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Orienting to the Right Express

Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25-27 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

In this week's portion, the Torah sets forth the laws of Shmita, laws that basically ban all forms of productive agricultural activity every seventh year:

"God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: 'Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: "When you come in to the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath day for God..." ' " (Leviticus 25:1-4)

Rashi is puzzled by the fact that Mount Sinai is identified as the place where the commandment of Shmita was issued. Shmita is the only Mitzvah of the 613 whose command-instruction is related to a specific venue, be it Mt. Sinai or any other place. Rashi duly attempts to explain why Shmita was so honored. His answer is one of the best known of all Rashi's commentaries on the Chumash:

What is the relationship between the law of Shmita and Mount Sinai? Surely, all of the laws of the Torah were given on Mount Sinai? To teach you that just as the Shmita laws were given on Sinai to the last detail, so were the details of the laws of all the commandments.

But other commentators point out (see Ohr Hachaim) that Rashi does not really address or answer the real question. He explained the need to select one of the 613 Mitzvoth to inform us of the Sinaic origin of all Mitzvoth, but one is still left to wonder why Shmita, of all the commandments was chosen for this task. Are we to assume that its selection is mere coincidence?

We shall attempt to explore the special relationship between Shmita and Sinai in this essay.


It is common to point out that Shmita is an incredibly powerful Mitzvah; it has the power to prove that the Torah must have originated in heaven almost single-handedly. No human being living in an agricultural society - as pretty much everyone did in Biblical times - could ever have dreamed up the Shmita laws. To forego an entire harvest once every seven years, and two in a row once every fifty years, at a period in history when survival was marginal, did not only constitute economic suicide, but carried with it a serious threat of starvation as well.

The only way such a commandment could possibly be implemented in the real world is under the conditions the Torah itself describes:

"If you will say, 'What will we eat in the seventh year? Behold! We will not sow and not gather in our crops!' I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for a three year period. You will sow in the eighth year, but you will eat from the old crop; until the ninth year, until the arrival of its crop, you will eat the old." (Leviticus 25:20-22)

Only someone who actually had God's ear could possibly guarantee this. No rabbinic sect interested in creating a new religion would have presumed to invent such a commandment. As it requires the quoted guarantee in order to make it possible to observe – and no one can guarantee such a guarantee other than God Himself - it follows that only God Himself could possibly have issued it. Thus, in a way, the connection between Shmita and Mount Sinai is readily apparent. The very existence of the commandment of Shmita testifies to the reality of the meeting at Sinai.

While no doubt the key to the uniqueness of the commandment of Shmita is contained in this thought, we would like to examine the deeper ramifications that follow as a consequence.


We always read this Torah portion during the days of the counting of the Omer, the period of preparation for receiving the Torah on Shavuot. This is no mere coincidence; the acceptance of the duty of observing the laws of Shmita is a significant part of this preparation process.

It is easy to think that the life of a Jew who observes Torah commandments is basically the same as any other. Superficially the only visible difference between the observant Jew and other people is that he has more duties and responsibilities, and less leisure time. But the truth is far different than the superficial appearance; in fact, the Torah observant Jew lives in another world than a secular person. The two may inhabit the same planet, but their lives unfold in separate universes.

To appreciate the significance of this let us study the connection of the Shmita year with the concept of the Sabbath.

"But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God." (Leviticus 25:4)

Nachmanides explains that there are really three Sabbaths:

  1. There is the Sabbath that happens once every seven days; it represents the end of the work of physical creation; this is the Sabbath of weeks.
  2. Shmita is the Sabbath that happens once every seven years; this is the Sabbath that is embedded in history; it represents the end of time when God will be able to rest from the labor of moving human history to its destination just as the weekly Sabbath was the day of God's rest from the work of physical creation; the Sabbath of Shmita is reminiscent of the Messianic world.
  3. The Jubilee year presents the Sabbath as the contact point of creation with God; it happens once every fifty years and represents the Sabbath of the higher world, the world referred to in the very first verse of Genesis. Strictly speaking it belongs to the realm of the 'eight', beyond the seven. [See essay on Emor]

Let us see if we can unravel the special relationship between Shmita and Sabbath a bit.


