Parashat Behar-Behukotai: The purpose of it all

Linking the laws of the agricultural sabbatical year with Sinai is relevant in every generation.

wheat field 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
wheat field 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Rashi (France, 1040-1105) asks the oft-quoted question, "Why does our Bible link the laws of the sabbatical year to Sinai?" After all, were not all 613 commandments given at Sinai? And he answers (based on a midrashic statement in Torat Kohanim) that just as the general rules as well as the deduced details of the sabbatical laws were given at Sinai, so were the general rules as well as the details of all the commandments given at Sinai. But this answer only begs the question: if all the commandments were given with all their details on Mount Sinai, why does the Bible mention the linkage only in the context of the Sabbatical laws? Furthermore, I would question the very premise. Is it really to be assumed that the details of all the commandments were given at Sinai? We have previously attempted to explain that there is a distinction between the initial tablets of the revelation - which Moses smashed - and the second set, which endured; indeed, the midrash suggests a fundamental distinction between the "substantive essence of Torah" in each of these revelations. The first tablets were meant to reveal a Torah which was solely the work of God, a product of His hands (as it were). Such a Torah, in whose formation the Israelites played no role, was doomed to fail (as happened with the worship of the Golden Calf only 40 days after that revelation). The second tablets, however, are revealed with the introductory words, "And the Lord said to Moses, [this time] you are to fashion [p'sol lecha] the two tablets of stone..." (Exodus 34:1); you, Moses, representing the leadership of the Israelites, are to have a hand in the formation of these second tablets in a revelation which (as the midrash teaches, ad loc) will now leave room for an Oral Law, replete with interpretations, decrees and enactments in every generation. And the Pri Tzadik (Rabbenu Tzadok of Lublin) even ingeniously reads this into the word "p'sol," which literally means to fashion in stone, to sculpt, but which he takes as a derivative of "pasul," which means legally invalid; this time you, the leadership of Israel, will determine what is and what is not halachically proper; you will be empowered to help complete My Torah. This "partnership," which derives from an Oral Law with 13 hermeneutic principles of interpretation and a Responsa literature which deals with the challenges and opportunities of changing times and new discoveries, was intended to let Judaism adapt throughout the generations. It grants Israel partial ownership of Torah, and grants the Torah the ability to provide for organ transplants, in-vitro fertilization and vehicles that allow the infirm to get to synagogue on Shabbat. If this is the case, then all the details of every law cannot possibly hark back to Sinai; they are, rather, dependent on interpretations of the religio-legal authorities in each generation. We can understand the linkage of the laws of the sabbatical year with Sinai when we consider a mind-blowing passage in the Talmud (B.T. Menahot 29b). Our sages picture Moses atop Sinai (or better still, in the supernal heavens) watching the Almighty adding the finishing touches of crowns to various letters of the Bible. When the greatest of prophets asked about their significance, God responded that a great authority would emerge, Rabbi Akiva, and he would derive mounds of laws from each crown. Then God permitted Moses to go forward in time and enter the academy of Rabbi Akiva. But Moses was devastated by the experience. He watched Rabbi Akiva's students in the midst of their Torah debates, heard Rabbi Akiva's Torah lecture and was taken aback because he barely understood what the sage was talking about. But then one of the students asked his rebbe as to his source, and when Rabbi Akiva answered that it was "a law given to Moses at Sinai," Moses was relieved and comforted. I believe that the talmudic passage is telling us that Sinai in the initial revelation provided us with the goal of God's Torah - to develop "a kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation" that will influence the world in ways of righteous confession, justice and morality, and to make certain that no implement of iron (weapon of war) hew the stones of the altar - divine service must be free of violent jihad (Exodus 20:25). The purpose of Torah is the formation of a sacred nation (kedoshim tihyu, Maimonides ad loc) which does what is righteous and good (Rambam, Laws of Neighbors). The revelation at Sinai set down the basic rules and even indicated the verses to be interpreted and expanded by scholars of every generation. The laws of the sabbatical year and the Jubilee draw a magnificent picture of a world order in which every individual is returned to his ancestral land, debts are rescinded and freedom reigns supreme. This is the goal of Jewish law - a more perfect society. If we fail to keep the values of the sabbatical year relevant to an industrial society, we will be losing the connection between the practical laws we keep and the spirit of those laws. This is the force behind the words of Rashi and the midrash. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.