Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha



Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Ki Tisa
Behold I Have Called by Name

Over the course of two parshiyot the Torah has described with great detail the construction of the Mishkan and the making of the priestly garments. Our parasha is introduced with a seemingly unrelated theme: a census of the people in which each person will pay a half-shekel. Why mention a census here?

Broadly speaking, the Torah is alerting us to the dangers inherent in a major national project such as the building of the Mishkan. We know that earlier project of this scale did not end well, namely, the construction of the Tower of Babel. The precise sin of the builders of the tower is not spelled out, but it is clear that it had something to with their being a single people with a single purpose: "Behold one nation and one language there is for them all, and this they have begun to do" (Breishit, 11:6). The problem is not one of achdus; unity is a good thing. Rather, it is the loss of the individual in the process.  In such a large-scale and single-minded project, all that matters is the vision and the goal: "We will make for ourselves a name." And when this happens on the national level, the will of the People often squashes the importance of the individual. Persons become faceless, interchangeable, and of little if any worth.

The midrash says as much when it states that no one would pay any attention at Babel when a person would fall off the tower, but when a brick would fall, they would cry and bewail its loss (Pirkei Di'Rebbe Eliezer, 24). This is no midrashic exaggeration - it is estimated that close to a half-million people died building the Great Wall of China. The building, the edifice, the vision - this is all that matters.

What can be done to protect against this, to preserve the humanity of each individual? In the case of the Tower of Babel, the people were dispersed and given new languages. This created diversity and distinctiveness, ensuring that they would not once again homogenize into a melting pot of faceless unity.

In the case of the Mishkan there was another answer. In Terumah, the command of the Mishkan opens with each person's personal and self-motivated contribution:  "From every person whose heart moves him, you shall receive My offering" (25:2). And in this week's parasha, God proclaims, "Behold I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur... and with him Ahaliav son of Achisamak of the tribe of Dan" (31:2,6). People are named; they are unique individuals, each with special talents that he or she brings to this task. This continues in next week's parasha with the women who spun the wool, linen, and goat's hair (35:25-26). We are also told that the washing basin commanded in this week's parasha was made from the mirrors donated by women who gathered at the Tent of Meeting (38:8). The Torah goes out of its way to give faces and form to some of the individuals involved in this huge national endeavor.

And there is yet another way that the Mishkan differed from the Tower of Babel: Those building the tower sought to reach up to the heavens; those building the Mishkan sought to bring God's presence down to earth. When we attempt to leave our world to reach God, it is easy to make everything in this mundane reality subservient to that lofty goal. When we attempt to leave our world to reach God, everything in this mundane reality becomes subservient to that lofty goal. When we attempt to bring God into our world, in contrast, we remain anchored in the world in which we live and connected to the people who inhabit it with us.

The command of the census is a part of not losing focus on the individual. By its nature, a census says every person counts. We are not just an abstraction, a "nation." We are thousands and thousands of separate, distinct people; we mourn every death, and we celebrate every birth.

On the other hand, taking a census can bring about the opposite mentality: Everyone is just a number; no individual matters. If ten people die the total number is smaller, but any other ten people will make up the difference. Any one person is fungible.

It is to counteract this that the Torah commands the giving of the half-shekel as part of the census. As the Rabbis explain it, they were not permitted to count individuals directly. Rather, the number of people would be known by the sum of the half-shekels. We can aggregate and count money, not people. One person and one person and one person do not make three people. People must always remain distinct and unique. They will have names, not numbers. They will always be Reuven, Sarah, and Shimon: "Behold, I have called by name."

And there is another corrective: Shabbat. At the completion of the detailed instructions for the Mishkan, the Torah commands again the observance of Shabbat. Shabbat and Mishkan are almost always juxtaposed, and the implicit message - which the Rabbis made explicit - is clear: you must rest on the Shabbat even if it means interrupting the building of the Mishkan. The project is not what is ultimately important. It does not override all and continue without end. There are things in this world that matter more than building the Mishkan, and Shabbat, with its message of human dignity, is chief among them.

Shabbat proclaims that no living thing, and particularly no human, can be made a slave to his work, nor a means to an end, even a lofty, religious end like the Mishkan. Humans are fundamentally free; they have a basic right to rest, a right to be free from the unrelenting pressures and demands of the world. It is thus no surprise that Shabbat can be violated to save a human life. A major goal of Shabbat is the recognition of each person's humanity, a quality which we cannot allow the larger forces in the world to reduce or eradicate.