Following the flood, God tells Noah:

"Continuously, all the days of the earth, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease." (Genesis 8:22)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 58b) learns from this that a Ben Noach – literally a descendant of Noah, a non-Jew who is obligated to observe the seven Noahide commandments – is not allowed to stop on the Sabbath. He is prohibited from observing the Sabbath. In practice, potential converts who are still considered Bnei Noach according to Jewish law, and who begin to observe the Sabbath laws as part of their preparations towards conversion are instructed to commit a minor act of desecration of the Sabbath laws deliberately so as not to violate the prohibition on a Noachide person to observe Sabbath.

This rule is not a mere technicality but goes to the very essence of Sabbath, as stated in the Amidah prayer we recite every Sabbath:

You did not give it ... (the Sabbath) to the nations of the earth, nor did You make it the inheritance ... of the worshippers of graven idols. And in its contentment the uncircumcised shall not abide. For to Israel, Your people have You given it with love, to the seed of Jacob whom You have chosen.

But why is this so? What possible harm could there be in a non-Jew – a Ben Noach - observing the Sabbath?


Let's return again to God's post-flood policy statement.

"Continuously, all the days of the earth, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease."

What are the implications of the fact that the world will never stop? We shall attempt to explain with the help of a metaphor.

These days there is more than one way to fly an airplane. You can fly it the old fashioned way, a human pilot doing the driving from start to finish, or you can entrust the guidance of your craft to the competent hands of a computer managed automatic pilot system. The common practice today is to use a mixture of the two systems, but the more modern the plane, the more its systems are under computer control. Given the economics of the situation and the steady advances in computer technology the day cannot be very far off when we will all travel in planes that are totally managed by computers.

In many ways, the automatic pilot delivers a much smoother ride. It is capable of making adjustments to speed, course and altitude at the speed of light, whereas a human pilot can only react to changing weather conditions etc. with the speed of human reflexes. If we nevertheless feel safer with the human driver it is because the automatic pilot cannot think. It has no notion of why the plane is in flight in the first place, what its destination is, or what is at stake in the success of its mission. It cannot make any policy changes and rethink its objectives in midstream.

God created a universe that can also function in these two ways. Initially he piloted it Himself. But because He was personally involved with the passengers, their sins impacted on the bond between human beings and the pilot, and a point was reached where God decided to abort the trip. As long as He retained personal control of the Universal Spaceship there was no way God could guarantee that this would never happen again.

So God decided to withdraw from the controls and place the universe on automatic pilot. His post–flood policy statement amounts to an announcement to Noah that henceforth He would not be directly involved in the flow of the seasons etc. As such, human behavior would no longer be judged against the background of an intimate ongoing relationship with God. Human sins would therefore have no impact on the smooth functioning of the universe and God could guarantee there would never be a second flood.

But this change in policy also had a significant flip side. Whereas when God was in the pilot seat the universe was headed to a destination, now that it is under computer control it is spinning endlessly on under the control of an automated guidance system that is totally unaware and unconcerned about ideas such as purpose or destination. The journey has no built-in stop. It will terminate only when someone decides to throw the switch on the automatic pilot. Such a universe has no Sabbath.


The essence of God's Covenant with Abraham was the promise that He would never be placed under the control of this universal computer. The very first communication to Abraham removes him from the automatic drive universe.

"God said to Abram, 'Go for yourself from your own land, from your relatives, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.'" (Genesis 12:1-3)

Abraham's universe has both the ups and the downs of the pre-flood world. His universe is personally piloted by God; it is relation-driven rather than program-oriented. That means it has a purpose and a destination. The hands-on driver is guiding it to reach its destiny and come to a stop. As the concept of stop is built into the universe, such a universe also contains a Sabbath.

On the other hand it is sensitive to sin. History shows that Jews are much more vulnerable to holocausts than other peoples. Our world has come to an end more than once. Our relationship with God, because it is so personal, has the ups and downs of all human relationships. We have the security of knowing that our Omnipotent and Omniscient pilot will get us to our destination somehow, but He often decides in His wisdom that in this case it is better to fly through the storm rather than avoid it.


