by R. Gidon Rothstein
Consequences of Shemitta
Starting at VaYikra 25;25, the Torah has rules for events we might see as unrelated, a Jew who sells ancestral lands, takes a loan at interest, sells himself into servitude to a Jew or a non-Jew. Kli Yakar points us to Sukka 40b, where Chazal connected this section to an earlier one about shemitta and yovel. They said the Torah was warning against buying and selling produce of shemitta, which was supposed to be hefker, ownerless and available to all.
The Torah was predicting what happens to a Jew who did business as usual; he would find himself slowly poorer, forced to sell property, take usurious loans, enter indentured servitude. Kli Yakar says 25;14 supports their reading, because it doubles the language of “sell,” timkeru memkar, suggesting the sales feed each other, by selling shemitta produce, the Jew puts him/herself in the position of being forced to sell land and more.
Levels of Poverty
He also thinks the Torah’s progression was deliberate, tracked the steps people take as their economic fortunes worsen. They sell movable property (like shemitta fruit) for any of a million reasons, where they only borrow at interest or sell ancestral land if forced, the reason the Torah adds the phrase ki yamukh achikha, translated variously, but clearly a way to show the person has descended further down the economic ladder.
For interest-borrowing, the Torah adds u-mata yado imakh, he comes under your authority, for the indentured servant it includes the u-makh (the word from earlier) will be with you, or, worst, the Jew will have to lease himself out to a non-Jew, u-makh achikha imo, your brother will descend with him.
Chazal and Kli Yakar see a series of consequences for the original unfortunate decision to sell shemitta produce rather than leave it ownerless, as the Torah commanded.
Stay Open to Optimism
Chatam Sofer comments on the placement of the prohibition against ona’a, in this verse read by Rashi as about ona’at devarim, verbal taunting of other Jews, just before the promise that we will reside securely in Israel should we follow God’s laws, 25;17-18. Rashi connects the promise not to go into exile to keeping the laws of shemitta, where Chatam Sofer thinks it likely also refers to the previous verse, about verbal taunting.
How? The price of land in Israel is ordinarily set by how many years are left until the yovel, the jubilee year, when all the land will go back. Chatam Sofer imagines a seller who tries to extract more money by bringing up the possibility of a war leading to exile of some segment of the population. As soon as any of the tribes were exiled (the first were the tribes on the east bank of the Jordan, Reuven, Gad, and par of Menashe), yovel would cease to function.
The seller might say, “and if it does, you will owe me more money; why not pay now, in case it comes to that, you won’t need to pay more.” The Torah was pre-empting this kind of ona’at devarim, verbal taunting, saying you will (or, must act as if you will) reside securely in your land, not go into exile.
[He may mean that as long as Jews keep the rules, we won’t in fact go into exile, but I think he means more, that regardless of exile’s approach, a Jew must sell property without bringing it up, without making provisions should exile come.]
Because it’s a double parsha, I am skipping his interesting application of the idea to the story in the haftara, Yirmiyahu buying ancestral land despite the looming exile. I will instead point out his insight into taunting. We all know it includes making fun of another’s personal failings, Chatam Sofer is adding that it stretches to bringing up a distressing future, even a likely distressing future.
At least for selling land in Israel, he thinks the verse tells us to live securely in the land, confident God can keep the yovel in place, or bring it back, whenever God wants. To say otherwise is a kind of ona’at devarim.
The Freedom of Yovel
Netziv, too, takes yovel in a new direction. The verse from the Liberty Bell, 25;10, tells us to proclaim freedom in the land for all its inhabitants. At a simple level, that would extend to indentured servants and those forced to sell their land over the past fifty years.
Netziv adds another group, soldiers, whom he thinks the king and government will be required to free to go home (he directs us to his comment on verse eighteen, where he says this is why the Torah stressed observance, because then the nation will be militarily vulnerable; if the people are keeping the Torah well, God will protect them, and they won’t need the soldiers).
Three ways to security or its opposite: ever-worsening economic disaster for selling shemtta produce according to Kli Yakar; the obligation to speak as if secure when selling land, for Chatam Sofer; and the extension of the freedom of the yovel year to soldiers, brought home from their posts on the border for that year. With true security coming from God, if only we observe the mitzvot.
