Parshat Behar-Bechukotai – The sabbatical year’s shine on Sinai
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Parshat Behar-Bechukotai – The sabbatical year’s shine on Sinai

There is hardly a word or phrase in the Torah text that can escape detection or examination on the matter of redundancy. The Torah employs an economy of language and therefore anything extra or unusually modified is subject to exegetical scrutiny. As such the opening line of the first portion of this week’s double sedra invokes an immediate query from the celebrated commentator, Rashi, in what has become the famous biblical trope of “mah inyan shemittah eitzel Har Sinai” – “what does the ‘shemittah’ (Sabbatical Year) have to do with Mt. Sinai?” And Rashi then answers his own question by stating that the Sinai locale is noted at the outset of the sedra to remind us that “just as the laws of the ‘shemittah,’ with their attending details, were established at Sinai, so, too, the other commandments and their minutiae have their origins at Sinai.” (Leviticus 25:1-2)

But beyond a claim to the divinity of Sinaitic laws, there is more at play in Rashi’s commentary. It is important to note that this Rashi illustrates writ large a classic example of his own Socratic method at work. Rashi in so many instances provides his commentary through what he sees as an inherent problem in the text. I recall my teacher of some 30 years ago, the late professor Nehama Leibowitz, training us to become sensitive to Rashi’s probing approach to the text with all of its constituent parts. “Negged mah omeid Rashi,” went the regular drill from this biblical scholar and pedagogic giant. “What is bothering Rashi?” was her recurring question. Rashi, by his questions and subsequent answers teaches us to be sensitive to nuance in the text.

In this case from our sedra, Rashi, on one level is stating a theological postulate concerning the Sinaitic origins of Jewish law. But this Rashi is also telling us something valuable about the creation of spiritual character and the religious personality. It is more than just a matter of good literature and artful writing. Systems of law and religious belief, along with hierarchies of values and moral codes, must cohere. In order to remain a tradition in good order the constituent elements must translate into an integrated whole. The aggregate effect of the Torah text on its reader is to inspire an awareness of the reader’s own narrative. The Sinai expression and expectation, according to traditional teaching, is not arbitrary and quixotic but must ultimately coalesce into a composite, purposeful plan and program for enlightened engagement with the divine and with humankind.

In a world marked by random and at times senseless acts, people of all ages seek structure and context. At the top of the mountain, “Behar Sinai,” as the Torah portion opens; in a place seemingly removed from reality, there is no escaping a considered sense of what will guide one down below. Ambiguity in the text must ultimately yield to real ideas and concrete actions. The “mah inyan shemittah eitzel Har Sinai” mantra is more than a fascination with a textual incongruity, but an existential beckoning. The extra words cannot be dismissed but must add something to one’s understanding of his/her earthly purpose, and by extension, one’s relationship to others less fortunate.

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