Leviticus opens with “And the Lord called unto Moses, and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting, saying … ” (Leviticus 1:1). From this point onward, Leviticus conveys God’s words to Moses’ ear in the tent of meeting, whose construction was completed in the final section of the Book of Exodus.
Last week’s Torah portion, Behar (Lev. 25:1 – 26:2), the penultimate portion in Leviticus, states: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses in Mount Sinai, saying …” (Lev. 25:1), as if the Torah was returning to what was said to Moses on Mount Sinai – that is, to the middle of the previous book in the Pentateuch. The Torah then continues with details of the mitzvah of observing shemitah, in which the land is allowed to lay fallow every seven years, and of the various laws connected with it.
In the Sifra, the Tannaitic midrashic work on the Book of Leviticus, the sages ask, “What connection is there between shemitah and Mount Sinai? Were not all the commandments conveyed on Mount Sinai?” (Sifra, Behar:1). The midrash’s question is cited by Rashi in his commentary and has entered modern Hebrew, where it is used to query the link between two items that have been stated in the same breath but seem completely unconnected.
This question was famously asked by one of the oldest midrashim, Sifra (Behar 1), and it has been pondered over for centuries. The question arises from the way the portion about the Sabbatical year is introduced in the Torah (last week’s Torah portion Behar): G-d spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai saying: Speak to Israel’s children and say unto them:When you come to the land which I give you, the land will rest,a shabbat for G-d…In the seventh year, it will be the Sabbath of sabbaths for the land, a Sabbath for G-d.” (Lev. 25:2-4)
If all the commandments were given at Mt. Sinai, the midrash wonders, why is Mt. Sinai only mentioned here? And the answer that we can give today is deceptively simple: the whole purpose of the covenant at Sinai is to create a society that observed Shmitah. It is in a land where Shmitah is observed that human beings will learn to respect the Earth herself, by remembering that none of us can own the land. “For the land is mine,” G-d declares, “and you are strangers and settlers with me.” (Lev. 25:23) And if none of us can own the land, cannot sell it and buy it, then what we do own is ultimately not ours, then the difference between rich and poor is not “just the way things are,” then a person cannot be owned and the difference between slave and master is not real and the slave is loved by God.
In the Sabbatical year debts are canceled, and the land is ownerless. In the seventh sabbatical year, the Jubilee, all slaves are freed (including those who did not exercise their right to go free after the sixth year of their own service) and every family returns to its original landholding, becoming equal to every other family.
Only in such a society, where “property” does not designate the right to use up what one owns, but rather a kind of fleeting relationship to what one cares for, can people learn the true meaning of justice. Only in such a society can people learn to share their wealth, nurture the poor alongside everyone else,relieve debts, end hunger, and respect the fundamental human right to be free.
Another answer is provided in another homily found in the Sifra. Toward the end of Parshat Bechukotai, the next – and final – weekly Torah reading in Leviticus, it is stated, “These are the statutes and ordinances and laws, which the Lord made between Him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Lev. 26:46). The Sifra explains: “The statutes are the midrashic interpretations, the ordinances are the laws, and the word ‘laws’ [torot] alludes to the fact that two Torot – that is, two Torahs – were given to Israel [at Sinai]: the Written Torah [the Written Law, that is, the Pentateuch] and the Oral Torah [the Oral Law, that is, the Talmud] … The phrase ‘in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses,’ teaches us that the Torah – including its laws, and the details and interpretations of those laws – was given to Moses at Sinai” (Sifra, Bechukotai, end of section B).
Rabbi Akiva’s many homilies can be found throughout the Talmud, many of them are radical interpretations that are incongruent with a reading of the Torah’s verses in their actual context. He extracts from those verses new “literal” readings that are actually very far from literal in their understanding.
The only way in which Rabbi Akiva could anchor his radical, innovative interpretations in the biblical text from a theological standpoint was by using the ideological argument that the entire Torah – as well as its extensions, its laws, its midrashic and non-midrashic interpretations, including, of course, the rabbi’s own interpretations – was given at Sinai. All that Rabbi Akiva does is “simply” to reveal what was previously concealed.
Rabbi Akiva sees the details of the mitzvahs presented in the tent of meeting as a reflection of his own method of interpreting the Torah: The details of the commandments were given at Sinai and were written down only later in Leviticus, and the same applies to the interpretation of the Torah.
