God gives us exiled, yet landed existence


This week’s double Torah portion of Bihar and Bichukoti begins, “And God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai saying, speak to the Children of Israel and say to them, when you enter the land which I am giving you the land must rest a Sabbath to God … six years you shall plant … and the seventh year shall be a Sabbath for the land … the whole land is Mine; you are strangers and sojourners with me.”

Rabbi Shlomo Isaac (RASHI) asks, if all the commandments were given at Mount Sinai, why does the Torah introduce the laws of the Sabbatical by linking it to Mount Sinai? RASHI’s answer is that this teaches us that just as the law of the sabbatical year was given at Mount Sinai with all its details so too all the commandments were given with details. We have many laws with numerous details, so why not link a different mitzvah to Mount Sinai to teach us this? What is the conceptual connection between the giving of the Torah and the law of letting the land of Israel rest in its seventh year?

There are a lot of mitzvot one can do as a wanderer or shepherd. Our ancestors, from Abraham to Moses, Rachel to Tziporah were all shepherds, not tenders of land. Even the maturing of the Jewish people as a nation was cultivated through wandering in a desert.

In so many ways Judaism is a religion shaped not by land, but by exile. It has been suggested that going into exile was not a punishment for us but a purposive experience so that we might bring the message of ethical monotheism and the uniqueness of Torah to many places. Perhaps even the difficulties of exile themselves are what have shaped our thoughts and religious life.

But if God wanted us to know we are sojourners in this world (as the verse says) why not just keep the Jews wandering in the desert for eternity (or until its was paved over and developed into condos)? Why bring them to a land, only to relinquish their hold on it every seven years? Perhaps what the Torah teaches us by linking the commandment of sabbatical to Sinai and thus to the whole Torah, is that just as the mitzvah of shmitah, the sabbatical year, involves tension; owning land, farming the land, feeling rooted on the land, only to be commanded to give that up after six years and go back into exile afresh, so too the entire Torah is essentially a product of such tension. It is easy to live in an insular world of facilitated and repetitive Torah observance, especially in America, where everything is provided for us, but as Rabbi Abraham Magence of blessed memory once said, “Religion should make us uncomfortable.”

We must experience the tensions that Judaism presents; only then can we live a religious life that is one of subtly and complexity. Life is not back and white, not easy and clear cut. Though at Mount Sinai we received a written Torah in black and white, we also received an oral Torah that is subject to argument, infinite subtleties and complexities, and real tensions of the eternal and the present. This is the great challenge that the Torah charges us with, not to make Judaism simple but to retain its complexity, its beauty and its subtleties, even when this may leave us with spiritual tension; even when we may have to feel the push and pull of God’s presence and our lived existence, even to feel both landed and exiled.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham provided this week’s Torah Portion.