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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat Behar/Be-hukkotai 5766
Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
May 20, 2006     22 Iyyar 5766

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS

Parashat Behar–Be–hukkotai opens curiously enough on Mount Sinai — curiously given the law promulgated at the beginning of the Torah reading. There, at the introduction to this parashah, we find the detailed laws related to sh'mitah, the sabbatical year, as well as the yovel, the jubilee year. While sh'mitah involves a seven–year cycle of letting the land lie fallow and the remission of loans, the yovel reflects a fifty–year cycle involving the emancipation of slaves and the return of property to their original owners. Of all Rashi's comments on Torah, he is probably best known for the question he asks concerning Parashat Behar: "What is the connection between the sabbatical year and Mount Sinai?" Or in other words, why does Torah go out of its way to explicitly connect this particular observance to Mount Sinai when other commandments are not so explicitly connected to that particular moment and place?

In response to his own question, Rashi (1040–1105, Troyes, France) quotes a Torah commentary entitled Torat Cohanim which states: "The general rules and minute details concerning sh'mitah were promulgated on Mount Sinai... so we may infer that by mentioning Mount Sinai, the Torah comes to teach a lesson concerning every divine utterance, namely that both general rules and particular details were given at Sinai." For Rashi, then, the opening of Parashat Behar gives us a window into the nature of divine pedagogy at Sinai. Not only did God reveal to the Israelites the general laws to follow, but the minutiae of each mitzvah were explained as well. Although Rashi's lesson is well taken, I believe there is a deeper philosophical connection that this prolific commentator overlooks. Specifically, the medieval exegete, Abarbanel (1437–1508, Spain, Italy) suggests that sh'mitah and yovel were emblematic of two of God's expressions of kindness: creation as in the first Shabbat after the creation of the world and revelation as in the giving of Torah fifty days after the Israelites flight from Egypt. For Abarbanel, the cyclical pattern of seven reflected in sh'mitah is part of the larger, existential order of God's creation of the world; similarly, yovel, the jubilee year connects us directly back to the moment of revelation at Sinai through recalling the number fifty. This, then, is a more satisfying and profound answer to Rashi's question.

Creation and revelation become bound in two sacred moments in the Jewish calendar. During the seventh year, one is compelled to remember that it is God who created the land that we cultivate. Moreover, God is the ultimate loan officer as all blessings emanate from this source. The jubilee year reminds us explicitly of the moment in which God declares unequivocally that we are God's servants — not the servants of humans. And so, it is not surprising that slaves are emancipated; they return back to the master of the universe. Ultimately, both sh'mitah and yovel are humbling experiences. They remind us of our role in both creation and revelation. And more importantly, by dwelling on the themes of these observances and taking them to heart, we bring the third significant historical moment in Judaism closer — redemption.

May each of us continually move closer to this sacred moment.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.