Don’t Slander the Land!

beautiful landWhen describing the sin of the spies, the Torah uses a somewhat unusual term: “Vayotziu Dibat HaAretz” (Numbers 13:32).  While this is usually translated as “they spoke evil about the land” or “they slandered the land,” the word “Diba” appears only a few other times in the Bible, and there is only one other place where it is used in a narrative context[1] . In both contexts, its exact meaning is unclear.

I’m not sure of the precise definition of the word Diba, or the significance of its usage here (if anyone has any thoughts, please comment below!).   But I would like to point out that there is actually something quite unusual about the specific type of evil speech through which the spies sinned.

Jewish law describes several different offences in the area of evil speech.  What is typically referred to in English as “slander” is called Motzi shem ra.  This refers to a situation where a person spreads negative false rumors or lies about another person, group of institution.  There are other offences called Lashon HaRa (literally: “evil speech”) and Rechilut (sometimes translated as “gossip”) that cover situations where a person reveals negative true information about someone else.[2] Although sometimes it is permitted, proper and even required to reveal negative information, if not justified then defaming someone, even with the truth, is a crime.

So there are sins involving lies, and sins involving the truth.  In which category should we place the Dibat HaAretz of the spies?

On the one hand, a careful reading of the Numbers 13:17-32 makes clear that everything they said was true.  So it wasn’t the Motzi shem ra type of slander.

But it wasn’t Lashon HaRa either, since the information they revealed (that the inhabitants of the land were numerous and strong and that some were giants, that the cities were powerfully fortified and that the living conditions could be harsh) were not objectively negative things.  Indeed, the two dissenting spies who gave a favorable report did not dispute any of the facts revealed by the others.  On top of that, they had been specifically charged with the mission of reporting on these very matters (see particularly 13:18-20).  They cannot be blamed for telling the truth and they did not illegitimately revealing damaging information.  So it wasn’t Lashon HaRa.

So what, in fact, was the nature of this Dibat HaAretz?  In their case, the sin was simply about how they presented the information, and how they interpreted it.  The very same facts that could lead some of the spies to declare, “We can certainly accomplish it…the land is very very good!”  caused others to proclaim, “We cannot make it there…it is a land that consumes its inhabitants.” It’s simply a matter of perspective.

The minority report of Joshua and Caleb was infused with faith and optimism; the majority report of the other ten was poisoned with cynicism.  Tragically, the destructive power of cynical negativity was too great to overcome, and this led to an entire generation dying in the desert.  This was the sin of Dibat HaAretz.

There’s a powerful lesson in this, especially in the age of the internet and social media.

Here in Israel, we’ve recently completed an election campaign that was marked by negativity, shallow slogans and ad hominem attacks.  Similarly, across the Jewish world, as we debate various controversial issues, the same tendencies towards demagoguery and maligning others for easy advantage sometimes surface.  And to make matters worse, we’ve recently confronted a number of scandals involving criminal or inappropriate behavior by rabbis and other leaders, and these have provoked responses that at times go way beyond addressing the actual issues and malign entire communities, philosophies and institutions.

Do not misunderstand what I’m saying.  Criminals, evil people and those who harm others must be stopped immediately and brought to justice.  Genuine problems in our communities and our country must be exposed, confronted and overcome, and legitimate arguments must be debated.  It’s just that none of this needs to involve cynicism.

So as we read about the spies this Shabbat, let’s all resolve to work vigorously to fix whatever is broken, but not to slander (or “l’hotzi Diba”) our people, our brethren and our country.  Let’s join Joshua and Caleb proclaiming “The land (and its people) are very very good!”

[1]This is in relation to Joseph, who told his father something bad about his brothers: “Vayave Yosef et Dibatam ra’ah el avihem” (Genesis 37:2).  However, the Torah does not inform us of the content of Joseph’s report to his father, so it is unclear what the term actually means.

[2]The distinction between those two categories is not important here.

Gedol HaDor

RALIn the past month since the passing of moreinu ve-rabbenu (our esteemed teacher), much has been said and written about Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.  Each speaker and writer has tried to shed light on some particular aspect of the uniqueness of this Torah giant.