Parshat Bechukkotai: Security, Finding It, Keeping It
When the Trouble Passes
There are many versions of a person making a promise to God while in dire straits, and finding room to wriggle out of it when the crisis passes. For example, a person desperate for a parking spot promises God some outlandish amount of money if only s/he’ll find a spot. As s/he is finishing the promise, a car pulls out right in front, and the driver says, “oh, that’s ok, God, thanks, I found one myself.”
Kli Yakar knew of this phenomenon centuries ago, is how he understood the Torah’s placing its discussion of vows in chapter twenty-seven, following the warnings of the troubles God will send should Jews not keep the Torah. They vow when life is hard, as Ya’akov Avinu did, except he kept to the vow even after the crisis passed, where the people Kli Yakar knows do not, go back to life as before.
He suggests this adds a layer of meaning to Devarim 31;17, when great troubles befall you, you will realize they have come because you have not kept God in your midst. Chagiga 5a says this means lending a poor person in his time of trouble; I think the simple reading is that we will have failed to do so, where Kli Yakar seems to me to have re-read it to refer to the lender, who only helps the poor when life is hard for him/her, the lender.
The Torah puts vows here as an acknowledgment of the workings of human nature, people respond to problems with promises to be better. The worst option is then reneging or releasing the vows with the danger gone. Better is to fulfill the vow, and better yet, he says, is to make such promises (and fulfill them) without a looming threat to bring it on.
Past Generations Should Have Been Models
At the height of the tokhacha, the warnings of disaster for stubborn sin, the Torah predicts we will learn our lesson and, 26;40, recognize our sins and the sins of our forefathers. God promises to then “remember” the covenant with the Avot, the Patriarchs, and restore our relationship. Shelah gave Chatam Sofer a first insight, when God “remembers” our forebears, it is that God will hold us to account for failing to follow their example. Other nations had no such models and are therefore less culpable. We will have sinned despite the advantage of our heritage.
Chatam Sofer thinks the idea explains why we do not say Hallel on Rosh HaShana. Rosh HaShana 32b explains it would make no sense, when the books of life and death are open before God, to be singing songs of joy. As I wrote it, the Gemara means with death an option, we are in no frame of mind to sing songs of praise to God.
Except the Gemara’s phrase is the books of the living and of the dead, the already dead. Chatam Sofer says the books of their deeds are also opened, because we are judged in the light of their example, part of why we cannot feel comfortable singing shira, songs of praise, on that day.
In our verse, I think he means it is why we are being told we will confess our forefathers’ sins as well, because realizing how far we fell is essential to getting back up. True repentance means not only seeing the sin we have committed, objectively, but also contextually, knowing we strayed despite the many advantages we were given.
An Insight Into Full Repentance
[He is adding a degree of difficulty to what many already find beyond them. The need for a Jew to say “I did this, I was wrong, I regret and embarrassed by it, and resolve not to do it again,” itself is an almost insurmountable barrier for many Jews today, in my experience. Easier to say “I now realize it is better to live this other way. Chatam Sofer wants us now to also say, “and I was a child of privilege, I had the examples of great predecessors I was supposed to keep in mind.”
Worse, in our times, some say having great forebears is exactly what leads them to leave observance, the pressure of living up to that model. The gap between how he sees it and how people today see it seems to me a productive place to consider where we are and where we might want to strive to be.]
No Need to Leave Home
In Behar, Netziv had said soldiers came home in yovel, God would fill in the security needed. In Bechukkotai, 26;6, he has another version of the same idea. As part of the rewards should the Jews keep the Torah well (God always puts promises of good for faithful observance before warnings of the opposite), God assures us there will be peace in the land, we will lie down without any fear, no wild animals around, no sword shall pass through the land.
Coming just after verses promising financial success, Netziv turns it towards being able to stay home. Aside from dispensing with our need to travel for business, God is telling us we will have neither external nor internal strife, no need to guard the roads from predatory animals, dangers will recede so fully there will be no use for swords at all.
How we get to security, and keep it, for our three commentators: by making valuable promises even without pressure, and certainly fulfilling the commitments made during times of trouble, for Kli Yakar; absorbing and adopting the models of our great ancestors, for Chatam Sofer; and knowing that the best security is just to be at home, for Netziv.