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|G-d spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai… The land shall rest, it is a Sabbath for G-d…(25:1-2).
Of all G-d’s communications with Moses, this was the only one that was explicitly singled out to have taken place at Mount Sinai. The commentators give many reasons for the connections between Mount Sinai and the Sabbath – here the shemitta (the sabbatical year, during which time there is a prohibition of working agricultural land in Israel).
In looking at this issue, the Sifra opens with the following comment:
In the same way that shemitta was given at Mount Sinai… so were the other mitzvot given at Mount Sinai (Sifra, Behar 1:1)
The Chatam Sofer explains this comment to mean the following. Shemitta has a special sign of authenticity. For the Torah promises that when the fields are not worked on for two successive years (when shemitta and yovel – the Jubilee year fall one after the other), “I will command my blessing… for three years.” (25:21). No human leader could have issued guarantees for such mitzva observance over so a long period – the people would starve. So - in the same way that shemitta bears the Divine seal of authenticity from the Revelation at Mount Sinai, so were all the other mitzvot from that Source.
It would appear that the Shemitta laws go the very fundamentals of the Creation – G-d created the Earth and so it is His: people are merely, “strangers and sojourners with Him” (25:23). As such, they have to become His guests for one year out of seven, and they have been promised that the Host will provide…
This idea may be extended to the last verse in the Parasha, which also uses the word Shabbat:
You shall observe my Sabbaths (26:2).
This Shabbat is observed after six days, whereas the earlier one is after six years. G-d promises us through the symbolism of the double portion of the Manna, that He will be our guarantor for losses incurred for not working on Shabbat. On that day we are indeed His guests, and as such we have been promised that the Host will provide.
The following story brings this out:
A young man enjoyed long distance cycle touring. Early one Friday afternoon some sixteen years ago in the middle of the summer, he cycled over the border from Switzerland into Italy. He did not know that the banks were closed on Friday afternoons and, except for Saturday morning, they would not re-open next week until Tuesday because of a national holiday. By the time he was close to Shabbat, he got to a small, picturesque town deep in the Italian Lake country. He checked in at the only hotel that would accept a credit card… In his cycle panniers, he had just enough food to last him through the Shabbat, but no more. The credit cards, he found, were as much use to the local shopkeepers as a pair of stilts to a polecat – the only thing that they would accept was a pocket full of lire. So he faced the gloomy prospect of two days without food.
On Shabbat morning he thought the following… could he somehow take the card to the bank ke-le-achar-yad – in such a way that it would not directly infringe the laws against carrying on Shabbat? Perhaps he could explain the situation to the bank manager and leave the card as a security without signing… after all two days without food was a most unpleasant, yet seemingly certain prospect.
He decided to leave the situation as it was – knowing that two days without food was hardly a case of endangering one’s life. On Motzei Shabbat, as a prelude to the forthcoming fast, he went to the smartest restaurant in town – the only one that accepted credit cards – with the intention of having a glass of beer before commencing the two-day stretch.
As he parked his bicycle outside the restaurant, a wealthy couple emerged and asked him – in perfect English - where he was from. He answered that he came from London and that he had crossed Europe on the bicycle.
The middle-aged man clapped his very much younger female partner on the shoulder and exclaimed, “This young man deserves a steak!” Turning to him he said, “Come inside!”
Every instinct told him to make his excuses and just leave, but he accompanied them into the restaurant, even though there was no way he could eat with them for obvious kashrut reasons.
They sat together for two hours. The couple – he was heavily involved with British television - went through course after course. The young man just drank glasses of water, and in the meantime he engaged them in lively conversation that immersed them so deeply that they did not pay attention to the fact that his plate remained empty all the time.
Finally they departed to Milan, but just as they were going through the door, he exclaimed: “You haven’t had your steak!” He opened his wallet, slapped a generous sum in lire on his plate and said, “Enjoy your steak – on us! With the compliments of Channel Four!”
