Torah Portion of the Week – Behar – How to Perfect Society – The Jewish Answer to Social Injustice – A Powerful Parable about Counting Pennies – A Great Story about Rav Shach and Peace in Your Home – The Right Way to Criticize
The Torah Podcast Transcript
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Torah Portion of the Week – Behar
This week’s Parsha talks about shemitta and yovel. Shemitta means the land has to rest every seven years, and Yovel means that after 49 years on the 50th year, the land also has to rest. You have two years of consecutive resting, which means we cannot work the land at all, and we have to leave it hefker, ownerless. There’s another interesting halacha by Yovel. The possuk says, “And the land shall not be sold perpetually, for the earth belongs to me.” The halacha is that in the 50th year, all the land goes back to its original owners, the way that God divided up the land of Eretz Yisroel to different tribes, it all goes back. People can sell their land and make leases based on 50 years, but in the 50 years, the land all has to go back.
There’s another halacha that all the slaves are also set free. The Rabbeinu Bachye says, “And why did God say, ‘For the earth belongs to me?’ The message is addressed to the person who has to give back his land. He is reminded that seeing the whole universe belongs to God, he has no reason to feel aggrieved. Once a person knows that everything belongs to God, he is able to understand why he has to give back his land, because God said so. It’s a commandment from God. Shemitta and yovel are very deep ideas, and they’re very much connected to the ruchnius, the spirituality of the Jewish people.
The Chassam Sofer wants to answer the famous kasha, question of what’s the connection of Har Sinai, this week’s Parsha, Behar, behar Sinai, and shemitta? The verse says, “Hashem spoke to Moshe at Har Sinai.” Then it goes on to give the commandment of shemitta. All the mitzvos were given at Har Sinai. Why was this one specifically brought out? He wants to answer there’s a connection between them, because just like at Har Sinai, we were devoid of any materialism, we were brought into the dessert. God specifically gave the Torah there to teach us, in order to be successful in Torah and in spirituality, we have to lower our gashmius, our physical life – our focus on material things. So too, shemitta. Shemitta means not working the land, letting go a little bit of the physical. Shemitta and Har Sinai reflect the same theme. In order to be successful in our lives of our 120 year stay here, we have to be focused on the spiritual. Nobody’s saying that you can’t have the physical, but the focus has to be spirituality. But more than that, not only is it our success, our personal success, but it’s also our success as a society.
You have to hear what Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsh says about it. He explains that the evils of society are due to social class differences, and unequal distribution of property and wealth. What happened? You have a sharp contrast between wealth and poverty. This is exactly what’s happening today, between dependence and independence, and all the precarious situations that afflict the nations in the course of the political relationships, one nation with the other. “All this,” he says, “Is atoned by yovel. God’s grace restores to the nation its social health and political freedom.” This is unbelievable. What happens? Every 50 years, all the land goes back to its original owners, and all the slaves are set free. He says, “When yovel comes, the personality again becomes the bearer of possessions, and it itself ceases to be an object of a possession.” In other words, people become people again, instead of becoming slaves, instead of being oppressed. It restores the main legal dignity of the personality, which is the precise description of the restoration of freedom. This is unbelievable. He says that yovel is the reset button, the reset button to fix society. God says, “The earth belongs to me, and I’m going to push the reset button.” This is the Jewish solution to inequality. Every 50 years, everything goes back. He continues, “And in the future, Israel will shine forth among the peoples, and its light will be seen from afar. It will invite all the nations to throng to it, to learn God’s ways, which alone will guarantee justice, freedom and everlasting peace on earth.” This is the political solution. It’s written in the Torah. It’s by the Jewish people.
He says, “Its purpose is to release the shackles to social bondage.” The verse even says, “In shemitta when the land is hefker, becomes ownerless, for your animals as well as the wild animals in your land, shall all of its produce be for food.” In other words, even the animals get to eat whatever they want. Rav Hirsch says on this that the Jewish people without haughtiness and without pride of ownership, they join in complete equality with the poorest of men, and become equal even to the beasts of the field. God alone is exalted on that day, when the yovel comes. And also, everybody’s going to get their land back. In other words, your original land that was given to the Jews when it was divided goes back to the original owners. Everyone should consider himself as though he received his field anew from God’s hands. He should know the land belongs to God. But the question is, how does a person get to such a spiritual level? It’s unbelievable. He’s giving up everything. He’s losing his land. He’s losing his slaves. He’s losing everything he built up for the past 50 years. A person really has to internalize that God is taking care of everything, and God’s taking care of him. God’s taking care of his parnassa, his money situation. He puts his life in the hands of God.
Rav Wolbe said, “This helps to internalize that Hashem runs the world. We are simply his caretakers. It’s not our world in which Hashem has gained entrance. It’s our world and we let Hashem in. The opposite – rather, it’s Hashem’s world. We have the zechus and the merit of being here. Therefore, we should follow faithfully His mitzvos, that our world won’t let God in, it’s God’s world. He let us be here for 120 years.