Naming the individuals, refusing to tally people as numbers, and interrupting the building of the Mishkan for a weekly day of rest allowed a national project of supreme importance to continue with enthusiastic participation and without ever losing sight of the face and individuality of each and every person involved.

The loss of the individual is a matter to be feared not just in worldly projects but in ideologies as well. Whether a project or an idea, the person is lost when something else is assigned a position of ultimate importance. 

To not do this, and to give an ideology supreme importance, can be seen as a modern manifestation of the sin of idolatry. If idolatry was, in the time of the Torah, making something a god which was not in fact God, then a contemporary translation of that would be assigning ultimate value to something which is not of ultimate value. The Torah teaches us that, after God, people are of the greatest value, and that the mitzvot are overridden to protect human life. Giving anything else, be it any ideology or vision, more importance than real people is a turning of that ideology into an idolatry.

This brings us to the Golden Calf. In the building of the Mishkan we saw the faces of some of the individuals involved; in the making of the Calf all we see is a faceless crowd. And far from each person contributing according to his or her personal motivation, the entire people act as one undifferentiated unit:  "And the entire people tore off their earrings and brought them to Aharon" (32:3). It is one mob acting in unison, all giving the same thing, all doing the same thing. With the idolizing of the calf came the formation of an unstoppable mob, and any individual - whether Aharon or one of the people - was swept away by its force.

This remains an ongoing struggle. How do we devote our lives to something larger than ourselves without losing sight of the real people in front of us? This can be a problem when dealing with ideologues, even those working for human rights or other social justice causes. One can reach a point where the work is all about the cause and not about the people it is meant to serve. This can also be a problem in religious leadership. The religious leaders that I am most wary of are those who are the self-proclaimed defenders of the faith. Too often, too many people are sacrificed in the name of religion or for the sake of the cause that they believe reigns supreme. I am personally inspired by religious leaders, be it a rabbi, or even be it the current Pope, who believe that their religion is strong enough to defend itself and who understand that their responsibility is to defend and protect the individual.  When we build a Mishkan, when we devote our lives to something larger than ourselves, the names and faces of the real people we encounter must always be in front of us.  We must always be able to say: "Behold I have called by name."


Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha



Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Tezaveh

To Carry the Names before God

The kohanim hold a lofty position among the Jewish people. They serve before God in the Beit HaMikdash, protecting the Temple and executing all its functions. They are a fixture in the Temple; when one enters, he or she expects to see the kohanim in their priestly service as much as the glorious structure and all the vessels it contains. They are themselves klei kodesh, holy vessels, no less than the altar, the menorah, or the showbread table.

It is not surprising, then, that our parasha demands that as much care be given to the priestly vestments as to the making of the Sanctuary itself. They are the insignia of office, marking the special role of the kohanim and distinguishing them from the laity. They are themselves holy, bigdei kodesh, but also garments that confer holiness, marking the wearer as holy. And in the case of the Kohen Gadol, these clothes were more than different; they were expensive and exquisite. His garments were "for honor and glory" (Shemot, 28:2). The Kohen Gadol in his raiment was a symbol of the glory of God, commanding the people's respect for the office, the Temple, and for God.

This is all pretty heady stuff. A person in such a role might begin to think of himself as God's representative on Earth, to see himself in a position to dictate the will of God to the people. However, the verses make it clear that these same garments also serve to define the relationship of the Kohen Gadol to the people. The two shoulder stones of the ephod must be inscribed, we are told, with the names of the twelve tribes. These will be "memorial stones for the Children of Israel," and in wearing them, the Kohen Gadol "will bear the names on his shoulders as a memorial before the Lord" (28:12). The twelve precious stones of the choshen, the breastplate suspended from these two shoulder stones, were also engraved with the names of the twelve tribes. Here, too, we read that these names will "be upon Aaron's heart, when he goes in before the Lord" (28:30). Thus the very garments which confer honor and glory are brought to the service of remembering the Jewish people before God.