Personally, I’ve remained fairly (and uncharacteristically) silent.  It’s not that I don’t have anything to say – to the contrary, I could write many tens of pages about the formative impact he had on me and the immeasurable amount of things I learned from him over the decades.  I have basically remained silent, though, because I didn’t want to say things that have already been said.  As our Sages put it, kol hamosif, gore’a (adding can sometimes take away).

But now, on the occasion of the shloshim (the conclusion of the thirty-day period of mourning), I do have an insight to share.  I want to discuss a term that I have heard – and used – again and again over the past month when speaking about Rav Aharon:  Gedol HaDor (the great one of the generation) [1].

Calling Rav Aharon a Gedol HaDor may seem unremarkable, but it is actually somewhat of a paradox, because it’s a term that he didn’t use very often.  He certainly never referred to himself by that title, but he also didn’t generally use it to refer to his own revered teachers and other Torah giants of this generation or of previous ones.  There was a reason for that.

You see, in contemporary Orthodox discourse, the term “Gedol HaDor” (or the more generalized plural term “Gedolim”) has taken on meanings and connotations that don’t really exist in classic Jewish sources.  The contemporary use of the term Gedolim is associated with a philosophy about which Rav Lichtenstein often expressed reservations or objections.

Nowadays, when the term Gedolim is used, it’s generally applied to a select group of specific individuals, as if it connotes an objective status or position to which one must be appointed.  Those crowned as Gedolim are granted wide-ranging authority.  Their halachic rulings are deemed binding on the entire generation, and automatically override those of any other rabbi who is not considered a Gadol.  On matters of public policy, their word is final and as binding as the instructions of the Torah itself.[2]  In some circles, their prayers and blessings are deemed to possess supernatural power, their predictions and pronouncements are regarded as prophetic and their personal instructions – even on non-halachic matters – are deemed binding.

When the term “Gedolim” is used these days, it is often accompanied by the assumption that there is unanimous agreement as to who is a member of this group, and who is not.  There is not, however, an agreed-upon mechanism for obtaining the status of “Gadol”.  And while some of those designated as Gedolim in recent years and decades were undoubtedly worthy of the title, I’m not so sure about others.  And there definitely are some individuals who I believe should be on such a list, but for some reason aren’t.

For his part, Rav Lichtenstein was steadfast in his insistence on the absolute supremacy of halacha and the requirement that only qualified posekim (decisors) issue halachic rulings.  He also spoke frequently about the need to hold Torah learning and Torah scholars in high regard, and about the esteem he had for his own teachers.

Still, I don’t recall him using the term “Gadol” very often, if at all.  He was adamant that halachic arguments should be judged on the basis of the sources, that ideas should be judged based on their merits, that rabbis should not determine all aspects of public policy, and that rabbinic pronouncements do not remove an individual’s right to make autonomous decisions nor his responsibility for those decisions.

Because Rav Aharon didn’t speak about “Gedolim”, his students generally didn’t either.  And yet, now that he has left us, we all find ourselves referring to our revered and beloved teacher by that exact title:  Gedol HaDor.  And why?  Because, simply, that’s the only way to describe what he was – one of the greatest people of our generation.

He wasn’t a member of an exclusive group with special authority, because he negated the very legitimacy of that concept.  He didn’t insist that his students and followers accept his opinion – to the contrary; he insisted that we think for ourselves and form our own opinions, sometimes even on matters of halacha.

And yet, he taught and led tens of thousands.  Among the multitudes of his students are rabbis, teachers and leaders across Israel and the world.  His teachings continue to reverberate, and indeed he was a leader to the entire generation.

He commanded respect and emulation, though he never demanded it.  His impact on an entire generation came simply through the power of his encyclopedic knowledge, unfathomable intellect, and even greater piety, humanity and concern for others.  He taught us to reject the culture of “Gedolim,” but he led an entire generation simply by being the Gedol HaDor.

[1] Though sometimes pronounced “Gadol HaDor,” I prefer to use the grammatically correct Hebrew expression.

[2] Indeed, several political parties in the current Knesset have official bodies known as “Moetzot Gedolei HaTorah” which make all decisions.  The MKs in these parties are ostensibly obligated to vote only according to the instructions of the “Gedolim”.

