Behar: A Nation of Heroes

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Neon Open Sign
12 May 2009

A few days ago, a man approached me with a simple question. Everything about the way he asked made it clear that it was not a detached intellectual inquiry, but came from a very deep place: “how is it possible to live when after a full shemitta (sabbatical) year (where the farmer may not work the land), the Torah mandates yet another consecutive sabbatical year (Yovel)”(1). Several things amazed me. First, the man was a survivor who had gone through a living hell and yet he asked. More touching was that as someone who finds it hard to feel the pain of anonymous people that live thousands of miles away, it was moving that this man was expressing sympathy for the Jewish farmer that lived a few thousand years ago.

The response to this man was a simple one: your question is so penetrating and deep that even God [in His Torah] asks it for you. In a rare bit of human role playing the Torah pops the question: [Vayikra, 25:19-21]

[The land will give forth its fruit and you will eat your fill, and you will live securely on it.] v’chi tomru – If you shall say (ask) “What will we eat in the seventh year, for lo! we have not planted nor gathered our produce?” I shall command (direct) My blessing to you in the sixth year and it will produce [enough] for three years.

By asking it, the Torah minimally validates the question, confirming the presence of doubt in the minds of the faithful. Here’s a question about the question (we are Jewish – no?): Who is doing the asking? Ostensibly, there are three possibilities: Either the questioners are:

  1. ye of little faith
  2. average-man or
  3. everyman.

And if you [the reader] shall ask – what difference does it make?

In the former scenario, the Torah is merely recognizing man’s incredible ability to be of small faith, confirming that even when the mind knows, the heart might still quiver. Doubt however, is not the normative Jewish reality. The second approach, [somewhat supported by the plural terminology, v’chi tomru, frames the presence of doubt as a force to be reckoned with even amongst the masses (2). It is the final possibility, that everyone is asking, that seems quite untenable. Is it really conceivable that such essential doubt lurks amongst our great people of faith? We shall return to this point.

Note as well two other difficulties in the text:

  1. The Torah’s response to the questioner: “and I shall command my blessing” seems to imply that the questioner is rewarded with blessing. Should the non-questioning faithful lose such reward?
  2. After the question, God commands the blessing. Before the question however, the Torah already states “and you shall eat the produce to satisfaction”. Why command blessing when it is already present?

Seforno deftly tackles both questions. Two blessings are in play here. Ideally the miracle is you shall eat a little and be satisfied. The doubter still ponders: will this morsel really satisfy me, it’s simply not enough! God’s hand is “forced” – to command blessing, i.e. to produce an abundance of food, [each unit] satisfying less but assuaging more. The doubter thus evokes a superfluous miracle, an abundance that is ultimately unnecessary for the full believer (3).

For Sefat Emet, the questioner’s doubt emanates from humility. Are we really deserving of such a miracle – one that will of necessity violate the natural order? (4). His mistake lies in believing too strongly in the artificial distinction between the natural and the miraculous, failing to comprehend that nature is a thinly veiled miracle – for God’s spectacular sunsets are no less impressive than His sea-splits. Thus God commands his bracha, i.e. he cloaks His bounty in the veil of nature known as bracha and refrains from the miraculous, for only one that realizes miracle and nature as synonymous will be privy to a miracle.

To these commentaries, the questioner(s) displays a lacking. It is still not clear whether it is a mass question or an individual issue. More work needs to be done.

Ramban’s words however surprise:

And the Torah promises that when you will be afraid regarding the 7th year and ask what shall we eat, I will command my blessing in the 6th year …

Note that for Ramban v’chi tomru is not if you shall ask – but when you shall ask. The inevitability of the question and the Torah’s plural formulation implies that it is fairly universal, which leads us to wonder really, who says so. Will the Chazon Ish and Chofetz Chaim really ponder the question? I doubt it.

A careful look at Ramban yields the answer: the questioner is not beset with doubt, but rather is feeling fear. While doubt might create fear and fear might spur doubt, they remain distinct notions. Fear is primal and instinctive. Both human and animal feel fear. Doubt is a human cognitive thing. And in this subtle difference between fear and doubt, lies the making of spiritual heroism.

Way back, as Yaakov prepares for his family reunion, the commentaries try to explain Yaakov’s fear of Esav in light of God’s promise of protection. Abarbanel [and 400 years later, Rav Shimon Schwab] echo a deep notion. A hero must overcome. An ideal felt, understood, cherished and then transcended for a higher purpose is the stuff of spiritual gevurah, spiritual strength. One with little regard for life and who blindly rushes to the battlefield is a fool, not a mighty warrior, just as those who scorn money and give it away cannot be called generous.

Yaakov’s fear needs no justification – it was a physiological reality. The same God that promised him he would be safe, created adrenaline and anxiety. Big strapping Eisav and his posse of no good-niks were really real. Yaakov’s physiological reality felt fear – and that was fine. Yet Yaakov confronted Eisav and overcame. That which gave him the courage to forge ahead and confront Eisav was precisely his faith in Hashem’s promise. Thus, Yaakov’s fear was not reflective of a spiritual shortcoming; its presence was critical in developing his mesirut nefesh.

As the nation recently faced Shemitta/Yovel, primal fear and deep worry was real for all. The question if not articulated was surely felt. In a marvelous act of Divine empathy, God says,

Kinderlach I know what you are feeling. Let me show you how not to worry: I command blessing upon you (not the field), i.e. recognize that the same God that gives life can give food. Contemplate and think deeply about that notion and then you will appreciate the hidden miracle of eating the produce. Embrace your fears and allow Me to help you to overcome.

Among the many great gifts of shemitta and yovel is the ability for a nation to unite and prove to itself just how great it can become. When David HaMelech teaches us hashlech al Hashem yehavecha v’hu yechalkelecha, cast upon Hashem your burden/cares and He will sustain you; he is prescribing a formula for spiritual heroism. By looking Above to overcome what is within we learn greatness. All of us!

Good Shabbos

1. Every 50 years the Yovel requires another sabbatical, freeing all the Hebrew slaves and return of lands back to their ancestral owners. Today, yovel does not apply because we do not have a majority of Jews living in Israel in tribe formation cf. Gittin 36a.

2. It is interesting to note that in Re’eh when talking about shemitat kesafim the Torah also role plays – but this time calls the one who is contemplating withholding the loan an individual with a beli’yaal heart – a decidedly negative term. Here the Torah withholds judgment on the questioner

3. In a similar vein, the Rabbis teach that the whole world is nourished by Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Chanina is nourished by a [daily diet of a] carob. The greater the spiritual level, the less material is needed to sustain.

4. Indeed cf. Netziv, who suggests that the questioner might even be claiming that Shemitta/Yovel is only for the highly faithful

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.