As memorial stones, the function of these jewels is to evoke the memory of the people. But who is meant to remember them, the Kohen Gadol or God? The answer, it seems, is both. The Kohen Gadol must remember that he is in the inner- sanctum of the Temple as a representative of the people. If he keeps this in mind and remains humble, understanding that he enters therein not for his own honor and glory but for the sake of the people, then he will be fulfilling his role and function. He must always keep the names of those he is serving "upon his heart." And if the Kohen Gadol does this and truly represents the people, then he will be able to bring their names before God. In doing so, he will become an embodiment of the people. His entering the Temple will be the people's entering of the Temple, and his appearing before God will be the people's appearing before God. It is thus through these stones that the people will be remembered not just by the Kohen Gadol, by also by God.

This can explain why there were two sets of memorial stones. The names of the tribes inscribed on the breastplate jewels could be read by others. They projected to all that of the Kohen Gadol was a representative of the people, and they let them know how close they were to his heart.  Having the people close to his heart, however, also meant taking responsibility for them; it meant bearing their weight on his shoulders. This was represented by the names on the ephod stones; these names signified that the Kohen Gadol's role was to represent and be responsible for others, not to have power over them. These names, which could only be seen from above, would be seen by God, and the stones would therefore serve as a "memorial before the Lord."

The Kohen Gadol, then, had a dual function. To the people he was part of the Temple, a holy vessel, and a representative of God. But to God he was a representative of the people. This double role is nicely distilled by a halakhic framing in the Talmud. Is the kohen, asks the Gemara in Yoma 19a, our agent or God's? The answer, as we have seen, is both. But these two roles must be kept in proper balance. When Moshe described his role as leader to his father-in-law he named his many duties. First on the list was to represent the people: "The people come to me to inquire of God." Last on the list was to represent God to the people: "And I make known to them the statutes of God and God's laws" (Shemot, 18:15). Yitro reflected this back to Moshe, first saying: "You be for the people before God, and you shall bring their matters to God" (18:19). And only after: "You shall admonish them regarding decrees and the laws. And you shall inform them the path upon which they shall walk and the actions which they must do" (18:20).

The role of representing God to the people, of teaching God's Torah and guiding them along the path, comes only after one has taken them close to his heart and accepted responsibility for them upon his shoulders. This role can only come if one is constantly bringing the concerns of the people to God, and therefore, it can only come if one understands their struggles and hopes, their religious striving and doubts, their accomplishments and their failures. It can only come if one is prepared to carry all this to God, to "be for the people before God." Then and only then can one don the garments, making a claim to holiness as a representative of God to the people.

The great Chassidic rebbe, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1809), was the paradigm of the religious leader as true agent of the people and defined his leadership by bringing the people and their concerns before God. Known as the "defender of Israel before God," he was prepared to argue with God, even to challenge God, in defense of Klal Yisrael. This was particularly true on Yom Kippur, the day on which we stand before God seeking forgiveness. On this day, the shaliach tzibbur takes on the role of the Kohen Gadol, entering into the Holy of Holies so that he can bring atonement for the people. Reb Levi Yitzchak understood that this demands that one carry the names of the people in his heart and on his shoulder. On one Yom Kippur he refused to pray, saying to God, "If You refuse to answer our prayers, I shall refuse to go on saying them."  

On Yom Kippur, Reb Levi Yitzchak wrote and sang as special kaddish prior to leading the community in musaf. This kaddish is said after the shaliach tzibbur prays to God asking for help in this holy task, coming to represent the people to God. Here is the kaddish that he said after this prayer:

Peace be upon You, Master of the Universe.
I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev,
I come to You with a Din Torah from Your people Israel.
What do You want of Your people Israel?
What have You demanded of Your people Israel?

For everywhere I look it says, "Say to the Children of Israel."
And every other verse says, "Speak to the Children of Israel."
And over and over, "Command the Children of Israel."...

And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
"Magnified and sanctified is Thy Name."
And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berdichev, say,
"From my stand I will not waver,
And from my place I shall not move
Until there be an end to all this [suffering].
Magnified and sanctified is only Thy Name.

So much of the Torah is "command the Children of Israel." Indeed, even our
parasha opens with this phrase:v'ata tizaveh et Benei Yisrael, "and now you should command the Children of Israel." Unquestionably, the people must be taught the laws and be given religious guidance, but a leader can only earn the right to do this by truly and deeply identifying with them, their longing, concerns, struggles, and aspirations.  Only if he is prepared to see the best in every individual and to argue - even with God - in their defense may one wear the priestly garments. Only then may one don the mantle of religious leadership, and only then will one truly merit being a klei kodesh, a holy vessel unto God.

 
Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha



Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Terumah

Can God Dwell on Earth?

