BeHar – More about the Sanctity of Time, Economics 101

The significance of Har Sinai in the First Verse

The very first verse of Parashat BeHar (at the mountain) outstands boldly in its uniqueness:

Adonai Spoke to Moshe at the Mount of Sinai, saying:

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בְּהַ֥ר סִינַ֖י לֵאמֹֽר׃

The odd element is the reference to a specific location.  The very same language – less a reference to a location – appears in Leviticus alone 27 times and 4 more instances that calls out Aharon as well.  The only reference to a location where the People of Israel are is much earlier (Leviticus 7:28) and refers to the Wilderness of Sinai in general.

Another reason to wonder is the nature of issues the Parashah deals with: it lists 24 Mitzvot, half of them instruct how to work and deal with the land of Eretz Yisrael, and the other half relates to economics and labor laws.  Why did Torah mention the exact location of the delivery of these commandments?

Rashi (~1100 CE) quotes the question phrased in Sifra – A midrash book on Leviticus written around 300CE and the answer provided there (Sifra, Behar, Section 1):

Ma eenyan Sh’mitah etzel Har Sinai?

?מָה עִנְיַן שְׁמִיטָּה אֵצֶל הַר סִינַי

“And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying”: Why is Sh’mitah (the concept of the Sabbatical Year of the Land) juxtaposed with Mount Sinai? Were not all the mitzvot given at Sinai? (The purpose of the juxtaposition is to indicate that) just as both the general rules and the specific ordinances of Sh’mitah were enunciated at Sinai, so it is the case with all the mitzvot.

The idiom ‘Ma eenyan Sh’mitah etzel Har Sinai?’  is still in use today, in Israel.  One uses it to question the connection between two seemingly unrelated statements that appear in a single argument.  The partner that made that connection then needs to clarify the logic behind it.

All Torah is Given at Mount Sinai

The following Talmudic story anchors the concept that all Torah at its widest context comes from Mount Sinai (Bavli, Menaḥot 29b):

“Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: When Moshe ascended on High, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah.  Moshe said before God: ‘Master of the Universe, who is preventing You from giving the Torah without these additions?’  God said to him: ‘There is a man who is destined to be born after several generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name; he is destined to derive from each and every thorn of these crowns mounds upon mounds of halakhot.  It is for his sake that I must add the crowns to the letters of the Torah’.

Moshe said before God: ‘Master of the Universe, show him to me’.  God said to him: ‘Return behind you’.  Moshe went and sat at the end of the eighth row in Rabbi Akiva’s study hall and did not understand what they were saying.  Moshe’s strength waned, as he thought his Torah knowledge was deficient.  When Rabbi Akiva arrived at a discussion of one matter, his students asked him: ‘My teacher, from where do you derive this?’  Rabbi Akiva answered them: ‘It is a halakha transmitted to Moshe from Sinai.’ When Moshe heard this, his mind was put at ease, as this too was part of the Torah that he was to receive.”

This story underlines the fact that Rabbis throughout all generations adapted the Jewish Law to the changing circumstances of time.  Our current responses must stem from rulings and arguments of former generations, and rely on teachings of the broader meaning of Torah.

Mount Sinai: Stand Erect, Humbly.

The very same verse prompts yet another question: Why Mount Sinai? Why God chose it to be the place that He gives Torah to the People of Israel?  Our sages explain that it teaches us about humility.  Mount Sinai is a mountain, no doubt about it; and yet, not the highest of them all.  Standing erect, above the plains, projects some uniqueness, that also symbolizes sanctity.  Being among higher mountains instill humility.  The very first Halakha (Jewish Law) in the Shulḥan Arukh reflects this concept: “And one should not be ashamed because of people who mock the person in one’s service of God, and should also go modestly”.

The Sanctity of Time Within the Multi-Year Context

Last week’s Parashah taught us about the sanctity of time in the Jewish yearly cycle of holidays, together with a strong connection to the mysticism of the number seven.  Parashat BeHar does the same in a multi-year cycle – the Sh’mitah and the Jubilee.

The Sh’mitah year is parallel to Shabbat (Leviticus 25:3-4): “Six years you may sow your field…  … But the seventh year shall be a Shabbat Shabbaton to the land [a sabbath of complete rest], a Shabbat of Adonai: you shall not sow your field…”

It is not only that the land rests; the workers of the land rest as well, rejuvenate and reenergize both physically and spiritually.  Professionals who work in certain demanding  occupations may enjoy a sabbatical year after six years of work.  Without a sabbatical year, the professionals suffer reduction in creativity and productivity due to burn-out.

Halakhically, Sh’mitah applies to the Eretz Yisrael only.  In fact, this year (5782) is one of those years.  In the modern economical world, it is difficult, almost impossible, to fulfill the Mitzvot related to Sh’mitah literally.  Through the ages, Rabbis found creative solutions to the challenges presented by Sh’mitah.  Importing produce to Israel is one of then, while leasing the land to a non-Jew is yet another solution.  It is interesting to note that new programs emerge worldwide, including in the US, that resemble the Sh’mitah concept.  The Government pays the land owners a rent for them to stop food production.  Instead, the owner plants certain species that have positive impact on the environment instead.

The Jubilee as an Economic Concept

The Jubilee happens after 7 cycles of Sh’mitah.  In addition to moratorium on debt that happens every Sh’mitah year, all lands return to the original owners.  Torah recognizes that real freedom also means economic freedom.  The Jubilee concept gives people a second chance to recover from misfortune.   It is an interesting attempt to heal the inherent problems that lie in the core of the two contrasting economic theorems: Capitalism and Communism.  The first creates an uneven distribution of wealth to an extremely unfathomable level.  The second extinguishes creativity and entrepreneurism, thus choking economical growth that benefits all.  It offers a “reset button” every fifty years, that evens the odds to all and levels the playing field.

The Essence of Jubilee – Liberty

One verse (Leviticus 25:10) summarizes the very essence of the Jubilee: “You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all its inhabitants thereof. It shall be a jubilee for you.  Each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.”

A portion of this very same verse appears on The Liberty Bell.  Is the message and the intent behind this inscription fulfilled?

More About Sanctity – the Sanctity of Words

Rabbi Shay Piron was the former Minister of Education in Israel.  He published this essay in Hebrew on the 27th of September 2020.  I had the privilege to correspond with him and get his permission to translate and disseminate his words.  Following Rabbi Piron’s teaching I added a reference to Parashat BeHar that connects his message to a specific Mitzvah, one of the 613 that we are commanded to observe.  Read about the power of words to sanctify or desecrate, and what is the hook in BeHar.

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