INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
Rabbi Avi Baumol
"And On The Seventh - A Sabbath"
The Miracles of Shemitta and Manna
Parashat Behar focuses almost exclusively on two commandments relating to
living in the land of Israel - Shemitta (Sabbatical year) and Yovel (Jubilee
year). Upon inheriting their land, the children of Israel are commanded to keep
a count of the seventh and fiftieth years.
"And you shall count seven years, seven times, adding up to forty nine years. And you shall sound the Shofar on the
seventh month... on the day of Atonement.... And you shall make holy the
fiftieth year, calling out freedom to the land and its inhabitants..."
Interrupting the typical opening pasuk ("And God spoke to Moses, saying")
are the words "Behar Sinai," (And God spoke to Moses - at Mount Sinai -
saying"), yet an entire book has passed since the revelation at Sinai. Why is there a need, now, to restate
that commandments were given at Sinai?
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105), cognizant of this
peculiarity, asks, "what is the connection between shemitta and Mount Sinai? In other words, what makes the law of
shemitta so exclusive that the Torah employs it to express that the commandments
were given at Sinai? He responds:
"Just as all the details and intricacies of shemitta were bestowed on Moses and
Bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel) at Sinai, so, too, all the mitzvot, with
all their details, Moses received at Har Sinai."
Rashi's answer assumes no intrinsic connection between shemitta and
Sinai, rather it teaches us the rule that just as this mitzva was taught at
Sinai, so too were all the other mitzvot.
In contrast to this approach, Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain,
1092-1167) accepts the premise of the verse - that God spoke to Moses at Sinai
specifically about this mitzva - but rejects the chronological order that we
seem to have taken for granted as we look into the book. This is based on his exegetical
belief that "ein mukdam u-me'uchar batorah" - there is no set order in the
Torah. Thus, if one parasha
'follows' another we should not
automatically assume that the chronological events in the first parasha precede
those in the second.
One who believes that the Torah need not follow a timeline, might
nonetheless want to explain the value and relevance God saw in the mitzva that
motivated Him to preempt or proceed its chronological order. Ibn Ezra explains that the relevance
lies in this law's proximity to the ensuing parasha - Bechukotai, where the
conditions with which the Israelites will be permitted to remain in the land are
set. In this light, it is clear that
the laws of shemitta and Yovel, two prime commandments relating to the land,
should be listed close to the conditions for the children of Israel to remain in
the land of Israel.
Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) offers a third
approach. He rejects Rashi for not
clarifying the significance of shemitta versus any other law. He also casts aside Ibn Ezra's answer
as it assumes a non-sequential answer to the story, whereas Ramban believes that
it did take place specifically where it was written.
Ramban begins his lengthy explanation by describing what took place at
Sinai. When Moses ascended the
mountain to receive the tablets--the first time--a covenant between God and His
nation began to emerge. This
bi-partisan relationship was consecrated through the formal acts of the children
of Israel preparing themselves physically (through ritual washing and refraining
from relations) and spiritually (through accepting upon themselves the words of
God). Moses - representing God -
performed the symbolic ritual of sprinkling the blood of the covenant on the
people (see Exodus 24:4; 8), and then relayed a list of the mitzvot for which
the children of Israel will be held accountable.
The calamitous sin of the golden calf annulled this covenant, and only
after Moses' pleading and arguing with God, was clemency granted. With the instruction to forge two new
tablets, God created a new, second brit - covenant (see Exodus 34:10). When did this brit take place? Ramban believes that parashat Behar
and the subsequent parasha, Bechukotai, represent the culmination of the second
covenant between God and His people.
Parashat Bechukotai stipulates the conditions on which the covenant is
based. If the children follow in the
ways of God, etc., they will be amply rewarded.
If however, they disobey, then God's wrath will be shown, the people will
be disgorged from their land, and destruction will be imminent. This explains
the need for the covenant to be finalized at parashat Bechukotai. According to this explanation, what
is the reason for Behar to be adjacent to this brit? What, according to the Ramban, is the
importance of the mitzva of shemitta and yovel, that they are chosen as the
paradigm for the second brit between God and His nation?
Perhaps a closer examination into the nature of shemitta will confer upon
us a greater understanding of its prominence at Sinai, and its proximity to the
'conditions of the land.'
What is the law of shemitta?
Six years one plows the land and the seventh shall be a Sabbath to God. No work shall be performed on the
land; a year of rest is proclaimed for the farmer, his servants, and his
animals. This process lasts
throughout seven cycles culminating with the fiftieth year - Yovel. In addition to the rest from work on
this year, a general return of fields to their ancestral owners takes place, and
slaves are set free.
