Friday, May 18, 2012

It's About the Land

Parshat B'Har Bechukotai 

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

Many who write about this parsha focus on the question that Rashi asks (quoting the Sifra on B'har), "Why are the rules of Shmittah (the Sabbatical year for the land of Israel) mentioned in the context of 'Moshe at Mt. Sinai?'" The Hebrew phrase "May inyan Shmittah eitzel Har Sinai?" has taken on a life of its own, in that it has come to be the Hebrew idiom-equivalent of "what does this have to do with the price of tea in China?"

Is the assumption behind the question even correct?

According to the Or HaChaim, the focus of the connection to Sinai should not be on Shmittah, because Shmittah is not what is most immediately connected to Sinai in the verse.

"God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, telling him to speak to the Israelites and say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God." (25:1-2)

The real question should be, "What is the connection between Mount Sinai and coming to the land?"

The Or HaChaim says, "Perhaps, because it mentioned that the land is a gift – 'that I am giving you' – it mentions that it stems from Mount Sinai. This is to teach that on account of the events of Mount Sinai, in other words, what they received there [the Torah], the gift could be completed. It is on account of [their having received] the Torah that God gave them the land."

Continuing along this line of thought, the Or HaChaim quotes Maimonides Laws of Possession and Gifts 3:11, who says, "An Israelite may not give an idolator (Aku"m) a gift for nothing. He may give [a free gift] to a stranger who lives in peace ['ger toshav']. To a total stranger ('nokhri') he must sell the item, but to a 'ger toshav' he may either sell it or gift it."

As a brief aside, a simple difference between a 'ger toshav' and a 'nokhri' is that the former not only lives in peace with the Israelites, but formally accepts their autonomy and system of laws and is an adherent of the Noahide laws. The latter, on the other hand, might live in peace out of a personal conviction, but he is not part of a formal group who has conceded power to the local Israelite autonomy. He has also not accepted the Noahide laws and might personally be an idolator. [There are many more details associated with these laws, including debates over which non-Jews qualify for each category.]

Having made clear that an "Aku'm" may not be the beneficiary of a free gift according to Torah law, Or HaChaim suggests that until they received the Torah, the Israelites were considered to be idolators. Only after they received the Torah did their status change, and they were able to receive the land as a gift.

This, he concludes, is the reason why in this specific context the Torah adds the phrase "That I am giving you" when referring to the land. It is obvious that God is the One with 'rights' to the land, who can do whatever He wants with His land. He has decided this specific land goes to the Israelite nation, and the action on the decision can be put in motion as soon as the Israelite nation are defined as gift-worthy after having received the Torah at Sinai.

Compare it to the verse we read two week ago (19:23), "When you come to the land you will plant every fruit-bearing tree." Why doesn't it say "…to the land I am giving you?" Because the land "is only given to you" as a direct result of the receiving and acceptance of the Torah at Sinai.

This is why the initial question should not be about Shmittah, because Shmittah is a mere by-product of the real focus in the verse, namely, the two great gifts God bequeathed to the Israelite nation, which are inextricably intertwined.

Without the Torah, it seems, there is no claim to the land of Israel. It was a gift for which God received nothing in return. A gift He gave because the recipients were now the Israelite nation, as defined by the Sinaitic experience at which they declared "Naaseh V'nishma" – we will observe [the law] and we will hear [as in, learn what it's all about].

The subtleties and nuances of the gift-giving that Maimonides discusses is open for discussion: what is a matnat chinam (free gift), how do we define each group and category, in what way does being or not being idolators change the possible benefits package?

What is clear is that God chose the people who were to be observing His Torah to receive the land as well. And they, in turn, are allowed to give gifts to those who are "Ger Toshav" – who accept the law of the land and who live in peace with their Israelite neighbors, and do not present a threat to their mortal existence.

Politics and political correctness aside, this seems like sane advice – don't give away anything if you do not receive something tangible in return. There are no freebies; there are only proper business transactions, where the cost of what you get is just about equal in value to what you are giving up.

From the other side of the coin, the Torah is the unequivocal key ingredient that makes the nation of Israel and the land of Israel a match literally made in heaven.

May we merit to see the day that all of Israel not only knows this to be true, but takes steps to live their Jewish lives guided by and in accordance with the precepts of the Torah.

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