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IT'S ALL IN THE DETAILS

by Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The first two topics in this week's Torah portion are the agricultural mitzvot of Shemittah and Yovel, two occasions when the Jewish farmer in the land of Israel lays down his tools and trusts in Hashem to provide his livelihood for an entire year.

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The first two topics in this week's Torah portion are the agricultural mitzvot of Shemittah and Yovel, two occasions when the Jewish farmer in the land of Israel lays down his tools and trusts in Hashem to provide his livelihood for an entire year. The Torah concludes the passage with the assurance that if we keep these laws, "The land will give its fruit and you will eat your fill; you will live on the land securely" (Leviticus 25:19).

But, continues the passage, "When you will say, 'What will we eat in the seventh year?. . .' I will direct my blessing to you in the sixth year, and it will produce a crop sufficient for three years" (ibid. 25:20-21). In other words, Hashem expects that people will fear for their livelihood, and perhaps even encourages this kind of question, even though He has just given His word that we will have plenty of food! If Hashem has already given His promise, then how does the answer satisfy the questioners any more than the previous general assurance?

To answer this, let us go back several weeks to the festival of Passover, when we heard prominently featured in the Haggadah the questions of the four sons: the wise chacham, the rebellious rasha, the unsophisticated tam, and the apathetic she'eino yode'a lish'ol (the one who doesn't even know how to ask). The Torah commands us to answer each one of them, on his own level, and even (in the case of the she'eino yode'a lish'ol) to initiate the conversation.

This mitzvah to provide answers applies not only at the seder, but year-round in connection with any mitzvah. When we hear someone ask a question regarding any aspect of Judaism, we may not just brush it away as not deserving of an answer. We must be able to classify it into one of these four categories and frame an answer that matches the type of question that has been raised (or refer them to someone else who can do this). In the cases of the wicked son or the one who doesn't know how to ask, a proper answer may move them to perform the mitzvah where otherwise they might not have done so; in the cases of the wise or simple son, who would keep the mitzvah anyhow, the answer adds to their enthusiasm for doing it.

Returning then to the subject of Shemittah and Yovel, the type of questioner that the Torah is dealing with here is not the wicked son or the one who doesn't know how to ask; they won't keep the mitzvah unless you answer all of their (spoken or unspoken) questions, so if the Torah would be referring to them, we would find the question and answer immediately following the introductory command of Shemittah. Rather, the questioner here is the wise son: "Accepting that Hashem has commanded these laws, and of course I will keep them; and accepting that Hashem promises to provide plenty of food what are the details? How will Hashem 'direct His blessing' to us? Will we find manna falling from heaven, as in the wilderness?" Hashem expects this kind of inquiry, even appreciates it, and answers it accordingly. But since this is not only a supernatural but an anti-natural way of things (after six years of working the land, the soil should be exhausted, yet Hashem comes and promises that it will yield three times the usual crop!), it is not surprising that the wise son might ask the same question again when the next Shemittah rolls around.

The cycle of Shemittah, six years of work followed by a seventh of rest, parallels the history of the world. According to Jewish tradition, the world as we know it will last for a maximum of 6000 years (we are now in the year 5759), during which time we are working to prepare for the times of the Mashiach (Messiah), followed by a millennium of "a day that is completely Shabbat and rest, for eternal life," in the words of the added line for Shabbat in the Grace After Meals. We may well wonder, "What will we eat in the seventh year?" Can we, living in the "sixth year" and being an "exhausted field," far weaker spiritually than any of our predecessors, actually manage to store up enough mitzvot to enjoy their fruits during Mashiach's times?

To which Hashem answers: Certainly. It is not easy to be a faithful Jew during the sixth millennium, and everything and everyone around you try to make it seem illogical and irrelevant. But keep up that "illogic," and I will reciprocate with an "illogical" amplification of your every mitzvah, so that everything you do will be spiritually much more valuable than what your ancestors did. Your late "sixth year" mitzvot will be the "food" for the era of Mashiach and beyond.

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This article has been an encore from a previous volume of Torah from Dixie

Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.

You are invited to read more Parshat Behar & Bechukotai articles.

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