Former Shaliach in Cape Town
Which mitzvot were conveyed to Moshe at Sinai – just the general rules or the details as well? Although we will not address this issue, we can see that the only mitzvot which the Torah specifically tells us were communicated at Sinai are those that appear in our parsha and are introduced with the phrase:
“And Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying.” (Vayikra 25:1)
Our commentaries try to explain why the Torah declares that our parsha specifically was said at Har Sinai. For example, Rashi famously states that our parsha serves as a paradigm for all the mitzvot, which were all given at Sinai together with their details:
“Scripture comes and teaches here about every statement that was conveyed to Moshe – that they were all from Sinai, [including] their general principles and their finer points…” (Rashi, ibid)
Yet, Rashi does not clarify why Parshat Behar – in particular – was chosen to serve as a paradigm for all the mitzvot. In other words, what is unique about this parsha? In order to answer this question, we begin by examining the parsha’s main topics: shmitah, yovel and their respective laws.
Both shmitah and yovel are frequently cited as illustrations of the Torah’s magnificence. The physical world’s regular cyclicality is nullified, and everything returns to the Source. Since the land reverts to its original owner, debts are cancelled, and slaves are freed, everyone is granted an equal opportunity to get ahead.
But, in fact, this idea’s beauty masks its inherent injustice. Why should a person who purchased a field, planted, toiled and invested considerable time and effort be forced to give it back to someone who did nothing? Why should a person who worked his land for six years be forced to repudiate ownership during the seventh year and to watch others enjoy the fruits of his labors?
We should note that shmitah and yovel are uniquely unjust. These two mitzvot are not part of the mitzvot of tzedakah. As its name implies, tzedakah is based on justice (tzedek). One must sustain the society around oneself – according to one’s means and stature. By definition, this sustenance includes tzedakah to those in need.
In contrast, shmitah and yovel do not require a person to contribute based on his means and stature. Rather, they remove and conceal his financial position and wealth. Thus, these mitzvot are inherently unjust.
But if they are not based on justice, what are these mitzvot based on? As we will see, these mitzvot are special, precisely because they reflect chessed (loosely, loving kindness) rather than justice.
What is chessed? First of all, chessed is not rachamim (mercy or compassion). Rachamim denotes a situation where a person observes another person’s suffering and is distressed that his friend is hurt. This distress induces him to help out. In contrast, chessed refers to a case where one person’s pain and suffering becomes someone else’s pain and suffering as well. The observer literally feels the sufferer’s pain. Hence, Rav Aryeh Levin epitomized chessed when he took his wife to the doctor and announced, “My wife’s foot hurts us.”
Shmitah and yovel are featured prominently in Parshat Behar, because they are mitzvot of chessed. These two mitzvot do not involve the haves giving to the have-nots. Rather, the haves waive their own position and become one with the have-nots. Moreover, a person would be unable to return a field in which he had invested considerable time, money and effort if he was not motivated by chessed, or complete and total identification with one’s fellow man.
Precisely because these are mitzvot of chessed, they were selected to teach us about all the other mitzvot. Chessed enables us to stand before Hashem. As the Chafetz Chaim (Ahavat Chessed 5) explains:
“Now, since man is obviously confined within time and space, his deeds cannot penetrate beyond a certain limit – the furthest point his merit can reach. Therefore, Scripture has advised us that… we should ourselves awaken the attributes of Hashem’s goodness and chessed for us, by clinging in our deeds to these same virtues.”
We were commanded regarding tzedakah u’mishpat at Sinai, but we must understand that our ability to stand before Hashem with tzedakah u’mishpat is based on chessed.
In memory of my grandmother, Rivka bat Esther Gittel z”l