My Son is a Soldier

20150309_100512Yesterday, my wife and I dropped off our oldest son, Moshe, to begin his service in the IDF.  Since I never served in the army myself, and since our two older daughters did National Service, this was a first for us.

I’ve lived in Israel for almost 18 years, and never have I felt more like an oleh chadash (new immigrant) than I did yesterday.  Paradoxically, though, I’ve also never felt more Israeli.

Our son is enrolled in a five-year hesder program that combines military service with Yeshiva study.  He enlisted in the Givati Brigade together with an entire group from his Yeshiva, and a few other Yeshivot also had groups enlisting yesterday.  Amazingly, as the boys gathered at the enlistment point in Tel HaShomer, each group greeted their friends enthusiastically, with singing and dancing (watch video)!  Even later in the day when he got to his training base and sent us a picture of his “dormitory” (see below) he was in great spirits.

Luxury Accomodations

Luxury Accomodations

As a parent, I can’t say I feel exactly the same way.

18 years ago, when I made Aliya, many people asked me what I thought about the idea that my son (who was two years old at the time) would one day have to serve in the army.  My answer was always the same: “I hope it won’t be an issue.  I hope that by the time he’s old enough, there will be peace and we won’t need an army anymore.”   This response usually elicited a chuckle or a sarcastic response, followed by, “No – seriously…”.  People reacted as if I had found an elegant way to avoid dealing with the issue.

But I wasn’t avoiding anything. I meant it in all sincerity.  I was perplexed that people seemed to think my proposition – that maybe there would be peace – was so unrealistic.  Often, these conversations took place in shul, just after we finished praying.  I wondered what it meant that a person who just finished reciting the Amida prayer, with its multiple requests to bring the Messiah quickly, can so easily scoff at the suggestion that perhaps, in 15 or 20 years, those requests might actually be answered!

Over the years I have self-righteously repeated that story in various venues, exhorting my audience to consider whether they really believed in the Redemption.  But yesterday the day finally arrived, and unfortunately, the Messiah isn’t here yet.  Our army is still just as necessary as it was when Moshe was a baby, and last summer, we saw exactly what being an Israeli soldier can still mean.  So for the past few weeks I’ve been asking myself what it means that this moment has finally arrived, and in spite of my confident declarations over the years, the issue still is very relevant.

But then last week, I remembered another story that happened around 17 years ago, shortly after making Aliya.  I was in Eilat with a group of students.  Sitting in the lobby of the youth hostel, I struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman who was working there.  At one point in the conversation, the man lifted his shirt to show me that he was carrying a tiny miniature pistol in his belt.  It was only about four or five inches long and looked like a toy, but the man insisted that it was an actual, fully functional handgun.  He then explained that he got such a small gun because he carries it with him wherever he goes, all the time.  “You will never catch me without it,” he said.

I asked him, as a resident of Eilat, why he needs to be armed all the time.  There are, of course, dangerous places where one might feel the need to carry weapons – but Eilat isn’t one of them.  Did he really feel that he couldn’t walk out of his house without a gun?

“Apparently you don’t understand,” he responded.  He then lifted a different part of his shirt – his sleeve – to reveal a series of numbers tattooed on his arm.   “I know what can happen when Jews can’t carry weapons.  When I got to Israel and saw that now, God has given us the right to have them, I vowed that I would actualize that right for every minute of the rest of my life.  It doesn’t matter if I will ever need it – as a Jew I can now carry a weapon, and can defend myself.  That’s an incredible thing, and not to be taken for granted.”

That powerful story has stayed with me over the years, and last week I realized that it was the answer to the issue I’ve been struggling with.  No, the process of Redemption is not yet complete, and we still need an army.  But the thing is that we have an army!!  And that means the Redemption is well under way.

Moshe is the first person in our family in several thousand years to serve in a Jewish army.   That’s a huge privilege.  Yes, it’s something to worry about, but it’s also something to be proud and even happy about, and to thank God for.

That’s the paradox of these amazing and confusing times.  I guess I really am Israeli now.