I saw a video of a judge giving mussar, character development to this gang leader. The gang leader was saying, “Oh, this is my hood.” Hood, what does he mean by hood? His neighborhood. The judge says, “Listen, this is not your hood. This is a neighborhood of people who pay taxes. Since they pay taxes, each individual has a portion in the neighborhood. They’re working people that contribute to society, and therefore the neighborhood belongs to them.” But this gangster’s looking at the opposite. “It’s my hood.” Why, because you were born there? You just came into the world, this is your neighborhood? You own the neighborhood? It sounds ridiculous, but we think the same way. We think this is our world. We have control. And shemitta and yovel are here to tell us the opposite. It’s God’s world. But that’s not bad that it’s God’s world, because if it’s God’s world, it means he’s taking care of us.
Rav Noam Elimelech says of Vayikra 25:20, “And if you will say, what will we eat in the seventh year? Behold, we will not sew and not gather our crops.” Hashem answers, “I commanded my blessings for you in the sixth year, and it will yield a crop sufficient for three years.” Why three years? Because you have the sixth year, that’s when everything grows. Then the seventh year, you can’t plant, so that’s one year. When yovel comes, the eighth year, you can’t plant. That’s another year. And where’s going to be the food for the ninth year? Three years. But Hashem says, “No, I commanded my blessings for you in the sixth year. Don’t worry, the sixth year is going to take care of the next three years.” Rav Noam Elimelech asks, “What’s this question doing here in the Torah? Usually the Torah doesn’t ask questions. Secondly, what does it mean, ‘I command my blessing?’ What’s the language of command?” He wants to explain, “The energy and blessing is coming into this world like a waterfall. But when the Jewish people ask the question, “What will we eat in the seventh year,” so that lack of faith breaks down things, and it disrupts the sheaf, disrupts the flow of energy into this world. Therefore, God has to come back and command, He has to make a sivui in the shemayim, in the Heaven, to restore the shefa, to bring it back in the sixth year that it will last for three years. It’s our lack of trust that stops the shefa. It’s our lack of faith that stops us from receiving the blessings. If we had more faith, we’d have more blessing. God’s taking care of us. It’s God’s world.
I just want to end off with Rav Moshe Feinstein. He says like this about shemitta. “The lesson here is that even today, one should not fear that perhaps he will not be able to earn a livelihood. If one prays properly and learns Torah as he should, Hashem will grant him enough sustenance in the short span of work that he does. He says, “The decree that man must toil and eat bread by the sweat of his brow,” that was the klalah, the curse that Adam haRishon got. That only applies to man’s free time when he’s not learning Torah. The curse is only in a time when you’re not learning. But if a person is learning, and he’s doing mitzvos, there’s no curse. He could be blessed in that moment. Hashem will take care of him. Hashem will take care of his parnassa, of his finances. The point really is that we have to change our attitude and our perspective of what the physical world is about, and our physicality, and our materialism. The focus of this world is spirituality, and God is here to help us with the mitzvos. In shemitta, every seven years, we can’t work the land. And in the yovel, the land goes back to its original owners, and the slaves are freed. What does that mean in terms of our connection to our possessions? You have to get the right perspective of the way God is looking at the world. We have to have God’s perspective on what life is about.
I’d just like to give everybody the blessing that this week’s Parsha should help us to grow in spirituality.
A Powerful Parable
The Maggid mi Dubno says like this. He brings the possuk, “You shall count for yourself seven sabbatical years, seven years, seven times, and it shall be for you the days of seven sabbatical years, 49 years.” Wow, what a possuk. He says, “What do we need all these details for? Just say, “You’ll count for yourselves, seven sabbatical years. What do we need all these details for?” What’s the moshul? A poor man spent all of his life begging, but he used to proudly tell his friends how much money he had. So they said, “What are you so proud of? It’s true that over all the years you’ve collected a lot of pennies. And it’s true you have a lot of pennies. But if you even would change all those pennies in for gold dinars, you’ll see that you really don’t have too much money.” The moshul is that a person counts his days in this world by months and years. Therefore, he thinks he has a long time to live. 70 or 80 years, and he’s the master of himself and of his home, and his property. But if a person counts shemitta years, every seven years and all the more so every 49 years, he will realize how short life is, and he’ll get a proper perspective of what his purpose is here.
Great Stories – Rav Shach
Vayikra 25:17 says, “Do not harass one another, and you shall fear your God, for I am Hashem, your God.” This lav, this negative commandment is a negative commandment that you cannot cause another Jew anguish. One time, Rav Shach was called to be the sandek at a bris, circumcision. He was sitting there waiting the chair, to be the sandek. They put the baby on his lap. Someone just then was moving a bench, and they hit Rav Shach in the back of the neck with the bench. Everybody was shocked, they were all looking. Rav Shach didn’t even turn around. He didn’t want to embarrass the person who did it.
