Creating Successful Atmospheres

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Ramban to Behar: Creating Successful Atmospheres

The comments of Ramban’s I choose to review do not always align neatly with a central theme, but for Behar I think they do. We’ll start with his view of shemittah, which puts us in touch with the metaphysically aware side of Ramban we’ve seen before.

Seven Is Not Just Another Number

The obligation to observe shemittah opens the parashah, and 25;2 refers to that seventh year as a Shabbat la-Shem, a Sabbath for Hashem. Torat Kohanim thinks it was called a Shabbat to link it with the weekly Shabbat. In both, we desist from certain forms of creativity to emulate Hashem Who, after six days of Creation, desisted on the seventh.

Ramban thinks the comment hints at a sod yemot olam, a secret of the workings of world history. Sod in this context means real elements of how the world works, governed by rules other than the physical, social, psychological, or economic. Ideas we learn from a tradition about that which we could not figure out ourselves were esoteric, in Ramban’s tradition, meaning he was not allowed to share them explicitly [Prof. Twersky z”l was taken with how a first generation to write down such ideas still strove to keep them esoteric, by writing in such a way as to be comprehensible only to those ready for these truths. The strategy never worked, in his view, because the next generation would clarify, and the secret would be out]. Ramban therefore urges the reader to bend ear to what he is about to say, to hear what he is permitted to let be known (this tells us he weighed carefully what he could include in his commentary).

A Seven-Day World

Back in Bereshit 2;3, Ramban thought the six days of Creation prefigured world history. The seventh day anticipates a world dedicated to the service of Hashem. In our halachic practice, the weekly Shabbat reminds us of Creation (which carries with it faith principles he’s articulated elsewhere), while the yearly cycle hints the course of history, both of which therefore deserve the moniker Shabbat La-Shem.

(I do not think Ramban thinks history is predetermined in its small aspects, but he does think the general course is in fact so determined—there will be the parallel to six days of history, followed by a Shabbat day, as it were).

Shemittah and Exile

That’s what gives shemittah its significance, is why the Torah tells us (Vayikra 26;34) the Jewish people’s failure to keep shmittah leads to exile, an idea made more explicit inAvot 5;9. Ramban says the severity of the reaction to the failure to observe shemittah (crucially, he takes for granted that the failure to observe shemittah itself constitutes a denial of shemittah) is because it implicitly denies Hashem’s Creation of the world and the belief in a World to Come (which he thinks are linked— Hashem embedded the broad course of history in the world at Creation, including its eventual arrival at the World to Come, the Shabbat of world history).

Similarly, Yirmiyahu 34;13-14 tells the people they will go into exile for holding on to their Jewish indentured servants beyond the seven years for which they were sold. Such slaves were supposed to be freed after seven years for similar reasons as why shemittah comes every seven years. The Jews’ refusal to operate on a seven day/year cycle wherever it applies, including slaves, opens them to the same punishment as a violation of shemittah.

Another example of where Ramban understands Torah law to imply/reveal underlying principles of the universe, of the kind scientists would never think to examine (even if they could!), because those principles sit completely under the surface.

Except for those fortunate enough to have Torah to open a window.

Levi’im’s Land

After discussing shemittah, the Torah lays out the laws of ge’ulah, a seller’s right to buy back land by repaying the buyer, prorated for the years until yovel, when the field would have been returned anyway. Verse 32 says Levi’im have ge’ulat olam, can buy back their property at all times, where sales of property in non-walled areas usually guarantee the buyer two years of use, while sales of houses within walled cities become permanent after a year.

Verse 33 includes whatever a Levi sold in the yovel rules (so the buyback price is the leftover from the purchase price based on how many years are left until yovel, as for non-Levi’im). The term ge’ulah also tells us the seller’s relatives can buy the property back, with relatives higher up on the inheritance list taking priority.

Keeping It in the Tribe

Arachin 33a takes the verse to discuss the case of a Levi who purchased land from another Levi, which Ramban thinks reflects a Scriptural and Talmudic preference for land to be sold to closer relatives first (to maintain a sense of ancestral connection). This preference explains why Yirmiyahu’s cousin comes to ask him to buy some family land, Yirmiyahu 32;7, and why Rut 4 tells the story of Boaz securing the right to buy Elkanah’s land from a closer relative, who had the clearer right.

Our verse singles out Levi’im, according to Ramban, because we might have thought they were different, since the land was given to them as a tribe rather than as individuals [members of other tribes receive a share of their tribes’ portion of the Land, but they as individuals who descend from Avraham and left Egypt earned a personal right to land;Levi’im receive land only because Hashem told the other tribes to give cities to this tribe. They get their land only as members of that tribe]. We might have individual Levi’im or their families had no right of redemption.

Possibly, he ventures, Levi’im were in fact not allowed to sell their land to non-Levi’im (he does not say why, but he clearly means because these cities were set aside for theLevi’im as a tribea separate segment of Jewish society, so their land must stay in their hands). If so, each time a Levi sells land to a non-Levi, and either he or his relatives buy it back, the repurchase counts as a ge’ulah, restoration of that land to its rightful place.

Sold Jews Cannot Leave Their Nation Behind

The last Ramban we’ll see notes 26;1-2’s warning not to make idols, which Torat Kohanim read as a warning to Jews who sold themselves to non-Jews. This Jew’s new owner will worship powers other than Hashem, engage in sexual relations the Torah considers improper and immoral, and will not keep Shabbat (in contrast to the other two, the owner is not supposed to keep Shabbat). Our verse wants the Jew who sold himself to know he is not allowed to follow the master in any of these ways.  

The next verse speaks of keeping Shabbat and fearing the Mikdash to emphasize to this sold Jew that his/her connection to Hashem’s way of life needs to remain in full force, says Ramban. He then expands the idea, seems to think this slave needs to find ways to visit the Temple on major holidays. His sale to a non-Jew does not even relieve him of the obligation of aliyah le-regel, coming to Jerusalem on the three major holidays.  And so for all mitzvot, but these are the avot, the paradigm examples that imply the rest (an idea we’ve seen before in Ramban).

To function correctly in the world, Jews need to remember history, remember Levi’im’s land belongs to them in the same way as other tribes, at least as regards redemption, and remember a Jew selling him/herself in no way relieves his/her obligation/need to connect with Hashem, to live life as primarily Hashem’s servant, rather than the human to whom s/he has submitted.

About Gidon Rothstein

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