When is forever not forever?
(Note: We are not referring to Western society’s attitude towards marriage or to a donor’s “eternal” commitment to a cause)
In a classic analysis of the relationship between Torah Sheba’al Peh (Oral Law) and the Jew, Beis Halevi offers the following metaphysical gem (1):
At first (first set of tablets), when the entire Torah was merely alluded to, Israel and the Torah were two separate entities. For the people of Israel were those who observed the Torah and kept it. At that time they had the status of a utensil or an ark containing a Torah scroll, namely, they were tashmishei kedusha. But after the Oral Law was given to them, Israel became the klaf (parchment) of the Oral Law, as the verse states: “Write them upon the tablet of your heart” (Mishlei 7:3). Just as the parchment of a Torah scroll constitutes the sanctity itself, (and is not [merely] an implement), for it is the parchment and the writing that together constitute the Torah scroll, so too the Torah and Israel are one.
Torah Sheba’al Peh binds the Jew to Torah in a most intimate way. Its study allows one’s neshama to become klaf, one’s mouth a quill and one’s words may create indelible imprints upon the soul. Deep analysis of Torah Sheba’al Peh now becomes a task of uncovering the collective nishmas yisrael, a profound process of self discovery!
For the less mystically minded (nebach), one can easily comprehend the need for Oral Torah. Without it, Shabbos laws for example, are “mountains hanging on threads” (2). “Do not do melacha” doesn’t quite complete the Shabbos picture. We still need to know what is work and for that matter, what does it mean to do? Hence the Oral Law serves as a necessary complement to the Written word
It is the evident contradiction between the two Torahs however, that creates spiritual anxiety. Ultimately, mesorah (oral tradition) always emerges victorious, but for those that value text, extreme discomfort emerges when textual loyalty seems violated. Small wonder then that great commentators (e.g. Vilna Gaon, HaKetav V’Kabbalah, Netziv, & Malbim) made it their clarion call to restore harmony between the written word and the Torah Sheba’al Peh.
Within Behar resides a classic example of apparent incongruity between the Written and Oral Torah [Vayikra, 25:10]:
You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all of its inhabitants; it shall be the Yovel year for you…
Rashi (3) clarifies that with the onset of the yovel, (Jubilee 50th year) all who carry the title of eved ivri, including the nirtzah (4), [the Jewish servant who extended his term beyond the initial six year obligation] must be freed.
This oral tradition apparent clashes with the pshat of the relevant pasuk in Mishpatim (5).
If the servant shall say (after the six year period), I love my master … then his master shall bring him to the court … and he shall serve him l’olam – forever
L’olam (Forever)! Indeed? Apparently forever is not always forever.
Ibn Ezra, ever the rationalist, mitigates the problem by redefining l’olam. Kohelet [1,10] implies that the world olam may simply mean an extended period of time. Yovel is the longest block of time in the Jewish calendar; thus the word olam, as “a long time” is appropriate. I admit to being underwhelmed by Ibn Ezra’s rational approach. Even if technically correct, one may still ask: Why would the Torah opt for the more ambiguous “olam” in lieu of the more pristine “yovel”? Why create the problem in the first place?
How cryptic and enticing are Ramban’s words:
The enlightened one will understand that L’olam is [to be understood] literally – for one who works until Yovel has worked all the days of the world. And the words of the Mechilta: Rebbe says: “Come & see that the world is only fifty years old as it says and he shall work forever – until the Yovel”
I desire to be enlightened, but I know people that are above fifty (one of these days, I hope to become an eyewitness). Yet, one senses a profundity in these enigmatic words. Ramban seems to be saying that l’olam is the more precise formulation! Penetrate the term and you will discern the nature of our world -that in some mystical way exists for only fifty years.
With Rabbeinu Bechaye’s help, perhaps, this is the depth of Ramban.
In Jewish numerology, what separates 49 and 50 is a world of difference. A world, mamash.