We are living in an era when the idea of the existence of parallel universes is scientifically respectable. One of the suggestions put forward by eminent physicists as a solution to the Paradox of Schrodinger's cat in the box thought experiment is the theory that every quantum jump point generates at least one other parallel universe. The theory that Noah's and Abraham's children live in separate but parallel universes is not a bizarre suggestion in today's intellectual environment.

We have often stated the obvious fact that a created universe has no inertia. It will not automatically be here tomorrow simply because it is here today. Creation is an act of will, God's will to be precise, and the will of any thinking being, even a creature on our level, has no inertia. Creation therefore needs constant renewal. Renewal of creation must come from the source, God's will. For people who live in parallel universes the route to renewal is not necessarily identical.

First let us glance at the route of Jewish renewal the subject that lies at the very heart of this essay.

"God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because on it He abstained from all His work which God created to make." (Genesis 2:3)

Rashi tells us:

He sanctified [the Sabbath] with the manna. All the days of the week a measure [of manna] fell for each person, but on Fridays a double portion came down ... on the Sabbath, the manna did not come down at all.

It should be obvious that the source of material blessing in the pilot controlled universe is the destination point; after all, the sole reason that God personally handles the controls is to make sure that it reaches its destination. The destination is represented in today's world by the day on which the world stops, Sabbath.

To emphasize the fact that Sabbath is the source of whatever manna comes down during the rest of the week, on Sabbath no manna falls, while on Friday a double portion comes down. Sabbath is the vessel that contains the blessing. When blessing is poured out you can only detect the flow if you are outside the vessel from which it is being poured. If you are sitting within the pitcher itself swimming around in the blessing, the flow of blessing is invisible to you.

On Sabbath, we Jews who are riding around in the pilot controlled universe have reached a stop that is reminiscent of our final destination. We are sitting inside the pitcher of blessings immersed in the atmosphere of the world to come. We have no need of the blessing that is poured out on the material world because we aren't there. We have taken a temporary leave of absence into the world of Sabbath. The manna doesn't flow in there, it flows out of there; there is no manna on Sabbath.

For us manna eaters, who are personally involved with God and are sustained by His personal blessing, the source of material blessing is not the universe that God set into motion, the universe that He created to be ceaselessly active on automatic drive. Our journey has a destination. The purpose of sustaining us and renewing the creation for us is to make sure we are still alive and well at the end of the journey. The source of our renewal is Sabbath, a day reminiscent of the destination point.


We have arrived at the location where the parallel universes of the Bnei Noah and the Children of Abraham begin to diverge. The essence of the message of God's post flood declaration that the Noachide world would never stop spinning concerns this issue of renewal. God's guarantee of permanence can be translated to mean that the energy of renewal was programmed into the Noachide universe till the end of time. After all, the point of the Divine policy of disengagement was to ensure the world against destruction by making certain that it would never have to come up to God for renewal at all!

The origins of life are at opposite ends of history for the Torah observant Jew and for the non-Jew, the Ben Noach. The non-Jew draws the energy of being from the universe God created to be active; his sustenance comes from activity, from the ceaseless, ordered turmoil of nature. If his world were ever to stop, he would cease to be entirely. He cannot engineer the renewal of the material universe by being a Sabbath observer.

The Torah observant Jew derives his existence from the destination of the world, from the point when all humanity will once again become an inseparable part of God's own essence. His blessing comes from non-activity, from the full stop. He must, therefore, observe the Sabbath to retain his connection to the source of his being.

The answer to the problem we stated is startlingly clear. The security of the Noachide world is based on the built-in ability to function without the contact with Sabbath. The descendant of Abraham can only survive by never letting go of the lifeline of Sabbath. The renewal that comes from Sabbath spells the end of the Noachide's entire world. As soon as it makes contact with Sabbath the automatic drive that powers and pilots his world shuts down; his entire universe crashes and disappears in a second flood.


But Sabbath is more than symbolic of the destination point. God designed the universe so that it would be obvious that Sabbath is the intersection point between the two parallel universes.