We can ask what was the necessity to create this concept called shemitta? Why not let man run his business, and
raise his own crops. Why is God, in
a sense, 'interfering' with the natural course of events? The answer might stem from an
understanding of God's original intention for the children of Israel at the time
of the exodus from Egypt.
In Parashat Vaera, and throughout the subsequent stories, a constant
theme permeates: "And (through the
miracles and wonders) you (the children of Israel) will know I am God, your
Lord, who has taken you out of the clutches of Egypt." What is this knowledge of God? Ramban comments that God is telling
Moses, "they will see just as I will redeem them with miracles and wonders, to
the eyes of all the nations, they will come to the realization that I am God who
renders miracles and wonders every day in the world, and I am their God...."
(Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, Italy, 1470-1550)
notes that to know God means to recognize and believe that God will provide for
the minutiae of daily activity just as He provides the awesome miracles (Exodus,
6:7). Through grandiose miracles and
wonders, a realization on the part of the Israelites should occur. When one witnesses the death of every
first born, the splitting of the sea, and the bringing of water from rocks, time
and time again, one can only acknowledge and pledge allegiance to God, the One
behind it all.
Perhaps one of the most striking symbols of this pedagogical tool was the
miracle of the Manna, which fell from the sky to sustain the people throughout
their lives: "And they gathered it every morning, every man according to his
eating...." In contrast to the other
miracles this was not a fleeting sensation, rather:
"And the children of Israel ate the Manna for forty years until they entered the
land of their resting, the Manna they ate until they reached the border of the
land of Canaan" (Exodus. 16:35)
The constancy of this
miraculous food was meant to embed the concept of "God is the provider" into the
minds and hearts of all the people.
With regard to this miracle of the manna, another provision was taken to
implant this concept in their minds.
One often finds that a miracle loses its amazement due to its monotony. Nature itself seems to have been
taken for granted as not being miraculous anymore. Gravity is a given. Most of our lives we forget to
acknowledge that the skies, trees, and nature around us are all a manifestation
of God's intervention. The children
of Israel required an intensive weekly reminder that what they had been given
daily, was in fact from the hand of God.
"And on the sixth day they collected double portions, two 'omer' for one man,
and all the rulers of the congregation came to Moses. And he said to them, this is what the
Lord has said, tomorrow is the rest of the holy Sabbath to the Lord, bake that
which you would bake today...and that which remains over lay up for you to be
kept until the morning. And Moses
said, eat that today for today is a Sabbath to the Lord, today you shall not
find it in the field. Six days you
shall gather it, but on the seventh which is the Sabbath, on it there shall be
none" (Exodus 16:22-26).
Manna represented the ideal test to man's faith. For six days they would receive
miracles from the heavens, on the sixth day a double portion was left for man to
ration out for the seventh day when the heavens would 'rest' and no manna would
fall. In the beginning man went out
on the seventh day as well, unable to attribute the manna to the hand of God. "And it came to pass that some of the
people went out on the seventh day to gather and they found none." (16:27) After time, the children of Israel
knew conclusively that the manna was a direct link to God, and that the
collecting of it for six days, and the resting on the seventh, was a test for
man to remind him that God is the true provider to His people.
Assuming the children of Israel succeeded in grasping this crucial
concept, they would be ready for their march into the land of Israel, and God's
ultimate plan will have come to fruition.
Their miraculous experience will have taught them to see all of nature as
miraculous, to see God in everything they do.
Moses, at the end of his life, gives one last speech to his people. In it, he reminds his people of the
reason God led them for forty years in the desert:
"All the commandments which I commanded you this day shall you observe to do,
that you may live, and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord
swore to your fathers. And you shall
remember the way the Lord, your God, led you these forty years in the
wilderness, in order to humble you and prove to you to know what was in your
heart. He humbled you through making
you hungry and then feeding you with manna, which you did not know about, nor
did your fathers know, that He might make known to you that man does not live by
bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord does
man live"(Deut. 8:1-3).
What characterized the Israelite who wandered in the desert for forty
years? In Deuteronomy (8:3-4), Moses
describes the desert existence as a miraculous one:
"Your garment did not grow old on you, nor did your foot swell, these forty
Rashi comments on these
miraculous clouds of honor, which ironed out their clothes, and their feet never
blistered. Upon Miriam's death,
there was a dearth of water. Rashi
comments that for forty years in Miriam's merit there were wells of water which
appeared during all their travels (Numbers 20:2).
The wilderness was a time of development. Through the use of overt
miracles, God taught Bnei Yisrael who had left Egypt uncertain, unable to
appreciate God, that man does not live through idols, nor through rain, sun, or
cold, but ultimately through God.