Simply note that in a short period of time, Bnei Yisrael change from a nation of bedraggled slaves into the mekablei hatorah (recipients of the Torah). (That is the very first line of the Ten Commandments). An extraordinary transformation that took a total of fifty days, to be precise. Evidently, fifty represents metamorphosis.
From the national to the personal, we know of the Omer period – the fifty day period that we experience bridging Pesach to Shavuos. Kabbala links each of the seven weeks to a sefirah (emanation) as we ascend from Chesed (kindness) to Malchus (kingdom). At the end of forty nine days we have reached the seventh level within the seventh sefirah; we have arrived at malchus shebimalchus, the kingdom of kingdoms. We have scaled the highest peaks.
We start again. This time, however we are in a different world.
Nekot hai kelala b’yadecha. Note this rule. Fifty is the number of utter transformation. Moshe Rabbeinu attained the highest level of wisdom known to man Vatichasreihu me’at me’elokim (6) – the 49th level. He was a bit short of Hashem (whatever that means). According to the Zohar, Bnei Yisrael were on the 49th level of impurity and had to be rushed out of Egypt; one rung lower and they sink into oblivion. For at the fiftieth level, one is transformed, in either direction. Is it not interesting that the Levi may only serve in the beit hamikdash until the age of fifty? In some way his world too has been completed.
Personal, national and indeed cosmic! Davar tziva l’eleph dor (7). (The matter [of the world] He commanded for one thousand generations), Ramban calculates that a generation is fifty years (8). The Midrash (9) teaches that our universe has experienced 6 previous existences, each of which lasted for a total of 7,000 years (10). Our world too will last for 7,000 years. Thus the totality of this Universe’s existence will cease at its Yovel.
Yovel the messages teaches that after seven cycles of shemitta – each a new rung of perfection within the world, we are now ready for the dawn of a completely new one (11).
At yovel, ready or not, the eved ivri is forced out. He, for whom the world has turned so dark; he who is at the mercy of another human, he who may have lost his sense of destiny and independence, must now be taught that a Jew is never consigned to fate. Within his own lifetime, new worlds and new hopes beckon.
And for the rational Jew unaware of the mystical notion of the Yovel cycle? Ramban’s notion still resonates – for it teaches that a Jew need not die to change his world, rather he can transcend worlds in his lifetime.
How many times do we set red lines for our spiritual goals? “This I can do, but I’ll never do that” can be the healthy protest of one who engages in slow but steady spiritual progress. A progress that ultimately creates for one a nyer velt, a new spiritual world, a progress that allows one to be the very personality he could “never” be.
That is the goal of life. We take a moment, look who we are, who we can never be and figure out a way to get there.
Good Shabbos, Asher Brander
1. Drush 18. Translation adapted slightly from http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/philhalak/12mhal.rtf
2. cf. Chagiga 10a
3. based on Kiddushin 15a
4. so named for his pierced ear
5. Shemos, 21:5
6. Ramban in his introduction to Bereishis writes: וכבר אמרו רבותינו חמשים שערי בינה נבראו בעולם וכלם נמסרו למשה חוץ מאחד שנאמר ותחסרהו מעט מאלהים
7. Tehillim 105:8
8. Ramban, Shir Hashirim Chavel edition, p. 539
9. Bereishis Rabah 3:7 (according to R. Bechayai’s understanding)
10. For a novel approach to reconcile this notion with modern theories of the Age of the Universe, see Immortality, Resurrection, & the Age of the Universe: A Kabbalistic View by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan . See also Tiferet Yisrael, Drush Ohr Hachaim
11. It is indeed striking that while prohibiting labor in the Shemitta the Torah still cedes ownership to man [Vayikra, 25:5] “your field you shall not sow, . . .”, while in prohibiting labor in the Yovel the Torah revokes that ownership [Vayikra,25:11-12] you shall not harvest its aftergrowth; … from the field you may eat its crop” . In Yovel, we have entered a new world with no prior ownership
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.