Why did God command the People of Israel to build a Mishkan? The answer seems obvious: "They shall build Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst" (Shemot, 25:8). The Mishkan, from the root sh'k'n, to dwell, was to be a place where mere mortals could feel God's actual presence, a place in which God could dwell in the physical realm.

Logically, this should not be possible. How can an infinite and transcendent God inhabit a physical space? The very reality of the Mishkan, the very purpose it purports to serve, is a religious absurdity and, thus, also a religious wonder. It is this absurdity and this wonder to which King Solomon gives such powerful voice in his dedication of the First Temple:

The Lord has said that He would dwell in a dark cloud; I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever... But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain You. How much less this temple I have built? (Melachim I, 8:12-13,27)

There is no way for God to dwell on the earth or for us to feel God's actual presence, yet God allows it to happen for our sake. We are physical beings, and we cannot connect to something that is not part of our physical world. This is the attraction of idolatry: it allows for a physical, concrete image to represent God and thus provides a means of tactile connection.

The Torah recognizes this human need but forbids any physical representation of God as a corruption of God. The solution is to create a Mishkan, a physical abode, a structure in which we can worship and offer sacrifices and a place toward which we can direct our prayers. But this does not address the theological problem, for the significance of this place is that it is God's abode. For God to dwell there, God must have some actual physical presence on Earth.

This theological paradox is not solved in Melachim; King Solomon states the impossibility and moves on. It is therefore not surprising that the Rabbis of the Talmud addressed the issue as well. Their first step in grappling with this problem was to introduce the idea of Shekhina, a word and concept not found in Tanakh. Like Mishkan, the word Shekhina derives from the verb to dwell, sh'k'n. Shekhina is not God but God's presence. God cannot be present on earth but the Shekhina can. The concept of Shekhina is a paradox: it is God's presence without God being present.

But for some the problem still remained, for how could even a manifestation of God be a part of our world? Perhaps it could not. Thus, in the Talmud we read:

Rabbi Yossi stated, Neither did the Shekhina ever descend to earth, nor did Moshe or Eliyahu ever ascend to Heaven as it is written, 'The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth hath He given to the sons of men.'

But did not the Shekhina descend to earth? Is it not in fact written, And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai? - That was above ten handbreadths (Sukkah 5a).

For Rabbi Yossi, even the Shekhina never truly dwelt in the Mishkan. It always remained above the earth, hovering on top of the Ark but never entering into the human sphere. This should be understood not just physically and geographically but theologically as well. The gulf between the human and the divine is ultimately unbridgeable. No matter how great the human being, she will never escape her corporeal bounded-ness and rise above her physical reality. And although God descended upon Mount Sinai and God's presence dwelled in the Mishkan, God, infinite and divine, can never truly be present in our physical reality.

Not everyone agreed with Rabbi Yossi. The anonymous voice of the Talmud and other passages reflect the belief that Moshe did in fact ascend to heaven and that God did in fact descend to earth. In this view, points of contact are indeed possible. In other words, in the Creation of Adam, should Michelangelo have painted God's and Adam's fingers touching rather than leaving an unbridgeable gap between the two?

This debate has continued for centuries. In many ways it is a debate between rationalists and mystics or the mystically inclined. For the Kabbalists, contact was possible. One could enter into an ecstatic state and rise up into the supernal realms. More significantly, God was present in this world. Not only could one encounter God in the physical world, but the very performance of the mitzvot, done with the right intentions, could bring about the unification of the sephirot and shape God's nature. Rationalists like Maimonides would have none of this. For Maimonides, the Torah's use of human language and qualities may have been necessary to describe God, but this was already a major concession in relating to the divine. The idea that God could be anything but wholly transcendent was anathema to him.

