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The Sinai Experience

Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

The most familiar verse in the Torah is the oft-repeated "And God spoke to Moshe," appearing some 75 times; occasionally, a location is added to give context to a particular communication. For the most part, though, other than the first verse of the book, Vayikra has been devoid of geographic or chronological references, which serves to make the opening verse of Parashat B'har, the penultimate parashah of Vayikra, even more eye-catching: "And God spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai…" Why, at this particular juncture, is Sinai mentioned?

The verses that follow this anomalous introduction are an expansion of the laws of the sabbatical year, which appeared earlier, albeit in abbreviated form, in the book of Shmot. In the iteration here in Parashat B'har, the sabbatical year serves as an introduction to the laws of the jubilee: Every seventh year the land must lay fallow, reminding the farmer that ultimately, everything is owned by God. At the conclusion of seven sabbatical cycles, in the fiftieth or jubilee year, land returns to its ancestral owners, and the cycle begins again. If the original owner of the land is deceased, we are commanded to call upon the relatives of the deceased in order to fulfill the requirements of the jubilee cycle. In this context, the prohibition of usury is introduced:

If your brother is in a dire situation…do not exact from him advance or accrued interest; fear your God. Let him live by your side as your brother. (Vayikra 25:35-36)

The prohibition and its rationale are equally clear: Usury is not immoral per se; it is inappropriate when the borrower is your brother. Brothers do favors for brothers; brothers lend a helping hand, and brothers don't charge brothers interest.

So much of the book of Vayikra focuses on the holiness of the rites and rituals performed in the Mishkan that we might erroneously conclude that there, and only there, is where holiness resides - until we come to the "surprise ending" of Vayikra. The sudden shift of focus, away from the Mishkan (the precursor of the Beit HaMikdash) and out over all of the Land of Israel, forces us to reconsider the nature of holiness.

Parashat B'har and the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee, usury and familial responsibility, offer a new perspective on holiness; perhaps even more importantly, these laws offer a new perspective on our proximity to holiness and our ability to access holiness and make it a part of our lives. The consequences spelled out for breaching these particular laws - exile - leave no room for doubt: While there are remedies for breaching the holiness of the Mishkan, while those who are in a state of impurity may be distanced from the holy compound, the consequence for failing to respect the sanctity of the sabbatical and jubilee years and the norms of social responsibility they engender is far more dire. The Holy Land will not tolerate such behavior.

With this understanding, we may approach an answer to the textual problem with which we began: The laws of sabbatical and jubilee observance and the prohibition against usury are prefaced by the unusual reference to Mount Sinai precisely because these laws institutionalize the Sinai experience.

When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, the verses describe the unique experience of unity as a defining moment in our spiritual and national history. In Rashi's words, the nation camped at the foot of Mount Sinai was "as one person with one heart." (Rashi, Shmot 19:2) The mountain itself was, in that shining moment, the holiest place on earth - and that holiness was later transferred to the Mishkan, and later to the Beit HaMikdash (see Ramban). That is the central theme of the book of Vayikra - up to the first verse of Parashat B'har. When the laws of sanctity of the Land of Israel are linked to Mount Sinai, we understand that the holiness of Mount Sinai is not limited to the Mishkan; it exists in all of the Land of Israel. And when this holiness is framed as the introduction for laws of social responsibility, the other aspect of the Mount Sinai experience, the aspect of unity, becomes much more than a one-time experience. The laws of Parashat B'har teach us to translate that experience into action. Just as the laws transmitted throughout the book of Vayikra teach us that the Mishkan is a recreation of the holiness of Mount Sinai, the laws transmitted in Parashat B'har allow us to recreate the unity we experienced at Mount Sinai and make it a part of everyday life in the Holy Land.

Living in the Land of Israel is the continuation of the Revelation at Sinai. Holiness is not confined to the Mishkan; it is embodied in every inch of the Land of Israel, and it is rooted in the lives we lead, in our relationships, and in the unity and mutual responsibility with which we conduct our personal and public affairs. While the laws of sabbatical years, jubilee observance, and social welfare are effective tools for building a healthy economy, the rationale behind them goes far beyond pragmatism: Our lives, particularly in the Holy Land, can generate holiness, and we elevate our selves and our society when we treat one another as brothers and sisters should. This is how the holiness of Mount Sinai continues to reverberate and to energize, to uplift and inspire - not only in the Mishkan, but in the lives we live, particularly in the Land of Israel.

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