All material things are six-sided. Any substance that is not in the form of a cube is only imaginary in the world of solid things. Physical objects have a top and a bottom and some thickness, otherwise they cannot fit into three-dimensional space. Nevertheless, solids do have one metaphysical point, their center. All objects have a center from which they radiate. Aside from the fact that this is intuitively obvious, the center is perhaps the most important and useful point in an object in terms of calculations, as anyone knows who has attempted to figure out the center of gravity or taken any sort of course in geometry, trigonometry or physics.

Yet, as long as an object has some extension it will always be six sided. As you make it smaller and smaller it will narrow and shrink towards a single indivisible point. But this point is the limit. Reaching it means to exit from the world of the material and to enter the realm of the spiritual. This point located at the physical limit of all things is the seventh dimension of physical objects. It is the imaginary point at the center of all things and it is the point represented by Sabbath.

The connection to holiness is located at this center of being. When you need to get somewhere you are in motion. When you arrive at your destination you come to rest. The center is holy because it is always at rest. From studying the universe we know that everything is constantly in motion, and almost all observed phenomena are in orbit, spinning about themselves, their suns, the center of their constellations, the center of the known universe.

As objects spin about their axis, the axis itself remains still, totally at rest in terms of the rest of the material world. The dynamic of forces that operate on the rest of the natural world do not affect the center point, the point around which all movement takes place but which is under the control of entirely different factors. The profound symbolism of Sabbath surrounds us everywhere.


We Jews, who are passengers on the universe piloted directly by God must always keep in mind that we are headed toward a destination, and that the eventual stop provides the justification for their entire trip. The pilot will not guide the plane for passengers who are not interested in reaching the destination themselves. But someone who intends to stop must spend some time preparing for the end of his journey.

God has determined that the proper way to do this is to observe the Sabbath and the Shmita. Non-observance amounts to stowing away on the other universe, the one without a destination, driven by the automatic pilot, and the consequence is exile from one universe into the other.

As a punishment for the sins of sexual immorality, idolatry, and for the non-observance of the Shmita and the Jubilee year, Jews are liable to exile. The perpetrator is exiled and others come to settle in his place (Talmud, Shabbat 33a). But what happens to the land?

"... then the land will be appeased for its sabbaticals during all the years of its desolation, while you are in the land of your foes; then the land will rest and appease for its sabbaticals. All the years of its desolation it will rest, whatever it did not rest during your sabbaticals when you dwelled upon her. (Leviticus 26:34-35)

The first exile to Babylon, which lasted for a period of seventy years, was exactly as long as the number of Shmitas and Jubilee years from the first entry of the Jewish people into Israel. As they never observed the Shmita perfectly, they had to suffer a year of exile against each year of non-observance.

As a preparation to receiving the Torah once again, we must internalize this lesson.


There is great glory to be had in being a Torah observant Jew. The non-Jew can observe the Shmita with the greatest dedication, and there will be no blessing on the crop of his sixth year. His universe is on automatic pilot and gains nothing by stopping. When the Jew stops for Shmita and for Sabbath, his non-activity brings greater material well being then the greatest investment of sweat and toil. Obviously there is a great distinction in this. But there is also a tremendous downside.

Just as the non-Jew cannot hop onto the Jewish universe at will, there is no way off for the Jew. His ancestors, who stood on Mount Sinai and made the Covenant with God, placed him firmly in the universe of Sabbath. Whether he likes it or not, the source of his material well-being comes from the Sabbath, from the stop following the arrival at the destination, and not from the ceaseless activity of this world.

A Jew who fails to keep his connection to this universe alive and fresh through Torah observance does not thereby acquire the right to get off his universe and get to sit on the other universe as a ticketed passenger. The best he can do is stow away, ever at the mercy of the people who really belong there, as the last two thousand years of Jewish history amply attest.

The recurring tragedies of Jewish history all originate in the doomed attempts of large parts of the Jewish people to descend from their own universe and join the rest of the world. It cannot be done without terrible consequences. And it is a shame we have suffered so much so needlessly, when staying in our own universe offers spiritual benefits and material comforts beyond description in return for simply learning to stop running.

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