Humiliated on the Temple Mount

Snow on the Dome of the Rock in the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City is seen from the Mount of OlivesLast week, I went up to Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount).[1]  I’ve been there a number of times before, but this time was different. In the past, I have gone to the Mount as part of an organized group of religious Jews led by a rabbi. This time, I was there as part of the course I’m taking to get my tour guide license. My classmates are mainly secular Jews, and there are some non-Jews in the class as well. I was the only rabbi with us.

In some ways this experience was even more uplifting and inspiring than my previous visits, and in other ways, it was even more infuriating and humiliating.  Let me explain.

Security on the Mount is provided by armed Israeli police and unarmed officials of the Moslem wakf (religious trust), like this guy:

wakf guard

The policy of the Israeli government and police is to allow Jews to visit the Mount, but not to pray there, since that would apparently offend the Moslems. But for some reason, while the police vigorously enforce these prohibitions, they allow deliberate provocations from the other side. For example, groups of Arab women are bussed in to Jerusalem every day, just to follow Jews around the Temple Mount, shout loudly at them and taunt them (rumor has it they are paid a salary for their services). See this video for an example.

In previous visits I have gotten used to this intolerable situation. But this time, going “incognito” with a group not identified as religious, I was left more or less alone. Going up as a tour guide and not as a religious Jew also gave me the opportunity to enter a few places I otherwise would not have been able to, mainly the underground chambers from the time of the Second Bet HaMikdash known (inaccurately) as “Solomon’s Stables”.  That was really amazing.

solomons stables

“Solomon’s Stables” built by King Herod

shaar hulda hallway

Hallway ascending to the Mount from the southern gates known as “Shaarei Hulda”. Our ancestors in Second Temple times used this entrance to the Mount.

So why do I say that my visit was also infuriating and humiliating?

In order to avoid offending the sensibilities of the Moslems, we were told in advance that we would not be allowed to display any outward Jewish symbols such as a kippa or tzitzit. These would need to be concealed. This bothered me greatly – do I really have to hide my Jewishness here, in the heart of Jerusalem??

But then it got worse. At one point the police told us we would need to remove our hats altogether and walk bare-headed. I explained that I didn’t want to do that; I always keep my head covered for religious reasons, it was a hat and not a kippah, and all the tourists on the Mount were also wearing hats (it was raining). But I was told that this is the rule and if I did not comply, I would have to leave the Mount immediately.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – I have never received a demand like that from a policeman, anywhere in any country (to the contrary; wherever I go, the police protect my rights). Was an Israeli policeman actually demanding that I remove my head covering??? Here, of all places???  I had to make a split-second decision: comply with the demand, or be expelled from the Temple Mount. I’m not sure if I did the right thing or not…but I complied.

A few minutes later, with my hat back on and in a better mood, I experienced an even more exhilarating aspect of the visit. On two separate occasions I needed to wait for my group (for example while they were in the areas that halacha prohibits entering). According to Jewish law, one is not allowed to engage in frivolity or idle chatter on the Har HaBayit, so those waiting times gave me the opportunity to observe the mitzva of mora mikdash – reverence of the holy site.

Although I am strongly opposed to them, I was careful to abide by the rules that prohibit Jews from praying out loud. So I simply stood still, staring at the Dome of the Rock (where the Holy of Holies is) and contemplated the awe-inspiring significance of the place. Even though I did not pray out loud and I made sure to follow the rules that my lips not be seen moving, I did manage to recite Psalm 24 to myself about five or six times. With a religious group, the police generally keep the group moving, so there is no time for that.

But then, a wakf guard noticed me standing there, absorbed in my thoughts and swaying softly. He immediately approached and told me that praying was forbidden. I responded that I was not praying; just standing there. He insisted that I stand in a different pose in order to make it clear that I am not praying. An Israeli policeman then asked me to sit down so that nobody would think I was praying.

Since descending from the Mount, the conflicted emotions of soaring spiritual inspiration combined with pain, humiliation and deep sadness have gotten me thinking. I have drawn three conclusions from this experience:

1)  In spite of the indignities, we must be very grateful for the fact that we have the right and ability to visit this holiest of places in accordance with the demands of halacha and in safety and security.

2)  The humiliation I felt at the hands of the authorities was once commonplace for Jews. Thankfully I have almost never experienced anything like that – certainly not here in Israel but not in any other country either. The experience was, therefore, a helpful reminder that the Redemption is still not complete. It highlights the paradox that although the city of Jerusalem has been rebuilt in the most splendid of ways, its most important part remains in ruins. I felt the churban very clearly there.