Think about the question of God in nature. For a Kabbalist like Ramban, the laws of nature do not exist. God "renews every day the acts of creation" (commentary on Shemot,13:16). In contrast, Rambam states that the entire natural order - including miracles - was preprogrammed, and he devotes a large section of the Guide to rejecting the position that nature is constantly renewed (Guide for the Perplexed, II, 29). Ramban sees God in nature by seeing God's constant activity; Rambam does not see God in nature but is in awe of God's wisdom and of how God set everything in motion (Laws of Foundations of the Torah, 4:12). For Rambam, God remains ultimately transcendent.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that Ramban and Rambam disagree as to the purpose of the Mishkan. Ramban understands the verses literally: the Mishkan is the place for God's presence to dwell. At its center is the Ark, upon which the Shekhina rests and where Moshe encounters God and hears God's word (commentary on Shemot, 25:1). Rambam frames things differently: "It is a positive commandment to construct a House for God, prepared for sacrifices to be offered within, and to celebrate there three times a year, as it states: 'And you shall make Me a sanctuary'" (Laws of the Chosen House, 1:1). Notice that he talks only about the practical functions of the Temple: it is a place for sacrifices and a place to which the people can make festivals of pilgrimage. There is no sense that this House is in any way an actual dwelling place for the Divine presence. Notice, too, how Rambam significantly truncates the verse from our parasha, quoting the first part, "You shall make Me a sanctuary," but dropping the last, "that I may dwell therein"!

This also explains the debate between Rambam and Ramban regarding prayer. For Rambam, there is a Biblical mitzvah to pray daily, while for Ramban, prayer is a religious experience but not a commanded obligation (Rambam, Positive Mitzvot, 5). If God is wholly transcendent, as Rambam understood, then an obligation to pray - a duty to recognize God and our dependency on God on a daily basis - makes sense. But as a religious experience this makes less sense: What type of connection could be achieved with a fully transcendent God? On the other hand, if God truly dwells in this world as Ramban understood, then the religious person attuned to God's presence would be inwardly compelled to reach out and forge a connection. This is a self-propelled, intrinsically valuable religious experience which need not be commanded and which is lessened when it is the result of an external obligation. The religious person prays to God because she has the opportunity to do so, not because she has the duty to do so.

We must acknowledge that both types of people exist within a community. There are those who are more religious, more spiritual, who feel and connect to a sense of God's presence in this world. And there are those who are less religiously inclined but who can relate to a transcendent God through a sense of commanded-ness and duty. But then there are also those for whom God is not a felt, experiential reality and for whom a life of mitzvot is a lifestyle but not a religious duty. This is certainly less than ideal. Each of us needs to find a way to create a personal Mishkan that is true to who we are, a Mishkan that allows, one way or another, for God to dwell in our midst.

Shabbat Shalom! 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha



Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Mishpatim

The Ideal and the Real

The Torah commands us in the laws of Shmita for the first time in this week's parasha: "And six years you shall sow thy land, and shall gather in the fruits thereof. But the seventh year you shall relinquish it; that the poor of your people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner you shall deal with your vineyard, and with your oliveyard" (Shemot, 23:11). The Shmita year is one in which we cease our working of the land to recognize that all that we have is God's. It is a year when the poor eat freely from the land and when all debts are released, a year of greater economic and social equality. The vision of Shmita is a utopian vision, but can it be translated into reality?

The mitzvah to free one's slaves presents a similar vision and a similar challenge. The very first in the long list of laws in Parashat Mishpatim states that any slave purchased must be freed following six years of servitude. This is the first law given to Bnei Israel - newly-freed slaves themselves - by God, who declared at the theophany at Mount Sinai that, "I am the Lord your God who took you out of the Land of Egypt from the house of slavery" (Shemot, 20:2).

The message seems clear: An ideal society is one that has no slaves; no one person has a right to enslave another. This is a concept that Bnei Israel should understand more readily than anyone. The Torah, however, recognizes that they will not be able to live up to the ideal any time soon. In a world that was economically dependent on slavery and where slavery was the norm, the people could not be asked to abolish the practice immediately. For the ideal to translate into reality, some of the vision needed to be temporarily sacrificed. If you must purchase slaves, free them every seven years; don't own them fully as property; remember that they are human beings and that every human being deserves to be free.

Yet the people could not even adhere to this compromise. The prophet Yirmiyahu admonishes the Israelites of his age for flagrant violation of this mitzvah. And they immediately regretted their decision when they did attempt to follow it, seizing those they had freed and forcibly returning them to servitude:

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel; I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondmen, saying, At the end of seven years let go every man his brother a Hebrew, which hath been sold unto you... but your fathers hearkened not unto me, neither inclined their ear... But you turned and polluted my name, and caused every man his servant... to return, and brought them into subjection, to be unto you for servants and for handmaids (Yirmiyahu, 34:13-16).

