Protracted Birthpangs

Towards the end of the section known as the tochacha (Admonition) which forms the centrepiece of our Torah reading (Lev.26:14-45), the undertone traditionally employed in this bleak section ceases as we read: [Perhaps their thick-skinned heart will be humbled and they will neutralise their sins.] Then I shall remember my covenant with Jacob …with Isaac ..with Abraham, and I shall remember the land (v.42).

At last G-D is appeased, He will remember and He will redeem!

But this verse proves something of a false dawn.  The sotto voce is resumed as we read: The land will be forsaken by them and will enjoy its Sabbaths while lying desolate without them. They must gain expiation for their sins precisely because they had despised My societal laws and had rejected My decrees (v.43)Redemption is put on hold and appears as elusive as ever.

But then, just as we are about to despair, come the next verses intoned in full voice: Despite all this, even while they will remain in the lands of their enemies, I will not despise or reject them utterly to reject My covenant with them for I am G-D their G-D. I shall remember for their benefit the covenant with the founding fathers, those whom I took out of Egypt before the eyes of the nations to be their G-D!” (verses 44-45).  Redemption, ge’ula, firmed up and actualised!

Rabbi Dr. Nahum Rabinovitch zl, noted halachist and former principal of Jews’ College London, relates these verses to the contemporary era. Verse 42, he suggests, was fulfilled partially in 1948 with the birth of Medinat Yisrael and more spectacularly in 1967 with the reunification of Jerusalem.  However it was a false or at most an arrested dawn.  The ge’ula did not instantly materialise.  We are in the no-man’s-land of verse 43.  Verses 44 and 45 however serve to reassure us that the messianic birthpangs are genuine, only they are protracted.  Full redemption is not too far away!

If indeed, as Rabbi Rabinovitch suggests, we are currently ‘holding’ at verse 43, of particular interest to us will be its content.  The verse generalises about the mishpatim (societal laws) and chukim (supra-rational decrees) but also singles out one mitsva which would appear to qualify under both categories (see Lev 25:18 in context) – the land-rest laws of shmita the sabbatical (seventh) and yovel (golden jubilee) year. Indeed shmita-neglect is ranked in at least one significant context with the gravest trilogy of sins in the Torah.  “Galut (exile) comes into the world on account of idolatry, gross immorality, murder and working the land during shmita  (Avot 5:11).

It is a stupendous act of faith on the part of many Israeli farmers today to rigorously – as we speak –  observe shmita and not rely on the heter mechira (land-selling) leniency of Rav Kook ztl. Regretfully in our day shmita is ‘only’ de-rabanan.  We cannot fulfil this mitsva on a Biblical level for the simple reason that the shmita count has gone awry (see Arachin 33a) since there is no yovel.  Hence the cycle of shmita years has become a constantly-recurring seven-year interval rather than 7×7+1 = 50.

Why is there no yovel kept today?  The Talmud (Arachin 32b) extrapolates from the verse Proclaim freedom throughout the Land (in the yovel) to all its inhabitants (Lev 25:10) – that absent the entire Am Yisrael living in Erets Yisrael in their original tribal territories, the yovel cannot be celebrated  According to the understanding of Ramban (and Tosafot), a majority of each tribe is sufficient.

It would seem beyond us to rectify this by natural means.  Even according to Ramban, while almost 6.8 million of the 15.2 million Jews in the world now reside in Israel – which could conceivably translate to a majority quite soon – we are missing a sizeable chunk of our original nation. But for sure the Ten Lost Tribes are out there somewhere, finding themselves – possibly among crypto-Jewish groups burgeoning in Central and South America, China and elsewhere, maybe in the unlikeliest of places and settings..

We need D-vine assistance for the final push to ge’ula – but that presupposes our prior hishtadlut (efforts). This means more than being bit-part players on the peripheral stages of New York, London or Sydney.

By Rambam’s calculations (Hilchot Shmita ve-Yovel 10:4) the next yovel would be in 2055. May we merit to keep it as a complete nation within our complete and secure borders!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.