Saturday, May 05, 2007

Parshas Behar-Bechukosai - Chazak!!

כי תבאו אל הארץ אשר אני נתן לכם ושבתה הארץ שבת לד' (25:2)

A number of commentators are bothered by the seemingly redundant twofold use of the word שבת – rest – in reference to the Shemittah year. A most novel explanation is offered by the Mateh Moshe (473), who suggests that in a regular year, even though the farmer refrains from working the field on Shabbos, nevertheless the laws of nature are such that the crop which he planted during the week continues to grow on Shabbos, thereby denying the ground the ability to rest on Shabbos along with the rest of Creation. During the course of a year, there are 52 such Shabbosim on which the land is unable to rest, and over a period of 7 years, the total number of such days which accrue for which the ground must be compensated comes to 364. As a result, the Torah decreed that once every 7 years, the land shall lie completely fallow in order to “pay it back” for all of the Shabbosim during which it was unable to rest, and it is for this reason that the Torah stresses that in the Shemittah year, the ground should rest a שבת to Hashem!

Another innovative explanation for the Shemittah year is offered by the Chida and Kli Yakar. They note that the Gemora in Berachos (35b) relates that it was customary for the yeshivos of old to provide a “bein ha’zmanim” – intersession – during the months of Nissan and Tishrei in order to allow the students time to go home and work the land sufficiently in order to sustain and provide for their families. Over the course of six years, 12 months of “bittul Torah” – time in which the students were unable to learn due to other obligations – accrued, so the Torah declared that every 7th year shall be one in which nobody is permitted to work the land so that they may enjoy an entire year of dedicated Torah study to compensate for the distractions of the previous six years!

וחשב עם קנהו משנת המכרו לו עד שנת היבל והיה כסף ממכרו במספר שנים כימי שכיר יהיה עמו (25:50)

The law is that a Jew sold as a slave to a non-Jew is obligated to work for him until the next Yovel year. Nevertheless, it is the duty of his relatives to redeem him as quickly as possible so that he not assimilate and learn from the foreign ways of his new master. Rashi explains that he is to be redeemed by dividing the amount paid for him by the number of years which remained at that time until the Yovel year, which yields the value to his master of each year of his work. This should be multiplied by the number of years he has already worked, which indicates the “value” of the work he has performed thus far. This amount should be subtracted from the original purchase price, and the remaining amount is the “balance” which his brethren must pay to his master in order to secure his freedom.

The Chofetz Chaim derives an inspiring lesson from these seemingly mundane and complex laws. A Jew living today who is told to yearn for the coming of Moshiach could easily despair and wonder how he will merit seeing the coming of Moshiach, something which was denied to so many righteous individuals in previous generations.

However, we learn from the aforementioned laws that the closer a slave gets to the predetermined time of his release (the Yovel year), the less money will be needed to purchase his premature freedom because of all of the work he has performed with the passage of time. Similarly, upon creating the universe, Hashem decreed a preordained time for the final Redemption, although He also stipulated that with sufficient merits, it would be possible to bring Moshiach before his time. In order to cause his arrival centuries in advance of the prearranged time, tremendous merits were necessary, something that even our most pious ancestors weren’t able to accomplish. As the time for the ultimate redemption draws ever nearer, however, and we continue to suffer at the hands of our non-Jewish neighbors, the remaining “balance” dwindles ever smaller, a balance which we are indeed capable of “paying off” if we only allow ourselves to serve Hashem to our maximum potential!

והשבתי חיה רעה מן הארץ (26:6)

The Toras Kohanim on our verse brings a dispute between two Tannaim as to the nature of this blessing, that “I will cause dangerous animals to cease from the land.” The opinion of Rav Yehuda is that these animals will simply cease to exist, while Rav Shimon maintains that they will continue to exist but that their natures will change so that they are no longer dangerous. While this would appear at first glance to be a technical dispute over the translation of a word, the two great Torah scholars of D’vinsk write that the opinions of the Tannaim in fact stem from their views regarding other issues.

The Rogatchover Gaon notes that the root of the word והשבתישבת – is the same root as the word תשביתו, which the Torah uses in reference to the obligation to remove all chometz from our houses before Passover. The Mishnah in Pesachim (21a) quotes a dispute about the proper way to dispose of chometz. The opinion of Rav Yehuda is that it must be burned, while the other Rabbis maintain that it is sufficient to throw it into the ocean or scatter it and disperse it in the wind. Rav Yehuda, in contrast to the other Sages, apparently understands that the only way to properly remove the chometz is to destroy it to the point of nonexistence, and it is for this reason that he translated our verse as similarly referring to the complete and utter removal of wild beasts from the land of Israel.

Rav Meir Simcha similarly suggests that the opinion of Rav Shimon emanates from his opinions in other places. The Gemora in Berachos (35b) quotes Rav Yishmoel as maintaining that a person should both study Torah and work at a profession, while Rav Shimon argues that the ideal level is to spend one’s every waking moment engaged in the study of Torah, while relying that Hashem will provide him with others to take care of his earthly needs. It was for this reason that upon emerging from his cave, he burnt the first farmer whom he encountered due to his anger over the man’s wasted time (Shabbos 33b), and the Gemora in Shabbos (11a) relates that Rav Shimon didn’t interrupt his learning even to recite the daily prayers, as he had no earthly needs and relied on his Torah study to protect him.

