“The Sinai and the Negev” Parashat Behar 5778

Parashat Behar begins with one of the most famous verses in the entire Torah [Vayikra 25:1]: “Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying”. The Torah then segues into a lengthy discussion on shemitah – a seventh year Sabbatical in which the earth rests and one’s fields must lie fallow. The Midrash, quoted by Rashi asks “Ma inyan shemitah etzel Sinai?” – “What does shemitah have to do with Mount Sinai?”[1] We all know that the Torah was given at Sinai and that Am Yisrael subsequently camped at the foot of the mountain for nearly a year. It is patently obvious that the mitzvah of shemitah was given at Sinai – where else would it be given? What, then, is the Torah’s innovation?

The Midrash answers its own question: “[This teaches us that] just as with shemitah, whose general principles and its finer details were all stated at Sinai, likewise, all of [the mitzvot] were stated, together with their general principles [together with] their finer details, at Sinai.” Not all mitzvot are discussed in the Torah with the depth and clarity with which it discusses shemitah. For instance, when a couple wants to get a divorce, the husband must write his wife [Devarim 24:1] “a bill of divorce (keritut)”. That’s all the Torah has to say about that. The Sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud fill the void and teach us a plethora of halachot regarding the divorce: what must be written in a bill of divorce, who must sign, the format and the font in which it must be written, how it must be given, and so on. None of these laws are explicitly written in the Torah. Similarly, we all know that in order to eat meat, an animal must be ritually slaughtered by slicing the esophagus and the trachea with a sharp knife that has no nicks. Afterwards the meat must be rinsed, salted for an hour, and then rinsed again. Nowhere in the Torah is any of this written. Shemitah teaches us that while the laws of ritual slaughter and divorce are not written in the Pentateuch – the “Written Torah” – they are clearly discussed in the “Oral Torah” that was also given at Sinai and later written down as the Mishnah and the Talmud. By explicitly stating that all of the laws of shemitah were given at Sinai, the Torah is stating a rule: the most intricate details of each and every mitzvah were also given at Sinai – if not in the Written Torah then in the Oral Torah.

The Midrash’s innovation begs a question: Why was the mitzvah of shemitah chosen to be the bearer of the message of the Torah’s completeness? There are other mitzvot that appear in the Torah with the same amount of detail as the mitzvah of shemitah. Chapters 13-14 of the Book of Vayikra contain an exhaustive description of the laws of tzara’at, a disease that afflicts humans, their homes, and their clothing. The Torah discusses which lesions are considered problematic and which are not, what must be done if a person is suspected of contracting the disease and what must be done if he is positively diagnosed. Why don’t the laws of tzara’at begin with the words “Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying”?

This question is asked and answered by many of the commentators[2]. Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch proposes an answer that I find especially appealing. The mitzvah of shemitah is constrained by both time and place: It is applicable only in the Land of Israel and only when more than half of world Jewrys live there[3]. Consequently, the mitzvah of shemitah was not applicable for more than fifty years after it was given. If the Torah emphasizes that the mitzvah of shemitah was given along with its “general principles and its finer details”, how much more so should this apply to mitzvot that are universally and eternally relevant, such as murder, theft, and sexual crimes? They most certainly must have been given along with their “general principles and finer details”, even if these do not explicitly appear in the Written Torah.

Last week a horrible tragedy occurred in the Negev Desert in southern Israel. When it rains in the Negev, the rainwater typically flows through a network of dry river beds, or wadis, down to the Dead Sea and the Jordan Rift. Because of the poor absorption of the wadis, a rain storm in one location of the desert can cause flash-flooding in another location. Last week saw significant rainfall in southern Israel. On Thursday a group of students in Grade 12 were on a hike organized by a mechina k’dam tzvai’t. A mechina is a post-high school educational institution offering informal education and pre-military training. The heads of the mechina in Tel Aviv and their guides on the ground in the Negev were aware of the potential for a flash flood and yet they chose to enter one of the wadis. As they were exiting the wadi, the hikers encountered a torrent of water, mud, and stones. Those who did not move quickly enough were swept away by the current. Ten young people were killed, nine of them girls.

After the extent of the tragedy became known – and everyone here knew someone who knew someone who was killed – the country fell into a national depression the likes of which have not been seen since Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated in 1996. And then we sat and waited for the blame game to begin. First accused were the management of the mechina and the tour guides. They were warned by the police and by the weather forecasters that entering a wadi could be fatal and yet, having convinced themselves that no harm would befall them[4], they disregarded the warnings. It was clear that the word “tragedy” was being misused. This was not an unpreventable disaster – this was criminal negligence or even manslaughter.

Then the blame game entered its second phase. “How could the Ministry of Education have approved the hike?” Their response was immediate: a mechina, while an educational institution, operates autonomously and does not require external approval for its hikes. The media responded: “How can the government sanction that kind of autonomy?” A pinnacle was reached at the start of the hourly news two days ago, in which the newscaster declared “More than three days after the tragedy, not one government agency has accepted responsibility. Not the Ministry of Education, not the Ministry of Defence[5], no-one. How long will we have to wait?” My wife, Tova, and I were driving in the car when we heard this and both of us thought the exact same thing: This was not just another cynical attempt to blame the government for the country’s ills. It went far beyond that. The fact that people are unwilling to attribute blame where it belongs but, instead, are searching for some nebulous body to accept responsibility means that they appreciate that a tragedy of this extent cannot be the result of a mistake made by flesh and blood. Something much larger had to fail for this occur.

The truth is that Tova and I had been asking ourselves a very similar question: How could Hashem have let this happen? We were not, Heaven forbid, blaming Hashem, but, rather, we were trying to get our heads around an issue that we, as mortal humans, are incapable of understanding: how Hashem, who is pure good, can create a world replete with such horror and pain. We gained a modicum of comfort by knowing that Hashem was driving, even though we had no idea what the destination is. The newscaster was seeking the same kind of comfort. She had no idea that she, like us, was searching for the Divine.

The mitzvah of shemitah teaches us that if Hashem is concerned with the finite and the time-constrained, then He is most surely concerned with the ten infinite and immortal human souls that were lost last week. Everything was given in its entirety at Sinai but for some reason that we will never understand, Hashem wanted some of it back.

ere’s

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tzvi ben Freida, and Tzvi ben Shoshana

[1] The question “Mah inyan shemitah etzel Sinai?” has found a place in Modern Hebrew as a rejoinder to a red herring. The English equivalent is “What does that have to do with anything?”

[2] See Rashi ad loc along with the super-commentaries of Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi and the Gur Aryeh.

[3] Today the mitzvah of shemitah is considered a Rabbinically-mandated mitzvah. This is the justification for many of the leniencies we implement today regarding shemitah, such as the sale of land to a non-Jew. Today about 45.4% of world Jewry live in Israel. Current trends show an increase of about 0.7% each year, meaning that in approximately seven years more than half of world Jewry will live in Israel and shemitah will take on the stringencies of a Torah-mandated mitzvah.

[4] The phenomenon of “yih’yeh beseder” – “I’ll be fine” – is a huge problem here in Israel.

[5] Not sure how the MoD could have prevented the tragedy.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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