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From Rabbi Sacks: The Politics of Envy

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From Rabbi Sacks: Leading a Nation of Individuals

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There is so much philosophy in the opening verse of our parasha! “If you will walk in my statutes, and observe my ordinances….” Statutes, chukim, are laws that define rational explanation such as not wearing wool and linen together. The Hebrew root word indicate that “ordinances” are all the other laws of the Torah, both interpersonal and between humans and G-d, that can be rationally explained.

Given this analysis, the wording of this verse is challenging. The use of the word “walking” generally indicates a level of comfort or familiarity with an activity in the Bible. Most famously we are told in the Shema: “and when you walk by the road….” or “what does G-d desire of you, but only that you walk in G-d’s ways….” But, how can we “walk with G-d’s statutes”—how can we comfortably follow commandments as irrational as not buying clothes in which wool and linen are mixed? Or, as Maimonides notes, if milk comes from a cow, then why can we not mix milk and meat? That is why he suggests that the laws of kashrut are also chukim—laws that cannot be fully explained through rational analysis.

Intelligent Judaism seeks to inculcate certain habits of mind to its adherents through actions which we term “mitzvoth.” The Creator understands his/her creations all too well: in every age we humans have proved overly quick to claim understanding of and mastery over the natural world. It is only recently that reflective scientists are following in Einstein’s path and admitting that there is much that cannot be explained and may always remain unexplainable. Therein waits the Divine presence. To offer a simple example: a casual walk through the ROM or a browse through the literature will only show the limits and limitations of the theory of evolution. That doesn’t mean that the theory is completely wrong, only that there is much it cannot explain and—I fervently believe—never will account for. That margin of scientific irrationality is the abode of the Divine. That is what the prophet meant when he said: “search for the L-rd where He may be found…”

By this definition, there is a Creator, and what does the Creator ask of Intelligent Jews? That we commit to a two pronged program of self-improvement and deep reflection. The former is readily accomplished (though not simply achieved) through performance of the mitzvoth. This is what our verse means when it speaks of “observing my ordinances.” But the second part of this program—being convinced of the presence of a Creator intellectually and spiritually—is very challenging. Nevertheless the Torah raises the bar very very high indeed by insisting that we “walk in the statutes,” that we become comfortable, that we become habituated to even regarding mitzvoth like mixing wool and linen as simply reminders that we as humans are divinely created, yet we are still very far from the Divine.

Achieving a comfortable “walking level” with this humbling fact is very difficult. We live in an age drowning in details where people desperately seek simple categorization and distillation of knowledge into simple and popular narratives— hence the success of CNN .We must also suspend our all too human compulsion to aggrandize ourselves and think we are masters of nature. Certainly the recent weather related tragedies experienced by so many people indicate how our technology still pales against the forces of nature. That is why “walking in my statutes” requires, like any other habit, reflection and practice to succeed, a process that may take years. But then, what else is life for? And what other purpose does Shabbat serve, save setting aside and valuable time for reconnecting with our families, friends, and psyches?

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Our parasha’s discussion of the agricultural laws is nuanced to underscore a number of vital Jewish ideas that transcend our people’s change from an agricultural society to an industrial one. The mandating of the shmitta or sabbatical year, the seventh year in which the land must lie fallow, and the yovel, or jubilee year, in every fiftieth year of the cycle contain ideas that are universal and vital. Examining the linguistic clues will prove a highly worthwhile task. 

The key element of this system is contained in the Torah’s pithy description of the jubilee year: “In the Jubilee year, every person shall return to their portion [“achuzato”]. The word “achuza” is also a key noun when the Torah speaks of apportioning the land to each tribe, which would then subsequently apportion land to each clan, and similarly to each family. The word “achuza” connotes the original section of the holy land of Israel given to each Israelite family after Joshua’s conquest. A parallel word chelek denotes a specified portion of food or merchandise in which someone has a fixed and publicly defined share. 

The word chelek is used in a well-known proverb from Ethics of the Fathers: “The person who is happy with their lot. [ha’same’ach b’chelko].” Given this interesting parallel use of the term "chelko", his lot, in a manner that speaks not only of a physical piece of land, but as a person's "lot in life", we can now understand why our Sages understood that this parallelism has deep philosophical implications. In order to understand the philosophical lesson being taught, we need to further explore our text. So what does the Torah mean when the text states that the Jubilee year affords an opportunity “for each person to return to their portion?” The Torah’s answer is disarmingly simple: each landowner must restore the status quo that existed before the Jubilee cycle—slaves are to be freed, the land lies fallow, and any sales of land are revoked. In essence, the clock is rolled back to the time when the land was first apportioned under Joshua. Seen another way, this is a return to the immediate post- Conquest situation of the Ten Tribes. It is a lovely example of “renew our days as of old”—going back to the actual past situation as redress from the present. 

Do not confuse this return to the previous situation as some sort of Bilbical Luddite reaction. The Luddites of the 19th century smashed machinery hoping for a return to what they believed was the “simpler life” of pre-Industrial Age Europe. The Torah does not hope for this at all. Rather, the Torah is conscious of the deep sanctity of the land itself. When the Torah speaks of the vital importance of the nearest community performing the ceremony of the Eglah Arufa, the Beheaded Heifer, to take responsibility for a person murdered nearby whose killer is unknown, it states: "you shall not allow the land to become impure from the blood that is spilled there.” 


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Continued from previous entry...

As Nachmanides noted, we are a holy people who live in a holy land who have received a holy covenant, and if we forget our holiness or the land’s, then we are liable to be treated as though we no longer have G-d’s protection. It is easy to become complacent, that is why we have the yearly (actually daily but most people can’t achieve this) cycle of repentance climaxed by Yom Kippur. But, as Rashi observed in his comment on the Shma “you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” – and on this phrase Rashi observed “with all your money you shall serve G- d because people cling to their money and possessions with all theirt might.” It is very hard for people to part with their possessions—and this is the precise reason for the resetting of the clock in the Jubilee Year. In order to remain holy, we need to remember the power of the simple and the fact that all of us accumulate too much over the course of the years.

It was only when they were freed of all their excess possessions that the Israelites would realize how free they remained: they lived in their own land, and the land was so fertile that, even when they did not plant in the 49th (sabbatical), and the succeeding Jubilee year, they would still have enough produce for the next year. This is precisely what the Torah promised as the reward for fulfilling the mitzvah of keeping the sabbatical year.

The lesson for us is almost painfully obvious: we all live with too much and often want more. We are surrounded by material wealth, and waste in an unprecedented manner. And we cannot conceive of how it could be otherwise. And that is the message of the Jubilee: you can go back to what was, and you will surprisingly rejoice in less when you reorient your sense of harmony. As the summer arrives, let us try to think of how we can find more time for Judaism and rebalance our own “spiritual books.” 



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