3)  It is unconscionable that the Israeli government allows this type of disgrace to go on. We must use every legal means to pressure them to change this policy and allow Jews to pray openly and securely. If Moslems object and attempt to interfere, it is they who must be removed from the Mount.

But we must understand that the reason this is happening is that most of the Jewish people doesn’t understand the significance of this place. Imagine if the government wanted to restrict Jewish prayer at the Kotel. Any government that even attempted such a thing would be brought down within minutes, because the Israeli people would not stand for that. The humiliation at the Temple Mount will similarly end when the Jewish People are reconnected with it.

Thus, the solution to this injustice, like so many other things, comes down to the need to encourage more and deeper Jewish education. We must redouble our efforts to teach more Torah to more Jews everywhere. Ultimately that is what will lead to our Redemption.

[1]The halachic questions regarding entering the Har HaBayit should be the subject of a separate article. For now, I will say that many rabbis hold that it is prohibited at the present time to enter the Mount at all. However, I obviously follow a different opinion, also supported by many authorities, that allows it provided one immerses in a mikveh first and observes various restrictions regarding the areas of the mountain that are permissible, and regarding appropriate conduct on the Mount.

What are YOU doing about Shemita?

vegetablesNote: This post, which is also entitled “The Challenge of Shemita – Part Two”, primarily addresses those who live in Israel. Readers in the Diaspora are of course also invited to read it and to contemplate the questions raised.

Just before Shemita started, I wrote about the conceptual idea of this mitzva, and the inspiring values that Shemita represents.  Now, after half a year of eating holy vegetables, teaching about Shemita and taking people on tours to learn the history of Shemita and meet farmers who struggle to observe it in the best way they can, I want to talk a bit about practicalities.

For those of us who aren’t farmers, observance of Shemita is expressed primarily in the question of which fruits and vegetables we consume. Although there are numerous possibilities, in broad strokes we have three types of options (See The Kosher Consumer’s Guide to Shemita for more detailed explanations):

  1. We can buy the “standard” produce sold in most stores under supervision of the Chief Rabbinate, grown using the Heter Mechira, on land that has been temporarily sold to a non-Jew in order to remove its sanctity and exempt us from observing Shemita Although there is a broad consensus that it is necessary for many farmers to rely on this leniency, some kashrut organizations refuse to certify this produce and many individuals are reluctant to consume it, for both halachic and philosophical reasons.
  2. We can seek out produce grown and marketed by Jewish farmers in ways which are permissible during Shemita without selling the land. These farmers also rely on leniencies and loopholes, but they are actually observing the mitzvah, not bypassing it. Some of the products grown this way (those marked “Otzar Bet Din”) have kedushat shvi’it (Shemita sanctity) and must therefore be handled with special care and used according to special regulations.
  3. Or, we can avoid the issue altogether by buying produce grown by non-Jews (typically local Arabs) or imported from outside of Israel.

Although I understand the halachic reasoning and the thinking behind all three approaches, my personal preference is clear: I try very hard to support Jewish farmers! Whenever possible, I invest the effort and expense to use Otzar Bet Din products or others from category #2. If that is not possible I will use Heter Mechira. Buying from non-Jews is my last resort.

Contemplating this decision allows us to explore two fascinating philosophical questions.

One question has to do with how we relate to Kedusha (holiness).  While I seek out and relish the opportunity to consume produce with kedushat shvi’it, many people do the exact opposite: they avoid it, because of the restrictions on how this produce may be used, and because one must try to avoid destroying it. When I teach about Shemita, I explain how it isn’t difficult to observe the restrictions, but still many people find them stressful. Why worry about mistakenly doing something wrong? It’s much easier, and safer, to buy non-holy vegetables, such as those grown by non-Jews.

But as always, there’s another side to that coin. Eating Otzar Bet Din fruits and vegetables is a rare opportunity for us to bring kedusha into our homes and lives (in the present halachic epoch, it is the only such opportunity).