We find that when a Jew serves Hashem with all of his energy, Hashem in turn protects him from the natural dangers posed by wild animals. The Gemora in Berachos (33a) relates that Rav Chanina ben Dosa’s neighbors approached him in fear of a poisonous serpent in the area. He placed his foot on top of the serpent’s hole, inciting it to bite him, at which time the snake immediately died, with Rav Chanina explaining that “the snake doesn’t kill; sin kills.” Similarly, we find in the Gemora in Makkos (11a) that Eliyahu HaNavi informed Rav Yehoshua ben Levi that had he been on a sufficiently high spiritual level, he would have protected not only himself but his entire surroundings from wild animals in the area. However, this level of supernatural protection is provided only to a person who spends his entire day engrossed in the study of Torah, but one who leaves his studies to tend to his business affairs is left vulnerable. The blessings of our parsha speak to those on the highest spiritual level, and because Rav Shimon maintains that this refers to individuals who spend their entire day studying, only he can interpret the verse to mean that the wild animals will still exist but will no longer be able to cause any harm!

ותם לריק כחכם (26:20)

One of the greatest and most well-known Rishonim, whose explanations of the Talmud are widely quoted and debated until the present day, was Rabbeinu Tam, a grandson of Rashi who lived in the 12th century. However, it is interesting to note that his birth name was actually Yaakov, so how did he come to be universally known by the peculiar appellation “Rabbeinu Tam?”

In K’motzei Shalal Rav, it is related that somebody once had a dream in which he received a most fascinating answer to his historical curiosity. The law is that when a married woman dies, her husband – or his relatives – inherits her possessions. The Toras Kohanim on our verse explains that the curse of “Your strength will be spent in vain” refers to a case in which one gives a large dowry to his daughter upon her marriage, only to have her die shortly thereafter, thus causing that the possessions and money for which her father worked so hard will almost immediately be passed from his family. One of the laws which Rabbeinu Tam enacted in his lifetime was that the estate and possessions of a woman who dies within 12 months of marriage shall be inherited by her father – or his next-of-kin – instead of by her husband (Sefer HaYashar 579). Because his actions brought an end to this curse of ותם לריק כחכם , he became universally known as Rabbeinu Tam!

דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם איש כי יפלא נדר בערכך נפשת לד' (27:2)

Parshas Bechukosai is commonly referred to as the parsha of “tochacha” – rebuke. It is full of frightening threats of unimaginable punishment to be meted out to those who refuse to observe the Torah’s laws. It is interesting to note that the parsha ends with a section dealing with the laws of “Arachin” – the dedication of the value of oneself or another person to the Beis HaMikdash – a section which seems to be completely misplaced. What is the relevance of this section to the rebuke which dominates our parsha?

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky tells a powerful story which will shed some light on our question. During the Holocaust, the Germans took a particularly sadistic pleasure in torturing the great Rabbis. The suffering they endured is unfathomable.

In one particularly gruesome incident, a number of merciless Nazi officers beat the Klausenberger Rebbe to the brink of death. After enduring seemingly endless blows, they asked the bleeding, semi-conscious Rebbe if after all of this suffering, he still believed that the Jews are Hashem’s chosen people. The Rebbe responded unequivocally in the affirmative. Amazed at his seemingly naïve faith, they demanded an explanation. The Rebbe replied, “As long as I am not the cruel oppressor of innocent victims, I am able to raise my head proudly and know that Hashem chose our people.”

Applying the lesson of this story to our original question, the Kotzker Rebbe and Rav Meir Shapiro explain that after reading the terrifying curses contained earlier in the parsha and seeing how they have sadly been fulfilled throughout history, Jews may begin to lose belief in their self-worth.

To counter this mistaken conclusion, the portion outlining the painful times which will befall the Jews is immediately followed by the section dealing with the laws of “Arachin.” This section details how much a person is required to donate to the Beis HaMikdash if he chooses to dedicate his “value” to the Temple. This juxtaposition comes to remind us that even in the darkest times, after enduring the most inhumane suffering fathomable, although we may not be accorded respect by our non-Jewish oppressors, our intrinsic worth in Hashem’s eyes is eternal and unchanging.

Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) The Gemora in Berachos (40a) states that one is obligated to feed his animals before he is permitted to begin eating himself. When listing the order (25:6-7) in which the produce of the Shemittah year is to be eaten, why does the Torah mention the animals after the people when the order should be reversed? (Derech Sicha, Yalkut HaGershuni, Yitav Lev, K’motzei Shalal Rav)

2) Rashi explains (26:3) that אם בחוקתי תלכו – if you will walk in my laws – can’t refer to observing the mitzvos, which is explicitly mentioned elsewhere in the verse – ואת מצותי תשמרו – so it must refer to diligently studying the Torah. Isn’t this itself a mitzvah, which should therefore already be subsumed in the subsequent general requirement to observe all of the mitzvos?

3) There is a Talmudic maxim (Kiddushin 39b) that שכר מצוה בהאי עלמא ליכא – Hashem doesn’t give a person reward in this world for doing mitzvos. How can the parsha state that if the Jews study Torah and perform mitzvos, Hashem will bless them in this world? (Rambam Teshuva 9:1)

4) Rashi writes (26:9) that one of the blessings for proper Torah study and mitzvah performance is that the Jews will be increased and will be able to walk בקומה זקופה – erect and with their heads held high. How can this be reconciled with the Gemora in Kiddushin (31a) which states that it is forbidden to walk in an erect posture? (Taam V’Daas, M’rafsin Igri)

5) One of the reasons given for the happiness associated with Lag B’Omer is that on this day, the students of Rav Akiva, who had died en masse every day since Pesach, stopped dying. The Gemora in Yevamos (62b) states that at this point, the world was empty of Torah scholars until Rebbi Akiva moved to the South and found five new students. How is the fact that they stopped dying a cause for celebration when they stopped dying because they were all already dead?

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