Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

Shemitta and VaYikra

The standard formula for introducing a new set of laws is: "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying…"

The formula in Parshat Behar adds the location: "The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying" (Vayikra 25:1)

We are told the location for obvious reasons. At the outset of the book of VaYikra: "He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting (Ohel Mo'ed), saying" (ibid 1:1). Since no location for all the subsequent laws were recorded, we can assume that they were also received in the Ohel Mo'ed.

However, since the laws of the Sabbatical year, Shemitta, had been previously given at Mount Sinai and not at the Ohel Mo'ed, we have to be told this information.

Nevertheless, we must ask why, if they were received at Sinai a year earlier, these laws then appear in Sefer VaYikra. Why were they not recorded in Sefer Shemot in the chronological order?

The Ramban argues that they are recorded in Sefer Shemot. At the giving of the Torah, Moshe receives a long list of laws, including: "Six years you may sow your land and gather in its produce. But in the seventh [year] you shall release it and abandon it" (Shemot 23:10-11). However, even though all the details were also given at that point, they were only recorded at this point.

The question, however, still remains, why? What is Shemitta's relevance to Sefer Vayikra?

The central theme of Sefer VaYikra is the attainment and maintenance of the people's holiness (see blog for Parshat Emor). The laws of Shemitta emphasize the holiness of the land and focus on the sanctity and dignity of Man.

Once entered, the cycle of poverty and servitude was inescapable in the ancient world. Bad harvests lead to borrowing to buy seed. If the harvest failed again one was forced to sell one's land to pay the debt. Without land one was eventually forced to sell oneself to escape hunger. It was then impossible to improve your lot. All future generations remained slaves and poor in perpetuity.

Indeed landowners always retained and increased their wealth. They allowed others, called serfs, to work their land, but they could only keep what they needed to eat. The rest of their labor went to the landowner whose wealth expanded.

In order to end this cycle, so that future generations would not suffer from the poor business acumen of an ancestor, the Torah insisted that land and servitude could not last more than 50 years. At the Jubilee, all land had to be returned to the original owner and all slaves had to be freed. At the same time, clan members had to work hard to acquire an early release and redemption of their relative's property.
Furthermore, laws regarding supporting the impoverished and protecting them from interest payments were introduced, as were laws designed to protect slaves during their servitude, thereby, guarding the dignity and sanctity of Man.

As the Torah explains: "the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt" (VaYikra 25:55). A person may not be enslaved to another in perpetuity. Perpetual enslavement of humans reduces them to being tradable commodities, not holy life forms.

If this message is lost, then all the sanctity that Sefer VaYikra aims for is pointless.

This message is therefore also appropriate for Matan Torah, for at Sinai, Israel was charged by God to restore the dignity of Man and to teach of humanity's sanctity.

As a result, the statement about Man's sanctity was recorded in Sefer Shemot and the fine points were described in Sefer VaYikra.


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