So the question is: Is kedusha something to be feared, or embraced?  We pray for the Mashiach to come and for the Temple to be rebuilt. When those prayers are answered, are we going to run with joy to gather there? Or will we stay home for fear of incurring God’s wrath by violating the sanctity of the place?

This discussion is about a lot more than Shemita; it has to do with our entire hashkafa (outlook on life). Some people and communities live by a philosophy that views the world as a dangerous place, full of potential pitfalls and stumbling blocks to be avoided, and do everything possible to stay safe by avoiding any possibility of sin. I understand that approach – but I reject it. Staying “safe” carries an even bigger risk – it means giving up many opportunities for spiritual accomplishment and growth.

~~~

Modern Shemita observance also raises another philosophical question: Are we meant to serve God primarily as individuals? Or as a nation?

Many people look at Shemita as an issue of kashrut. As God-fearing Jews, they try to only eat food that meets the “highest standard”.

While this may make sense for items such as meat or milk products, when it comes to Shemita the issue is significantly more complicated.  This is because even many people who don’t rely on the Heter Mechira themselves will acknowledge that often, farmers have no other choice (see The Kosher Consumer’s Guide for explanation).  I’ve heard people say things like: “If I was a farmer, I would almost certainly sell my fields to an Arab during Shemita. I don’t criticize them at all for doing so. But since I’m not a farmer and this doesn’t affect my livelihood, why should I rely on the leniency?”

There is, though, a big problem with that type of thinking. Is it fair to abandon those farmers, by buying from non-Jews this year? For the past six years, we ate the food they grew. Just because we have other jobs and the mitzva of Shemita falls primarily on their shoulders, does that mean we have no responsibility towards them?  Does Shemita mean causing other people to lose money while we go about our business as usual?? Such an idea is quite far from the unity and equality the Torah wants to create this year!

This is even truer regarding those heroic farmers who take risks and sacrifice to observe Shemita without the heter mechira, by using expensive and risky methods like Otzar Bet Din and matza menutak. Especially for those who don’t want to rely on heter mechira, isn’t there an OBLIGATION to participate in the mitzva, by consuming this produce and helping cover the costs?

Shemita is not a mitzva for the individual; it is for the nation as a whole. Just because we aren’t the ones actually farming the land doesn’t exempt us from participating in the mitzva.

In my opinion, buying all of our vegetables from Arabs while letting the farmers absorb the losses is not an ideal way to observe Shemita. I certainly wouldn’t describe that as “Kosher LeMehadrin”.

The Challenge of Shemita – Part One

wheatfieldA few hours from now, the Shemita year will begin!

Here in Israel, once every seven years we observe the Sabbatical Year, the Biblical commandment (Shemot 23:10; Vayikra 25:1-7) [1] to refrain from agricultural work, to allow the land to rest and to grant everyone equal and unencumbered access to agricultural produce.

As in previous Shemita years, there has been much discussion and debate about how this law should be observed in modern times.  (I’ve recently published a small booklet explaining the various issues and opinions from the perspective of the consumer.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you can download a copy here.)  These debates are important, and I hope to address them in a follow-up post in the next week or two.  But for now, moments before this awesome holy year is to begin, I would like to draw attention to the lofty and inspiring vision embodied by this commandment.

Shemita is described by the Torah as Shabbat HaAretz.  Just as we observe Shabbat once every seven days, the Land itself observes Shabbat once every seven years. [2]

But it is not only the land that rests.  All of the people who work the land rest as well.  In a pre-modern agrarian economy, this meant that probably upwards of 80% of the people (who earned their livings either directly from farming or indirectly from related fields like producing wine or oil, or selling agricultural products commercially) would have their employment drastically reduced for an entire year.  Just as we are commanded to cease our economic activity once every seven days in order to remember our Creator, to temporarily release ourselves from the “rat race” of pursuing a livelihood, to spend time with our families and to focus on spiritual matters like prayer and Torah study – so too once every seven years the entire economy was to go into massive slow-down mode, so that the same goals can be met on a national scale.

