Rabbi Dudi Winkler
Former Rosh Kollel in Melbourne 2011-2014
Currently Rebbe at Yeshivat Lev HaTorah and inaugural director of Lev LaChayal, the Yeshiva Center for Lone Soldiers
Follow Me Into the Wilderness
Our Parasha, Parashat Behar, presents a very wide variety of mitzvot, most of which are dependent on and “in effect” only in Eretz Yisrael.
The parasha opens with the words – “When you come into the Land” and lists, one by one, the commandments of Shmitta, both monetary and for the land, Yovel (the Jubilee year), buying/selling houses in walled cities, the prohibition of usury, Hebrew slaves, the prohibition of statues and matzevot, and the prohibition of bowing on a stone floor outside the Holy Temple. The parasha concludes with the observance of the Sabbath and reverence for the Temple.
The Midrash in Torat Kohanim raises the question of the relationship between the first verse in the parasha, “God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying…” and the commandment of shemitta which follows immediately after, with the famous question: “How are the laws of shemitta connected to Mount Sinai?”.
To this famous question there is an equally famous answer: “Just as, regarding shemitta, its laws and provisions were commanded at Mount Sinai, so were all other laws also commanded at Mount Sinai.”
Rashi explains that since the detailed commandments regarding shemitta were not given to Bnei Yisrael in the plains of Moab but rather at Mount Sinai, in the same manner all mitzvot that are mentioned in Mishne Torah (the book of Devarim) were given to Bnei Yisrael at Mount Sinai.
However, this question of the midrash can be explained in another way and the answer will be entirely different.
The “Esh Kodesh”, the Rebbe of Piasetzna, in his commentary on Parashat Yitro written in 1940 at the beginning of the Second World War, asks why the Torah was given in the desert rather than in Eretz Yisrael: “If Israel would have received the Torah in their land, in Eretz Yisrael, they would have thought that they can keep the Torah only in their homeland and not when in exile; therefore, G-d gave them the Torah in the wilderness, during their journey to Eretz Yisrael, to teach them that they need to keep the Torah wherever they are.”
The Rebbe is saying in effect, that the words of Torah and its commandments are not defined and limited to a particular time or place. This can also be seen from Rashi’s commentary on Parashat Ekev, as will soon be explained.
According to this interpretation, the parasha points out the general importance of keeping G-d’s commandments as well as the specific importance of G-d’s giving Am Yisrael the Torah prior to their entering Eretz Yisrael, where these commandments received an additional level of importance.
We can find a similar idea in Parashat Ekev, “And it will be, if you follow my ways…” (Devarim 11) where the following verses appear (from verse 14 onward):
וְנָתַתִּ֧י מְטַֽר־אַרְצְכֶ֛ם בְּעִתּ֖וֹ יוֹרֶ֣ה וּמַלְק֑וֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ֣ דְגָנֶ֔ךָ וְתִֽירֹשְׁךָ֖ וְיִצְהָרֶֽךָ. וְנָתַתִּ֛י עֵ֥שֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ֖ לִבְהֶמְתֶּ֑ךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָֽעְתָּ. הִשָּֽׁמְר֣וּ לָכֶ֔ם פֶּ֥ן יִפְתֶּ֖ה לְבַבְכֶ֑ם וְסַרְתֶּ֗ם וַעֲבַדְתֶּם֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתֶ֖ם לָהֶֽם. וְחָרָ֨ה אַף ה’ בָּכֶ֗ם וְעָצַ֤ר אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֣ה מָטָ֔ר וְהָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן אֶת־יְבוּלָ֑הּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּ֣ם מְהֵרָ֗ה מֵעַל֙ הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר ה’ נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם. וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־דְּבָרַ֣י אֵ֔לֶּה עַל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וְעַֽל־נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּ֨ם אֹתָ֤ם לְאוֹת֙ עַל־יֶדְכֶ֔ם וְהָי֥וּ לְטוֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֵיכֶֽם:
The last verse mentions the commandment of tefillin to which Rashi explains: “Even when you will be in exile, keep the commandments, put on tefillin, put mezuzote on your doorposts, so that these mitzvot will not be new to you when you return to the Land.”
In addition, Jeremiah (31, 20) tells Israel to “make yourselves reminders”. Ostensibly the words of Rashi accord added value to the commandments, even when the people of Israel are in exile.
However, according to Rashi it turns out that the reason for and the value of observing the commandments outside Israel is so that we not forget the commandments until we can return to Eretz Yisrael.
Hence the value of the commandments exists in Eretz Yisrael whereas in exile we are commanded not to forget how to fulfill them. Indeed, the Ramban writes at the end of his remarks on this verse: “But the main point of this verse is in the Land”.
We can therefore read these verses in light of the well-known midrash and say – what connection is there between shmitta and Mount Sinai? This teaches us that just as shmitta and the commandments which are dependent on Eretz Yisrael can only be kept in Eretz Yisrael itself, so do the rest of the commandments, for example Shabbat and idolatry and even mitzvot which we observe with our “bodies” such as tefillin, the foundation of all these mitzvot is that they be observed in Eretz Yisrael.
May these days in which we commemorate on the one hand the exile of Israel because of Israel’s “disrespect one for the other”, and on the other hand we are in the midst of days between physical independence (Independence Day) and spiritual independence (Jerusalem Day), we will all connect to Israel and its commandments, and thus enlighten and shed new light of “Torah MitZion” into our lives and fill our lives with the “dew of life” based on the nation’s rebirth, giving a new – and old – meaning for our lives, filled with Torah and mitzvot.