The young man said that that was the only time in his life up to then that he had ever been destitute. And it was the only time in his life that he had received money in that way from an absolute stranger. And he knew in his heart that G-d had indeed been his Host for observing the Shabbat…
(God said) I shall command My Blessing…
Then I (G-d) will remember My covenant with Jacob; I will also remember my covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the Land…(26:42). These are the opening words of consolation at the end of the Tochacha – the words of dire warning from the Almighty to the Israelites of what would happen if they failed to obey His commandments. However, the following questions present themselves:
Taking the Ramban’s general theme further, it seems possible to suggest that the Torah contains a third Tochacha, which, in fact, Rashi (above) states was the harshest of all the curses. To quote more fully:
My anger will flare against (the Israelites) on that day and I will forsake them. I will hide My face from them and they will become helpless prey, and many evils and distresses will befall them. (Each Israelite) will say, “Is it not because G-d is not in (my) midst that those evils have come upon me?” I will have surely hidden My face on that day because of all the evil that (the Israelite nation) did, because it had turned to the gods of others (Deut. 31:17-18).
Perhaps G-d did ‘hide His face’ some 671 years after the Ramban’s death. The question people ask about the Shoah is, “How could G-d let such unimaginable suffering and bestiality befall His people?” Recall that this took place in a background of a century of unprecedented acculturation, assimilation, and intermarriage. And the familiar explanation to Jewish suffering – ‘because of our sins’ – seems inadequate in the light of the many assimilated people who managed to avoid or were not involved in the Holocaust, whilst the Torah scholars most loyal to our traditions suffered out of all proportion to their numbers. My teacher, R. Moshe Schwab ztl. would say, “with faith there are no questions, without faith there are no answers”. But, at the time of writing we still do not know why G-d imposed the Shoah in the way He did and on the people He selected.
In the light of this discussion, there appear to be three Tochachot in the Torah. Each refers to a specific period and situation, then in the future.
It could follow that the covenants with Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham mentioned above refer to each of the three periods discussed – and in that order: the Destruction of the First Temple, the Destruction of the Second Temple, and the Destruction of the Six Million. This is explained below.
Jacob’s main personality strength was emet – truth (Micah 7:20) - though he had to submit truth to higher causes when the situation justified it. Isaac’s personality attribute was gevura – strong commitment to the service of G-d – up to the very limit of being prepared to surrender his life to His service (Gen. 22:8 – see Rashi ad loc.). Abraham’s forte was chesed (Micah ad loc.) – kindness and respect and concern for others, but that was disciplined to having to take firm action with Hagar and Ishmael (ibid. 21:9-14).
All the Patriarchs set examples to the Israelite nation. They used their middot (personality traits) to serve Him. However each exile misused those personality traits.
The First Exile was to a great extent connected with idol worship. As Ezekiel put it:
I poured My anger on them because of the blood that they poured on the Land, and they contaminated it with their idols (Ez. 36:18).
They no doubt sincerely believed in the ‘truth’ and efficacy of idol worship – perhaps influenced by the apparent prosperity of the nations who practiced it. But their truth, in sharp contrast to that of Jacob, was misplaced.
The Second Exile was, according to the Talmud, because of groundless hatred. Jews individually had gevura – the will to serve G-d in the most adverse circumstances. However, unlike Isaac, they took this so far that they neglected personal respect in the process.
The Shoah took place in what was to a great extent a period of emancipation. Jews had been enjoying rights and opportunities amongst the Gentiles that would have been undreamed of in previous generations. They, in fact, had done the, ‘chesed’ of greatly advancing the welfare of the many nations in which they found themselves. Unlike Abraham, many of the Jews of that period did submit their ‘integration’ to the Will of the Almighty…
This then explains the conclusion of the Tochacha. The verse may be understood as follows:
“Israelites, after each exile I will remember the merits of the respective Patriarch you should have followed, but you did not. ‘I will remember My covenant with Jacob’, - after the First Exile. ‘And also My covenant with Isaac’, – after the Second Exile. ‘And I will also remember My covenant with Jacob’, – after the Shoah. Then afterwards, ‘I will remember the Land’ – refers to our times when Israel is once more becoming a ‘land of milk and honey’”.
May Mashiach Tzidkeinu come speedily in our own days!
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