Introduction and Backstory

Sefer Vayikra is about mankind fulfilling its relationship with its Creator. In describing that process, the book has gone through three major movements up to now:

  1. Parshios Vayikra, Tzav, and the first part of Shemini describe how the Avodah of the Korbanos is a primary means and representation of the relationship.
  2. The rest of Shemini, Tazria, Metzora, and Acharei Mos describe how achieving that purpose requires tumah management
  3. Parshios Kedoshim, Emor and Behar detail the process of developing kedushah in three stages:
    1. Nefesh (soul): flashes of insight, moments where we touch the divine (Kedoshim)
    2. Zman (time): moments of holiness are extended into longer periods of time (Emor)
    3. Makom (space): the person is so saturated with holiness that the very space he occupies becomes holy (Behar)

This system of thought is based in the Sefer Yetzirah, which describes Sinai at the giving of the Torah as “smoking all over” — ההר עשן כולו. The three letters ayin, shin, and nun stand for olam (space), shanah (time) and nefesh (soul). The Sinai experience was an injection of holiness from on high, thus it descended into the world in the opposite direction of our avodah. Whereas the kedushah of Sinai enveloped the space of the mountain and percolated into the soul, we must develop the kedushah of soul until it bursts out into space. An illustration: 200 years ago, Israel was an abandoned and unproductive backwater of the Ottoman Empire. Through the self sacrifice of generations of Jews, it is now home to shuls, yeshivas, and communities (not to mention it’s economic growth). This is a manifestation of the kedushas hamakom settling onto the place. The Mishkan and its avodah was meant to be a portable manifestation and expression of that revelation

Shmittah and the Love of Mammon

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר. דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם–וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ, שַׁבָּת לַיהוָה. שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְרַע שָׂדֶךָ, וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְמֹר כַּרְמֶךָ; וְאָסַפְתָּ, אֶת-תְּבוּאָתָהּ. וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת, שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ–שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה:  שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרָע, וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר.

The Lord Spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, say to them that when you come to the Land that I and giving to you, the land shall rest, a sabbath of the Lord. Six years shall you sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, you shall gather her produce. And on the seventh year the land shall have a sabbatical, a sabbath for the Lord: You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.

The parshah opens with an injunction to sanctify the land through shmittah. You could have looked at it as a simply command to just “keep shmittah“. But then, the Torah called it the thing that “The Lord spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai.” Chazal ask why this mitzvah is so special. Weren’t all the mitzvos said to Moshe at Sinai?

They answer that unlike other commandments, every detail of shmittah was said over there, thus it represents all of the 613 mitzvos. But there’s more to it than that; Chazal only provided the tip of the iceberg. Their question is a point of departure into a much broader understanding.

Much of the parshah deals with the mitzvah of yoveil and its attendant laws. Rashi writes famously at the end of the parshah,

לא תעשו לכם אלילם. כנגד זה הנמכר לגוי, שלא יאמר הואיל ורבי מגלה עריות אף אני כמותו, הואיל ורבי עובד עבודה זרה אף אני כמותו, הואיל ורבי מחלל שבת אף אני כמותו, לכך נאמרו מקראות הללו. ואף הפרשיות הללו נאמרו על הסדר, בתחלה הזהיר על השביעית, ואם חמד ממון ונחשד על השביעית סופו למכור מטלטליו, לכך סמך לה וכי תמכרו ממכר (ויק’ כה יד) , מה כתיב ביה או קנה מיד עמיתך (שם) , דבר הנקנה מיד ליד. לא חזר בו, סוף מוכר אחזתו. לא חזר בו, סוף מוכר את ביתו. לא חזר בו, סוף לוה ברבית. כל אלו האחרונות קשות מן הראשונות. לא חזר בו, סוף מוכר את עצמו. לא חזר בו, לא דיו לישראל אלא אפלו לגוי:

Do not make for yourselves idols: this is speaking about one who was sold to a gentile, that he should not tell himself “since my master is licentious, I will be prust just like him;” “since my master serves idols, I will serve idols like him;” “since my master disregards Shabbos, I will desecrate it just like him”. That is why these passages were said, and in good order, no less! First it warns him about shmittah. If he loves money and is suspected regarding shmittah, inevitably he’ll sell his possessions. Thus, the portion “when you make a sale…” and what does it write there? “or purchase from the hand of your brethren…” [meaning possessions which are] sold hand to hand. If he does not relent, inevitably he’ll be forced to sell his property. If he doesn’t relent, he’ll have to sell his home. If he doesn’t relent, he’ll end up borrowing on interest [in violation of the Torah]. In all of these, the latter are worse than the former. If he still doesn’t relent, he’ll inevitably be forced to sell himself [into slavery]. If he doesn’t relent from there, it’s not enough to be sold as a slave to a Jew, he’ll be sold to a gentile.

Clearly, this passage shows us that God sends directed messages to people, but more than that, how could it be that a man who’s only crime was that he desired money ends up with such a harsh punishment? We all desire money, and we all need it! but how is the desire for money so bad that the Torah warns us not to give up our entire Judaism for it?

Desire for money is not simply a bad middah. It represents a near-fatal flaw hidden deep inside the core of the person. Money is the most powerful and complete symbol of the wherewithal to survive in the physical. As a life progresses, the need to survive in the physical world quickly becomes emphasized over the spiritual. The language of need, of hunger and thirst, is the first that we learn.

This tension comes to a head in adolescence. At that sensitive time a person must choose what he wishes to dedicate his life to. He must have the right conclusions about his reality in place. If not, the false sense of security provided by his love of mammon can have tremendous hold on him. It is on that point that most people struggle the rest of their lives: will they continue to live a self-centred life, dedicated only to the preservation of their physical existence, or will they free their consciousness from the bounds of mere subsistence towards a higher, selfless purpose? It’s the extent to which a person can successfully traverse this process that determines the pull that mammon will have on him the rest of his life.

This challenge is the essence of adulthood. When the letting-go does not occur and the decision is made to live for the sake of the physical self, every challenge which comes his way from then on will by definition only reenforce the decision he made.

So why is shmitta the mitzva chosen to teach us about the moment of transition? Shmittah was taught for the Jews who were “entering the land” (see Massei 5771 – The Ultimate Destination). Shmittah is the proper way to make the transition. How? Work for six years: deal in the physical world, but have a regular injection of spirituality, a time to completely let go and put yourself in Hashem’s hands, bringing yourself ultimately to a state of selflessness and upward spirituality. All of torah and mitzvos is to bring you to that level.

There’s a medrash in Vayikra Rabbah which darshans a passuk in Tehillim. “Barchu Hashem Melachav, Giborei koach, Osei Devaro — Bless the Lord, His angels:, strong warriors, doers of his word1)Psalms 103:20”. The medrash asks who are these strong warriors? Rav Yitzchak Bar Nafkha explains that they are the shomrei sheviis. He sees his field lying fallow but pays his taxes to the king anyways without saying a word. Rav Yitzchak asks: is there a greater gibor than this? The gevura is in the shtika. Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel famously said that he found nothing better for the body than silence2)Pirkei Avos 1:17. The gevura is to silence the body’s physical needs. Even when they are healthy and natural an adult — a gibor — needs to realize his higher purpose and realign his goals towards bringing kedushas makom.

References   [ + ]

1. Psalms 103:20
2. Pirkei Avos 1:17