In order to continue interpreting the Torah, Rabbi Akiva creates an absolute picture of its granting at Sinai; in that picture, the entire Torah was given as well as all its layers and interpretations. Theoretically, Rabbi Akiva eliminates any possibility of introducing anything new in the Torah; however, this theoretical elimination actually enables infinite innovations because, according to this approach, all of the Torah’s interpretations – not just Rabbi Akiva’s – were given at Sinai: “Even what an experienced scholar will one day say before the teacher. Everything was given at Sinai, as it is written, ‘Is there a thing whereof it is said: “See, this is new”?’ And, as the next part of that verse replies, ‘it hath been already, in the ages which were before us’ (Ecclesiastes 1:10)” (Vayikra Rabbah 22:1).
According to Rabbi Akiva, everything was given at Mount Sinai, including what is discussed today in every beit midrash (study hall) where the Torah’s words are renewed.
The Sabbatical year was the guarantor and the ultimate fulfillment of the justice that Torah teaches us to practice in everyday life, and it was a justice that embraced not just fellow human beings, but the land and all life.
The Sabbatical year was the ultimate meaning of rest, which we practice every week in the observance of shabbat. It was the Sabbath of sabbaths, Shabbat shabbaton.
After telling us outright that Sinai is about Shmitah, the Torah also gives us other pointers to Shmitah’s ultimate significance. Failure to let the land rest is one of only two mitzvot that are described as being the cause of exile from the land (the other being idolatry), while the purpose of exile itself is described as a way to force human beings to let the Earth rest. If we do not observe Shmita, still “the land will enjoy her Sabbaths…All the days of her being emptied she will rest what she didn’t rest during your Sabbaths, when you were dwelling on her.” (Lev. 26:34) The Torah is clear: It is possible for us to have shabbat without giving the land rest, but doing shabbat just for ourselves, even just for God, is not enough. Exile happens because the land’s right to rest comes before our rest. There’s another clue to the importance of Shmitah, a more subtle one. During the Shmitah year, we are commanded to let the wild animals eat freely from our fields. “The shabbat of the land (what the land grows while it is resting) will be for you for eating: for you and for your servants and hired-workers and for your settler living as a stranger with you, and for your beast, and for the wild animal which is in your land, all of her produce will be for eating.” (Lev. 25:6-7) The rabbis further expanded the meaning of this law, , so that everyone was required to leave any gates to their fields open, so that one could not even eat in one’s house food that was not also growing in the fields—so that human beings and wild (and domestic) animals were eating the same food.
Think about the two other times when humans and all the animals ate alongside each other in peace according to the Torah. When, and where, did it happen? First It was in the Garden of Eden, before so many tragedies befell humanity. Before the flood. Before the relationship between humans and animals was torn asunder; before humans exiled themselves from the Earth. Second during the one year on the ark, the animals and Man existed together.
After the flood, the animals live in mortal terror of human beings.After the flood, God makes a covenant—not with the human beings, but with all the animals—a covenant to not destroy the Earth because of humanity. It is the Sinai covenant which is meant to bring back into harmony a world twisted by human greed and violence. It is the Sinai covenant that is meant to restore the fellowship of human and animal, and to reorder our values, so that the well-being of the land and the community of life takes precedence over our own perceived needs. This is what it means to “choose life so you may live, you and your seed after you.” (Deut. 30:19)
This is what it means to“increase your days and your children’s days on the ground for as long as the skies are over the land.” (Deut. 11:21) In modern parlance we call it “sustainability,” but that’s just today’s buzzword. It’s called Shmitah in the holy tongue, “release”—releasing each other from debts, releasing the land from work, releasing ourselves from our illusions of selfhood into the freedom of living with others and living for the sake of all life. How is it, then, that our generation is the one that can answer the question, “Mah inyan Shmita etzel Har Sinai?How does Shmita emanate from Mt. Sinai?”It is because it is only now, when we see that human beings can really “ruin My world” and that there may be “no one who will come after you to repair it,”(Kohelet Rabbah 7:13) only now can we understand what Shmita means. Only now can we see that the meaning of Mt. Sinai is Shmita. May it beHashem’s will that we are seeing this in time to fulfill the vision, to “proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all her inhabitants,”(Lev.25:10) to all those souls traveling together with us on this planet.
A Meeting with Destiny
Shmulik Hadari was suffering from a bad case of the coronavirus, so he called his doctor in Tel Aviv to get an appointment.
When he was told the scheduled date of the appointment, he became outraged and bellowed, “Three weeks? The doctor can’t see me for three weeks? I could well be dead by then!”
Calmly, the receptionist replied, “If so, would you have your wife call to cancel the appointment?”