the price of tea in China?!” And it has sparked thought-provoking answers over time. Nonetheless, it’s not the question that most intrigues me.
Behar also describes what happens when, after seven cycles of working the land for six years and leaving it fallow for the seventh, the yovel (Jubilee year) arrives: Indentured servants go free, land reverts to original owners and debts are forgiven. Despite appearances, land and people are ultimately not the property of human beings; in reading that “the land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine” and “for they are My servants … they shall not be sold as slaves, we acknowledge Hashem’s sole supremacy over everything.
The illusions of human power are stripped away. The truth in its uncompromising purity alone remains: We exist in what should be a state of an unbreakable relationship with Hashem.
Of Behar’s 57 verses, the first 55 are about the shmita and yovel. Yet as unremarkable as the first 55 are for their unified coherence, the final two are startling for their lack of apparent connection to what precedes them.
Their appearance is jarring and confusing: “You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I am Hashem, your God. You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary. I am Hashem.”
Nearly a millennium after Rashi’s query, the striking juxtaposition and seeming disconnect in the closing verses made me think similarly: What does shmita have to do with idolatry, Shabbat and the sanctuary? Put differently, is this pattern of shmita/yovel and idolatry and Shabbat/sanctuary meant to be an exclamation point or coda, or is there a deeper connection with a powerful message?
Shmita and yovel refocus the spotlight on Hashem. We enjoy the fruits of our labors for six years, believing that we’re the masters of our own destiny. “And should you ask, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?’ I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years.” We trust Hashem to feed us as in Eden.
Perhaps holiness does not inhere in our realm, but, rather, we take steps in hopes that Hashem’s world will burst through and touch ours — if only temporarily. By relinquishing land, debts and slaves in the yovel, we restore a sense of dignity and move toward an equality born of the vision that we are Hashem’s children.
Following the prohibition of idolatry is the call to keep Shabbat and revere the sanctuary. On Shabbat we step back and acknowledge that the world will not falter as we absent ourselves from it for a day. Shabbat becomes a re-creation of Eden with holiness of time.
And if our homes and synagogues and places of learning are the sanctuaries of today, our task is to draw the presence of Hashem into that realm. While we most often sense Hashem’s transcendence, there is movement and connection between Hashem’s space and ours resulting in the feeling we call holiness.
Our roots are in the Garden of Eden. And as we say in the El Malei memorial prayer, we hope our souls will end up there. Does that mean the opportunity to experience that primordial realm is denied us for the measure of our lives?
When we consider Eden, we recall the fullness of a place where we were together with Hashem. The Garden of Eden stands opposite the hollowness of idolatry on a continuum we traverse. The bond to and relationship with Hashem that shmita, yovel, Shabbat and the sanctuary foster insulate us from idolatry’s emptiness; they help us conquer ego and dissolve self-centeredness.
Ultimately, they offer a taste of paradise — where our realm overlaps with that of the Divine. If you had a chance to experience Eden now, wouldn’t you take it?
Rabbi Chaim Galfand is the rabbi for Perelman Jewish Day School.