Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Parashat Behar - Back To The Present

Two amazing concepts are presented to us in the first two psukim of this week's parasha: in the first pasuk, we are told that G-d spoke to Moshe "on Mt. Sinai" - whence the title of the parasha "BeHar" - "On the Mountain". In the second verse, G-d delivers the message of the ay: the seventh year as a "sabbatical year" - the commandmant of shmittah - the obligation to let the Land rest every seventh year. But the more interesting aspect of this verse is that it is couched in the continuous present tense. The Hebrew uses the verb "noten" "I give".

Now, as the first verse tells us explicitly that G-d spoke to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, it appears that this section harks back to the moment of the giving of Torah; that it is a flashback, not a part of the present narrative. If so, why is G-d using this continuous-present voice? I would expect the text to use, either the definitive perfect form -- "natati", or the direct future "'eten". Instead, G-d tells us that G-d is constantly in the process of giving us the Land. As with the Creation of Light and Darkness memorialized in the Shabbat prayers, as in the ongoig blessings of sustenance that we daily acknowledge, G-d gives us the Land at every moment. But the couping of this ongoing generosity with a set of requirements appears to place a new moral perspective on our ownership of the Land of Israel. There are rules, G-d has expectations of us. The implication is clear: if we fail to live up to G-d's expectations, we could lose the Land. Note especially that this interpretation is only made possible by the text's use of the present tense. If G-d said "natati", denoting a completed action, it would be much more difficult to force this interpretation.

This reading is further supported by the reminder that this is all being told to Moshe on Mt. Sinai. It is an almost Brechtian breaking-out of the continuous present narrative to draw us back to the storyteller. It is like turning the footlights down in the middle of the second act and bringing up the house lights, just to remind the audience that we are in a theater, that the people on the stage are actors. That none of this is happening, not really happening.

Oh, but it is! And it continues to tie together. Rashi points out that, just as we feared the momentary absence of food and water upon being brought out of Mizraim, so too we fear the loss of our sources of food in the shmitta year. In Bereshit 41:34, when Yosef is advising Pharaoh in preparation for the lean years to come, the text uses the word "ve'chimesh" - usually translated as "and [Pharaoh shall] prepare." How does he prepare? By doubling the usual tax of one-tenth on all the produce of the land of Egypt. By "chimesh", by taking one-fifth in each of the Fat Years, Pharaoh is well stocked to withstand the rigors of the seven Lean Years.

Similarly, Rashi states that G-d promised there would be three years' abundance in the final year before shmitta: one year's worth to eat now, one to save to plant the following year, and one to eat while awaiting the harvest the year after.

Then, as though that were not enough, in verse 10, we are given the commandment of the Yovel year - the Jubilee. This is a societal re-set, profoundly similar to letting the Land lie fallow for a year, and profound in its spiritual implications. IN this fiftieth year, even the slave with a hole bored in hie ear goes out free. Houses that had been pledged to secure loans a generation ago revert to the familes that held them. As the Shabbat is a day of rest from human creative work - as the shmitta is a year of rest for the Land, wherein the Land itself is restored - so the Yovel restores society, gently correcting imbalances that have crept in over the intervening decades.

The Torah is mildly socialist - not anti-wealth. This is a largely pro-business document, but with the angle that all business must serve the common good, in addition to enriching its owners. Rav Kook saw, in this economic rebalancing, a spiritual re-equilibrating, a re-calibrating of our spiritual relationship to the Land.

It can all be summed up in one word, from 25:14 - "lo tonu..." "do not vex / oppress." And though the principle is an economic one, the Rabbis immediately extended it to apply to social situations where people are able to take advantage of one another with words. In the same vein, we are prohibited from asking prices of a shopkeeper if we know we have no intention of buying anything. We are not permitted to pose difficult questions to those we know do not have the learning, or the intellectual capacity to formulate answers.

"lo' tonu..." do not vex one another. Also, do not vex ourselves. For we oftenforget to apply mitzvot to ourselves, we forget that we are also entitled to the comfort and happinss that come along with observance of Torah.

By the way: this week is Pesach Sheni. Originally designed for those who were traveling, and thus not available for the communal Paschal sacrifice, the day is observed by some with a min-seder, where matzot are eaten, wine is drunk. Some read all, or part of the Haggaddah. This year, in particular, it is interesting to see the way G-d prepares time for us, lays out our days and - as the Torah lays out the decades of our generations, the years of our crop cycles, the observances of our annual seasons, the days of the week - so too G-d provides the time for the Sacred to enter our lives.

This year we had two Adars, and now we have two Pesachs. An extra month to prepare for the seders, a second chance a month afterwards. Leaving Egypt is the defining moment in our history as a people. More even than receiving Torah on Sinai - the Rabbis are clear on the fact that it was only leaving Egypt that enabled us to be prepared to receive Torah. Torah could only be given in the wilderness. And Egypt was our home. For two hundred years, we prospered there. This week's parasha reminds us several times of our historical origin. And, lest we forget, it ends by reminding us that we are slaves to G-d. It is, after all, a small thing to give up our possessions in the fiftieth year. We never owned them in the first place.

In chapter 25, verse 10, the Torah tells us "Proclaim Freedom in the Land." The text uses the word "dror" meaning Liberty, Freedom. This is its only appearance in the Torah, and it is significant.

G-d freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. But we were the slaves of slaves. Now we are free. G-d can not free those who are in any measure not free, when they are themselves free people, in thrall to people who are free. The freedom in a free society must come from within, and it is the responsibility of each of us to foster it..

Pesach, the holiday that marks our Freedom, is the only holiday given twice by the Torah. We have two opportunities to observe this holiday. This year, let us take on ourselves the beautiful custom of Pesach Sheni. Even if all we do is take four sips of wine, eat a half a matzoh, we can cherish the moment we became who we are as a people. We can re-live the passing from affliction to freedom, and we can proclaim liberty in the land.

Yours for a better world.

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