Friday, February 8, 2013

Someone is going to hear this derashah (Mishpatim)

I was supposed to speak in a shul in the US this Shabbos, but due to what can only be called a remarkable series of unfortunate events, including:

1. An airliner that was de-iced on Thursday afternoon with a hatch open, so that fluid entered and damaged an electrical panel...

2. A 45-minute trip back through Canadian customs after disembarking, so that we ended up missing any possibility for boarding a new flight before the storm hit...

3. A trip to an airport hotel in which our shuttle was struck by another shuttle; we eventually reached the hotel close to midnight...

4. A fresh attempt early this morning on a flight that boarded on time - but would have missed our connection by over an hour had we actually stayed on board, instead of disembarking when the delay started looking likely...

5. A scary, 90-minute drive home through snowed-in highways and streets...

...we never made it out of Toronto.

In order to get some mileage out of the derashah I was going to give, here it is; enjoy!

Shemitah in the wilderness?
Have you ever asked your children to do something that seemed perfectly normal to you, and had them look at you with an expression of pure incomprehension? I imagine that Moshe received such a reaction in our parshah, when he stood at Sinai and told the Jews about the mitzvah of Shemitah, saying, "Plant your land for six years… In the seventh year, leave it alone. The needy will eat, and that which they leave will go to the animals.[1]"

"Plant your land?" What, the sand outside our tents? The rocks on Mount Sinai? Sure, we're headed to Israel someday, but right now all we see is desert! And by the way, Moshe, why did you insert this among the laws of keeping an honest judicial system and letting non-Jewish workers rest on Shabbos?

Perhaps Shemitah is taught to the Jews at the start of their journey because of a philosophical lesson it conveys, about building community by being people of berachah [blessing].

To be a blessing and so build community
Another agricultural mitzvah is that of Peah, which requires us, at harvest time, to leave the last part of our standing grain for the needy. Writing in the 13th century, Rabbi Aharon haLevi explained in the Sefer haChinuch that one benefit of this mitzvah is that it trains us to stop short when we could take for ourselves. A person who observes Peah, declining to take his entire field for himself, develops what the Sefer haChinuch calls a נפש ברכה, a spirit of blessing.

The Sefer haChinuch's key words, נפש ברכה [a spirit of blessing], actually come from Mishlei [Proverbs], a book of Tanach attributed to King Solomon. The author praises a נפש ברכה,[2] [a spirit of blessing], and the commentators there explain that term as the Sefer haChinuch uses it – for a person to be וותרן בממונו, forgiving his right to material wealth, leaving it for others.

It's about our own improvement
But the help we give to others is not really the point. As the Sefer haChinuch explained, the point is in the personality we develop, and the way we will be better off, and therefore society will be better off.

It is axiomatic that the hand that grasps the world and all of its riches tightly in youth will one day be compelled to relax its grip and, one by one, release its acquisitions and relinquish its ambitions. Even before that mortal day arrives, the reach of the hand will never encompass everything the heart desires. A human being who feels a compulsion to take hungers perpetually, and is frustrated eternally. And a human being like that is an unreliable neighbour.

On the other hand, a human being who, as the Sefer haChinuch said, is aware that Gd has filled him with goodness, a human being who is a וותרן, forgiving rather than grasping for more, is שמח בחלקו, rejoices in his portion without concern for that which lies beyond its boundaries. This is a person of blessing, because people like these are the foundation stones of community. The strength of the community depends on the strength of these individuals.

Be a blessing upon entering Israel
Our mission of becoming a וותרן, and thereby a piece of a strong society, was of primary importance when our ancestors first entered the land of Israel.

Avraham and Sarah make their way from the familiar eastern portion of the Fertile Crescent, through the way-station of Charan, heeding a Divine call of לך לך, Go. Their caravan is buoyed along by a Divine promise of protection, but also a Divine command: והיה ברכה. Be a berachah. Be a blessing.[3]

We now know what that means: As we saw King Solomon use the term in Mishlei, as we saw the Sefer haChinuch explain: Avraham and Sarah! Be a blessing! Gifted with holy land, do not become people whose identity is defined by that which you hold in your grasp.

Avraham and Sarah heed the call:
  • After a war, Avraham is offered spoils, and he declines them;
  • Gd personally offers Avraham every material blessing, and Avraham says he is not interested;
  • Sarah surrenders her place in the household so that Avraham will have a child through Hagar;
  • Avraham parts ways with his greedy cousin Lot – and Avraham, who has been promised the land, offers Lot the chance to choose territory first.[4]
Avraham and Sarah's family are commanded to be a blessing, to be וותרנים, relinquishing claims, and so to become people of blessing within the society they will build.