For forty years this message was ingrained into the minds of all of Bnei
Inhabiting the land of Israel, represented the transition from a
miraculous, pedagogical, existence, to a nature oriented, working-man's life. No manna would fall from the sky, no
wells would miraculously appear, and no clouds would protect and lead them
wherever they would go. Instead, man
would work the fields, farm the lands, and make the wheat from the resources he
had before him. The land would be
man's manna, the rain, his well, and the sun his clouds of honor. It is no wonder that the holidays all
revolve around agricultural time periods in the year: Passover is in spring time - when the
grains and flowers begin to blossom; Shavuot, the feast of harvest; Sukkot, the
feast of ingathering, at the end of the year.
Israel's existence was converted to a labor-oriented,
With all the constancy of nature, and the monotony of farming, there was
a fear that Israel might fall into the trap God had warned him about. Man might
say of himself "my power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth"
(Deuteronomy 8:17). In such a scenario, God set up various precautionary
measures to remind the man that he should "remember the Lord your God, for it is
He who gives you power and wealth..."(8:18).
One of these reminders might be the law of shemitta.
When we think of the concept of shemitta - six years you shall work the
land, on the seventh, a Sabbath to God, the land shall remain fallow - we cannot
help but note the parallel to the Manna - six days you shall collect the Manna
and on the seventh a Sabbath to God, no Manna shall come. Shemitta is the paradigmatic reminder
of the miraculous existence that existed in the desert. What else could it be patterned after
other than the paradigm of miraculous existence - the Manna. Shadal
(Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italy, 1800-1865),
in his commentary on the Torah (Leviticus 25:2) expresses this connection. (See in detail.)
For six years man lives within nature, hopefully aware of how nature is
another miracle of God's. The
seventh year, he is forced to leave the land, and let it die. If one should wonder how they will be
supported on that seventh year:
"And if you shall say, what shall we eat in the seventh
Behold, we shall not sow, nor gather our grains. I will command my
blessing upon you in the sixth year and it shall bring forth fruit for three
Fear not, God will provide for you, though not through covert -
nature-oriented - sustenance, but once again, through a miraculous display that
no one can deny. One year out of
seven to break the monotony; to remind, and re-educate the children of Israel
that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that emanates from the
mouth of the Lord does man live.
Only through a wondrous spectacle, such as shemitta, will the people once
again revitalize their belief in God, re-awaken their faith, and rededicate
themselves to God. Through working
the land six years, and letting it lay fallow the seventh, the Sabbath they
experienced in the desert becomes a reality once again. An appreciation of God as the
ultimate provider, and a break in the monotony of the everyday miracle comes
when, just as in the desert, on the sixth year a double portion is granted, one
which will last throughout their lives.
In this light, Ramban's second covenant is highlighted by the cautionary
tactic of shemitta. If the golden
calf expressed the nation's undeveloped ability to see God, a miraculous
existence in the desert is ordered.
But when it is time to enter the land of the fore-fathers, and a transition must
occur, the focal mitzvot will be the one's which will remind the Israelites of
their once and always miraculous existence.
Hence, it is clear, as Ramban says, that Ibn Ezra's reasoning for the
positioning of the mitzvot as preceding the 'conditions of the land' is
perfectly understandable. What is
the primary reason the children of Israel will be exiled from the land? Forgetting God. How does one forget about God? Through not seeing Him in nature,
through thinking that it is the person's own might and not the hand of God which
brings war, peace, famine, and plenty.
This might possibly be the fatal flaw of the spies. While Moses sent the spies to
determine HOW they would conquer and inhabit the land, the spies (excluding
Joshua and Caleb) went to determine IF they could do it. Their answer was a resounding no! Only Joshua and Caleb learned the
important message of the desert existence: "If the Lord wills it, then He will
bring us into this land, and give it to us..." (Numbers 14:8).
The punishment of the entire generation reflects the inexperienced nature
of the people who are therefore assigned forty years of wandering, but not
without the miraculous lifestyle.
Why did God continue to provide overtly for the people? It is possible to say that a
realization came through, that the nation was not yet ready for life in Israel. Much more time had to be extended to
the educational and intellectual development, not of the people who left Egypt
(since they were doomed to death) but on their children and grandchildren after
Shemitta and Manna; two expressions of God's yearning for His people to
acknowledge Him as their ultimate source of sustenance. Through a constant process of
education in the desert, or through a once in seven year miraculous phenomenon
in their natural existence in Israel, the children of Israel learn to see, and
know, God in nature as well as miracles.
We, who live in a mostly non-miraculous world, are confronted to see God
in the hidden, natural existence, and through the prism of the Torah. Through Abraham and Isaac, Moses and
Aaron, and through the lessons of the Sabbath, Shemitta and Manna.