Sunday, May 26, 2019

Parashat BeHar: Obedience

Thoughts on Parashat BeHar 2019
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And God spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai saying… (VaYikra 25:1)

In his well-known query of “What is the matter of shemittah doing next to Har Sinai?” Rashi drew attention to the curious connection between Har Sinai and the exposition of the laws of shemittah and yovel at the onset of Parashat BeHar. He answered that these specific missvot – which demand that we “rest the land” every seventh and fiftieth year – serve as a paradigm for the others, teaching that just as the general rules and finer points of shemittah and yovel were meticulously taught at Sinai so too were those of all the other missvot. [1] Absent from Rashi’s interpretation, however, is the reason why these two particular commandments were chosen to serve as the example, in place of any one of the other missvot ha-Torah.

Although it is clear that Am Yisrael freely accepted the Torah at Sinai with their expression of “Everything that God has spoken we shall do” (Shemot 19:9), the Hakhamim nonetheless described a facet of God’s compulsion at that time. The Rabbis famously taught that God “overturned the mountain above them” in His demand that they accept the Torah.[2]  R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l explained: “The reason for introducing an element of coercion into the great Sinai covenant, in contradistinction, prima facie, to the Biblical story, lies in the idea that covenantal man feels overpowered and defeated by God even when he appears to be a free agent of his own will.”[3]

It was perhaps a similar feeling of self-defeat that Avraham experienced at the highest point of his life – the Akedah. God then commanded him to overcome his intellectual and emotional instincts and obey the difficult call to sacrifice his son. Indeed, the very concept of hukim – the various missvot whose rationale remain difficult for human comprehension – present a comparable challenge for us. “Man, an intellectual being, ignores the logos and burdens himself with laws whose rational motif he cannot grasp. He withdraws from the rationalistic position,” R. Soloveitchik wrote, “In a word, withdrawal is required…whatever is most significant, whatever attracts man the most, must be given up.”[4]

R. Aharon Lichtenstein z”l cited C.S. Lewis to demonstrate the “value of obedience,” in this context:
The content of our obedience – the thing we are commanded to do – will always be something intrinsically good, something we out to do even if…God had not commanded it. But in addition to the content, the mere obeying is also intrinsically good, for, in obeying, a rational creature consciously enacts its creaturely role, reverses the act by which we fell, treads Adam’s dance backwards, and returns.[5]
R. Lichtenstein thus explained that to the extent that we fail in perceiving the reason of some missvot, the habit of obedience is ingrained all the more deeply.[6]

The Hakhamim described Am Yisrael’s standing at Har Sinai as the metaphysical remedy for the “poisonous infection” that resulted from Adam and Hava’s sin.[7] The Rabbis were perhaps reflecting upon the extreme difference between these two events: whereas the sin of eating from ess ha-da’at represented mankind’s betrayal of an absolute acceptance of God’s word, ma’amad Har Sinai was a national acceptance of His will. It is for this reason, as well, that the midrash likened Am Yisrael’s acceptance of Torah at Sinai to the “secret of the angels,” as their unwavering commitment at that time was akin to the angels’ constant obedience to God.[8]

The contemporary philosopher Aaron James used his beloved hobby of surfing as a means to demonstrate his thoughts on philosophy and the meaning of life. He touched on a point that is similar to our own, writing: “To surf is to acquiesce in a wave’s shifting moments, so as to go along with its flow.” James explained that as surfers greet the incoming waves, they must release their “need” for control and mastery of nature, accepting instead “a beautiful way of being effectual in relative powerlessness before a sublime ocean.” And he quoted Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who was born a slave and later freed, and subsequently remarked: “Make the best of what is in our power and take the rest as it naturally happens.”[9]

God’s encounter with Am Yisrael at Har Sinai demanded that they relinquish their intuitive quest for control and replace it with an acceptance of His will and commands. Shemittah and yovel are the missvot that most epitomize this concept. While the agriculturists toil the ground on most years as they revel in the reality of “The earth He gave over to man” (Tehilim 115:16), all work comes to a halt on the seventh and fiftieth years as they bow to His word that “The land is mine” (VaYikra 25:23).

Shemittah and yovel, then, are the two missvot which most appropriately convey the ever-important lesson of Har Sinai – the lesson of obedience.

[1] Commentary of Rashi to VaYikra 25:1, s.v. be-har.
[2] Masekhet Shabbat 88a.
[3] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New Milford, CT, 2012), pg. 32 fn. 2.
[4] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Majesty and Humility,” in Confrontation and Other Essays (New Milford, CT, 2015), pg. 39.
[5] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London, UK, 1947), pg. 88.
[6] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Being Frum and Being Good,” in By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God (New Milford, CT, 2016), pg. 97-8.
[7] Masekhet Shabbat 145b-146a.
[8] See Masekhet Shabbat 88a and MaHarsha’s Hidushei Agadot ad loc.
[9] Aaron James, Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 66.