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24.05.2016 16:23    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  behar  shemitah mimran  

Implicit Criticism in “Shemitah at Mount Sinai"

At the beginning of Parashat Be-Har the Torah notes that the laws of the Sabbatical year (Shemitah) were given to Moses at Mount Sinai.  Rashi, following the Sages, asked, “What does Shemitah have to do with Mount Sinai?”  That is, why did the Torah bother to note the place where the commandments of Shemitah in particular were given, when it does not bother to do so for other commandments?  Rashi answers:

The laws of Shemitah are none other than an example of all the commandments in general:  just as the commandment of Shemitah was given to Moses at Mount Sinai, in its entirety and in full detail, so too all the commandments.

Rashi’s explanation does not entirely clarify the matter, for it still leaves the question open why Shemitah, of all commandments, was chosen in order to illustrate this principle.[1] Apparently there is an underlying reason.  The answer to our question is tied in with examining the passage about the blasphemer, which immediately precedes it.[2]

The son of an Egyptian man in the Israelite camp

At the end of the previous weekly reading we were told about an unnamed man whose personal identity is not revealed to us, save for his father having been an Egyptian and his mother, Shelomith daughter of Dibri from the tribe of Dan.  This anonymous person had a quarrel with an unnamed person from the tribe of Dan.  According to one of the Sages’ interpretations[3] the son of the Egyptian wished to dwell among the Dannites on the grounds that his mother was from the tribe of Dan.

He had apparently been rejected by the unnamed Dannite on the grounds that he was not one of them, for his father was Egyptian and tribal allotments go according to the father (Numbers 1:2).  An argument broke out between them, ending with a hearing before Moses, who upheld the decision of the Dannite.  Due to this the anonymous man blasphemed the Law and the Law-Giver and was sentenced to death.

Two factors leading to violence

Verbal or physical violence can have many causes, but they reduce to two principle factors:  one relates to characteristics within the violent person, resulting from emotional, psychological, or even genetic problems, and the other pertains to the situation in which the violent person finds himself.  The confluence of these two factors is like fire in a haystack.  Most commentators on the passage about the blasphemer have focused their attention on the first factor, stressing inter alia the genetic factor in the blasphemer’s actions.[4]

If we examine the second factor contributing to violence, namely the situation in which the violent person finds himself, we discover a more complicated state of affairs.  It is true that by the laws of the Torah there was no place for the blasphemer in the Dannite camp.  But what was such a person to do?  Where could he locate his family and pitch his tent?  His matrilineal relations brought him to the tribe of Dan, and if the Dannites would not accept him, what society could he join?[5] Violence, however, is surely not to be condoned.  Therefore severe measures have to be taken against violent persons, as indeed was done with the blasphemer.  At the same time, preventing physical or verbal violence requires dealing with both of the factors leading to it.  One cannot ignore the social factor that created the conditions for violence to emerge.  This, it seems to me, was the intention of the Torah in presenting the laws of “Shemitah at Mount Sinai,” as I shall show below.

The challenge of tribalism

The story of the blasphemer apparently would not have taken place had Israelite society not been divided into tribal allotments of territory. The blasphemer would surely have found a place to pitch his tent within the Israelite camp.  The division into tribes set up boundaries between groups and created a setting of exclusion from society.

Since the division of the people of Israel is not a “flaw in manufacturing,” it is out of place to do away with it.  The challenge that remains is how to preserve the unique identity and tribalism of each tribe without adversely affecting the national consciousness that is supposed to meld everyone into a single people.  Such a challenge is far from simple.  Indeed, the feeling of solidarity among the tribes in the period of the Judges, for example, left much to be desired.  One tribe’s wars of independence against the onslaught of a conqueror did not always interest other tribes.[6] Unity based solely on a genetic component—“Have we not all one Father?” (Malachi 2:10)—did not suffice to unite the people’s hearts and draw them together to share one national identity.

“What has Shemitah to do with Mount Sinai?”

The sense of unity among the tribes comprising the mosaic of the Israelite nation could find expression with the aid of two factors:  one, separation from an inherited allotment and borders, however temporary, as is realized by the laws of Shemitah.  A person who understands that the land does not belong to him but to the Lord must pay attention to the will of G-d.  At times a person might be asked to go beyond the strict requirements of the lawand allow place for the “homeless” so that they do not end up transgressing and blaspheming the Lord.

Another factor is the connection with the Torah, more precisely with its being given at Mount Sinai.  When the Israelites stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, Scripture attests:  “Israel encamped [in the singular] there in front of the mountain” (Ex. 19:2), which the Sages interpret “as a single person, with one heart” (Rashi, loc. cit.).  In front of the Lord as in front of one’s father, sons stand as equals, with no differences between them.[7] Both of these factors come together in the laws of Shemitah being given at Mount Sinai.

The societal crisis in the story of the blasphemer could not be resolved simply by punishing the transgressor.  It was necessary to turn to all parts of the people and demand that they reexamine the structure of relationships between them.  The verses, “The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai…the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord,” that come after the story of the blasphemer, should be read as implicit criticism of the entire Israelite society, which was being asked to reexamine itself and especially the structure of the relationship between its various components. Society was being asked not only to eliminate evil from the world but also to eliminate the fertile ground on which it can sprout.  A healthy society is based on going beyond the letter of the law, as the Sages said:  “Rabbi Johanan said:  Jerusalem was destroyed only because…they based their judgments [strictly] upon Biblical law, and did not go beyond the requirements of the law” (Bava Metzia 30b).

This enables us to understand why only the commandment of Shemitah, with all its detailed laws, could serve as an example of the entire corpus of commandments, all of which were given at Mount Sinai in full detail. Shemitah and giving the Torah at Mount Sinai are the recipe for unity of the people notwithstanding the numerous shades that comprise it.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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