Peace in Your Home
Rav Simcha Cohen explains the right way to criticize. When you want to give criticism to your spouse you have to plan it, because you want it to be heard. And you want the other person to get the point, because the reason why you’re criticizing is to prevent the things happening in the future. If the other person perceives it as an attack, there’s no way you’re going to get across to him. They’re just thinking of what they’re going to say back to you.
One time he spoke to an army officer. When he used to have to rebuke his soldiers, he used to tell them straight out. Then he realized that it didn’t work. He told the Rabbi, “I have to soften things up a little bit. I need to lie a little bit.” The Rav said, “That’s not called a lie, because a lie is something that leads to damage. But here, you’re trying to do good.” Chazal tells us, before you want to give criticism you first have to give praise. That’s the way, that’s the only way that the other person’s going to hear it. And people like praise. Even if they know you’re flattering them, people love it, and it relaxes them. In the sefer Shtei Luchos ha Bris, he brings down the verse, “Do not give rebuke to the clown, because he will come to hate you.” He explains, what do you mean? Don’t give rebuke to someone that it implies that he’s a clown, because he’s not going to listen to you. He’s going to hate you. You have to give a compliment first. You have to say something like this, “You are such a wise person. It simply doesn’t figure to have such behavior.” Then there’s a subtle message that comes across. I’m criticizing part of your behavior, but I have nothing against you as a person. Because if you criticize your spouse, they’re going to feel you don’t love them. They’re going to think all their good points you’re ignoring. So, you have to up front tell them you don’t feel that way. You recognize their good points. You love them, you appreciate them.
He tells a great story about a man and a woman, one time instead of talking to each other used to write each other letters. But they would write nasty letters to each other, so it didn’t work. She heard the Rav speak somewhere, and she decided, “You know what? I’m going to write at the beginning of the letter, the first page I’m going to write what I appreciate about my husband. And then I’ll write a couple of pages about what’s bothering me.” So, she watched her husband read the letter. At the beginning, a big surprise came over his face. Wow. Then he started to become a little bit more guarded. But then he went back to the first page, and read it over again. He broke out in a smile. He came over her to right away and he said, “Let’s make peace.” Because when the other person feels loved, there’s a chance that the criticism is going to be internalized.
The Rambam’s grandson said, “Receive people with a pleasant expression and smiling face, so they will accept what you say and act upon it.” Another point is, you have to criticize the action, not the person. If you say, “I was very hurt by what you said,” you’re not criticizing the other person. You’re criticizing the action. But if you say, “Why do you always do things like that?” you’re asking for trouble. You’re criticizing the person a. and b. you’re asking a question, surely you’re going to get a harsh answer back. So, don’t do it in a question form. Do it in a positive statement. Say something like, “I don’t imagine that you meant to hurt me. But there were things you said that were painful.” Also, don’t deal with the past. Don’t hark on the past. The main point of criticism is to change things for the future. You always have to mention the pain that you feel. This way the person won’t feel it’s an attack. You’re talking about your pain.
One time there was a woman who was upset with her husband, because he always used to blabbermouth what went on in their house. She used to say to him, “It’s just not done. Nobody talks about such things.” He didn’t react. But as soon as she told him how much it hurts her, he stopped.
He also has another case of a husband who always used to come home late every night. She said, “I’m tired of waiting for you,” but nothing helped. Instead, what did she do? He came home, waited a little bit. She started to talk to him. She says, “I understand you’re popular and people like talking to you. I’m sure you don’t mean to hurt me. But look what you’re doing by being late every time. I don’t know when to start cooking. I waste a lot of time. I don’t know when to finish my work. I could be resting. Every time you come home late, I feel like you don’t care about me. Therefore, I’m losing my interest in making you happy. Please help me.” What did this do? First of all, she didn’t make him look like he had bad intentions. He’s popular, and people want to speak to him. Then she explained to him ‘her efforts, how hard she’s working. She tells him about how she’s losing rest. Then she asks for his help. Then she points out what he has to lose. So, these are just some of the rules on how to criticize. Next week Bezras Hashem, we’ll continue to explain how to give criticism.
Okay, that’s it for this week’s podcast. Please share it with your friends and please leave a comment on iTunes.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mitterhoff
Stephan Sundkvist says
What a wonderful lesson. I get so happy to read about the unfathomable wisdom that we find in the Torah. It radiates G-d´s love and care for the human kind. It helps us to live a life in accordance to the will of the Almighty. And we find them all in the mitzvos, both the “negative” and the “positive”, as they all are fundamentally good for us all.
I wish that these lessons were given to all children in the world.