The lesson of Shemitah in the wilderness
And now, to return to our initial question regarding the value of shemitah in the wilderness: The Jews stand at Sinai, an adolescent nation, newly unshackled beginning to grow into its muscles. They expect to return to that land of Israel of Avraham and Sarah, and there to evolve from families into tribes into a nation. At the inception of this journey, Moshe admonishes them: Do not focus on what you can take.
  • Maintain an honest judicial system; don't take the property of the vulnerable.
  • Let your non-Jewish workers rest on Shabbos; don't take advantage of your right to their service.
  • And learn the lessons of the Sabbatical year. In Shemitah we are taught to withdraw our hands. We choose not to take. Shemitah is about staying our hand.

Israel today
Avraham and Sarah are told to be that berachah when they enter Israel, the Jews at Sinai are told likewise by Moshe, and today, when we are again home, in our land, we remain under this command. I speak not of the way we interact with our Arab neighbours, a relationship governed by a complex set of laws and realities, but how we interact with each other.

In our time we have witnessed the realization of our millenia-old dream with the establishment of an autonomous Jewish state in Israel. We have observed the incredible flourishing of a country in which Jews of all ethnicities and all types of observance can thrive, in which the government funds Torah study, in which a Jewish army warns the world, as Rav Soloveitchik said, that Jewish blood is not hefker, to be spilled with abandon. It is a land where every Jew belongs. It is a miracle of incalculable scope, for which we should give thanks every day. But the task of Avraham and Sarah, the charge of Moshe with shemitah, remains relevant: Not to perpetually hunger for more, but to relate to each other without taking and grasping, to develop lives of blessing.

And beyond Israel, in our own personal lives, here in Denver, we are also challenged to be וותרנים, and so to be a blessing.

The idea is simple, but its implementation is not; sociologists around the world, from the US to Europe to the Far East, label our modern era "rights-infatuated" and condemn our society as acquisitive. Scholars of government and philosophy debate the relative value of Aristotelian virtue, the Kantian categorical imperative and lofty Confucian ideals, but at the end of the day many of us live in the unsophisticated fear of losing that to which we have claim. We have difficulty achieving the personal strength to hold back.

I am not naïve; I know that there are times when we must take, and not forgive. Even our matriarch Sarah did not forgive everything, as we know from her battle with Hagar and her eviction of Yishmael. There are rights we must defend; there are times to hold the line, to litigate, even to go to war. But our first choice, our gut reaction, in our daily life and our communal life, is to learn the lesson of shemitah from our parshah, to learn the lesson of Avraham and Sarah, to trust in Gd and to be a berachah.

In our personal lives:
  • When a neighbouring driver tries to cut into the lane in front of us, or when someone cuts to the kiddush table in front of us, to respond first with the Berachah reflex;
  • When our children come home from school and immediately clamor for first rights to snack or the computer or some toy, to train them in the Berachah reflex.

And in our community as well, our vision ought to include the full ambit of Berachah:
  • To create a shul in which individuals are looked after, so that they can safely exercise וותרנות, declining to take;
  • To lead Jewish institutions which function in a generous culture of community, not jealously guarding resources but acknowledging that there is a need for, and there is space for, everyone;
  • To recognize our citizenship in the broader city, and adopt a policy not of asking, "What are my rights," but instead, "What can I provide?"

This is what it means, on a day-to-day level, to be a blessing for our community, to be a descendant of Avraham and Sarah, to be a practitioner of the mitzvah of shemitah.

When the Jews returned from Babylon to build the second Beit haMikdash, they were frustrated by the slow pace of their work, by the poverty they suffered, by the foes they faced. But the prophet Zecharyah pledged to them that if they would remain loyal to Gd, then Gd would aid their efforts. "And it will be," he said, "As you were once a curse among the nations, House of Yehudah and House of Yisrael, so now will I rescue you – and you will again be a Berachah.[5]" As Avraham and Sarah were a berachah when they entered the land, so will you be a berachah today.

When we fulfill this, when we are loyal to that mission of Avraham and Sarah and of shemitah, when we learn to relinquish our demands, then we will be a blessing and we will build a strong community, and for us Zecharyah concluded with a promise: "אל תיראו, תחזקנה ידיכם." "Be not afraid – your hands will be strengthened."

[1] Shemos 23:10-11
[2] Mishlei 11:25
[3] Targum renders it as "and you will be blessed," to make it consistent with the surrounding verses, but this is difficult. Rashi, in his first comment, is sensitive to the problem.
[4] It is most telling, too, that Lot chooses to live in the selfish city of Sdom! And we know how that story ends.
[5] Zecharyah 8:13

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