The first challenge of translating any vision into reality is the serious demands that it makes on the people, demands that are not easily met. The reason and need for a new vision is obvious: there are deep, systemic problems in the current society, problems that are an outgrowth of the more selfish and self-serving parts of who we are. To make these systemic changes is to ask the people to live up to their better selves, with all the sacrifice that this might entail, is a tall order indeed. It is no surprise, then, that this translation into reality is an ongoing challenge when it comes to Shmita.

The Torah does not demand a society in which there is no private ownership, nor is there any reason to believe that this is the ideal. But it does demand releasing the land, as one releases slaves, every seven years in recognition that it is not only people that cannot be owned, that even one's very land, the property that a farmer labors and toils over, that she or he has the most profound connection to, even this land is ultimately God's.

This releasing, even if only for one year, is a hard thing. How can one survive without the year's harvest? To respond to these fears, God promises that the crop yield of the sixth year will be double that of the previous and that there will even be enough to last into the eighth year (Vayikra, 25:20-21). Much like the double portion of manna that fell on Friday, this not only addresses the people's fears but also cultivates another religious virtue - faith and trust in God. However, to put aside concerns over earning our livelihood for one day each week is itself no easy matter and has proven too difficult for some in the past. To do so for an entire year requires an even greater degree of faith. And, in fact, the people were not up to the challenge. Just one chapter after God's promise of a blessing of crops in the sixth year, the Torah says that the people will fail to observe the Shmita, and for this reason they will be sent into exile, "for the land did not rest when you were dwelling on it" (26:34-35).

This lack of observance was not confined to the early years of the nation. The Talmud reports widespread disregard of Shmita observance, not only by the amei ha'aretz, the common people and presumably the farmers, but even at times by the Kohanim, the more privileged and presumably more religiously observant class (Sanhedrin, 26a).

A vision sometimes fails because the people are not up to the task of making it a reality. But sometimes the problem is not one of implementation but of choosing between conflicting visions and values. This is true in the case of Shmita as well.

The Torah actually expresses two different visions of Shmita. We find one of these, "that the poor of your people may eat," in this week's parasha. This verse appears in the context of not oppressing the stranger and letting slaves rest on Shabbat. It is a vision of social justice, of a society in which the poor and the marginalized are protected and cared for.

Here the key word is shmita, to release, to relinquish that which is ours to others. This is the same word that the Torah uses in mandating the release of debts during the Shmita year (Devarim, 15:1-3). In the verse in our parasha, the Torah does not emphasize letting the land go fallow. Instead, the focus is on giving the land's produce to the poor. It is even possible to read these verses as indicating that the land can be worked; the farmer simply cannot possess the crops that it produces. That is, for six years you work the land and gather the produce for yourself, but on the seventh year, you release your possession of the land and what it brings forth, allowing all the poor to eat from it.

The story is different in Vayikra. There, Shmita is called Shabbat, and it represents a Shabbat for the land. This is a religious vision, not one of social justice. We pull back for God's sake. We stop work to recognize God's true ownership of the land. And we refrain from exerting our mastery over the earth, ceasing to constantly project ourselves onto the larger world. This is not a message of social equality or feeding the poor. It is a message of Shabbat.

Each of these visions is compelling, but they can function at cross-purposes. What good does it do the poor to have the crops released if farmers haven't been working the land? The poor would rather the owner work the land and relinquish the produce. In fact, the Talmud relates that the Jews left certain regions of the land unsanctified when they returned to the Land of Israel in the time of Ezra so that it could be worked during Shmita, supporting the poor from the tithes of that produce (Beitza, 3b). Think of the irony! It was better for the poor if Shmita did not apply, if they received only 10% of a normal year's produce rather than 100% of what grew without cultivation during Shmita.

The challenge of competing visions is also at play in Hillel's famous institution of pruzbol. The Torah had two goals: to ensure that people would lend to the poor and to free people from their debts every seven years. Hillel saw that these goals were not compatible, that people were not lending money because the debt would only be annulled. In response, he developed a halakhic mechanism that would ensure that at least one of the goals was being realized, that the poor would be provided for.

The Torah holds out a vision of a more perfect world and demands that we begin to realize it in our own lives. It is a communal responsibility, one of religious leaders and laypersons alike, to continue in this path, understanding that work is needed to bring this vision to reality. We must start by seeing beyond the details to the larger ideal, but we must also be able to recognize competing visions and use sound judgment in choosing between them. We must, in the end, have the fortitude to live up to the demands of the law and of what it represents, and to make the hard choices that will help us create a more perfect world.


Shabbat Shalom!