But Shemita isn’t only about God.  It is also about our relationship with each other.  It is about temporarily eliminating the gaps between rich and poor, between strong and weak, between master and servant.  The Torah specifically describes this aspect when it says “And in the Seventh Year you shall release and abandon [your land] so that the poor among your people can eat, and that which they leave over shall be eaten by the wild animals” (Shemot 23:10). [3] And to those people (a very small percentage in the pre-modern agrarian society) whose livelihood was completely unaffected by the cessation of agricultural activity, the Torah addressed the related commandment of Shemitat Kesafim – the requirement to release borrowers from the obligation to pay their loans, and to nonetheless lend money to anyone who needs assistance (Devarim 15:1-8).  The few people who were able to go about their jobs without restriction were obligated to essentially subsidize everyone else. [4]

Reducing our economic activity to such an extent requires us to rely directly on God for our sustenance, and putting our faith in Him to such an extent is very difficult.  For this reason, the Torah itself (Vayikra 25:20-24 and Devarim 15:9-11) uncharacteristically issues a special exhortation about keeping the mitzvah, and promises us a Divine blessing for doing so.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of the human weakness of Jews who didn’t live up to these challenges and various historical circumstances, much of Shemita observance today amounts to legal devices that allow us halachic legitimacy to sidestep these laws. In the case of the agricultural laws we have the Heter Mechira and other loopholes [5], and in the case of Shemitat Kesafim we have the pruzbul, an ancient device recorded in the Talmud that employs a legal loophole to enable lenders to collect loans in spite of the Torah’s commandment to release them.  Let’s be honest: these loopholes are legitimate but they are also, in a sense, cop-outs; we don’t violate the prohibitions, but we don’t live up to the Torah’s vision either.

The ideal of an entire society basically shutting down its economy for an entire year so that everyone, rich and poor alike, can spend the year focusing on spiritual matters and on social equality is apparently still beyond our reach.  It is for that reason that halacha gives us the loopholes, so that we can continue to function.  But that doesn’t mean we should reduce Shemita to a series of legal procedures.  If we can’t yet observe this mitzvah in its fullest, we can at least take a few steps in that direction.

For those of us here in Israel, that means making the effort to eat vegetables and fruits that are endowed with Kedushat Shvi’it (the special sanctity of the Shemita year) available through the Otzar Bet Din system.  More on that, b’ezrat Hashem, in the second post.  For Jews everywhere, though, the values of Shemita – taking time off to focus on our relationship with God and with each other, are still applicable.  And the imperative to help others financially even more than we do in other years, including lending money and forgiving debts when possible [6] also applies to all Jews everywhere.

I recently saw a fascinating website (in Hebrew) called “Shnat HaShevaThe organization behind this is pushing for the general public (with an emphasis on the non-observant sectors) to embrace the values of Shemita as a national social and spiritual imperative.

As we enter Rosh HaShana and begin this holy Shemita year, we should all be thinking about what each of us can do to help enhance the Jewish People’s observance of these commandments and to strengthen the fundamental values they embody.

Shana Tova and Shabbat (Ha’Aretz) Shalom!

 

[1]According to most authorities, contemporary observance of this law is based on a rabbinic ordinance and not Biblical law.  However, the rabbinic enactment is based on a Biblical idea.

[2]A friend of mine who lives near Kibbutz Shaalvim told me seven years ago that they held a cute little ceremony in the late afternoon on Erev Rosh HaShana.  The entire Kibbutz walked down to the fields in order to wish them “Shabbat Shalom!”

[3]This is an expansion of a theme inherent also in the weekly Shabbat.  Compare the two versions of the Fourth Commandment, Shemot 20:7-10 and Devarim 5:11-14.  Note the differences in the reason given for observing the law!

[4] This insight has powerful implications in our contemporary post-industrial economy.  Whereas in ancient times over 80% of people were affected by the agricultural restrictions, today only a miniscule percentage of the public works in these fields.  However, the mitzvah of Shemitat Kesafim applies to all Jews, even outside of Israel!

[5] See The Kosher Consumer’s Guide to Shemita for an explanation of Heter Mechira and the various other loopholes.  Although devices like Otzar Bet Din are much closer to actual observance of the laws then the Heter Mechira is, in its contemporary manifestation it is still far from the ideal described in the Torah.

[6] The pruzbul gives us the ability to lend money without having the debt cancelled by Shemita.  But there is no obligation to use it on every loan!  When lending money to a person with genuine financial need, it is praiseworthy to observe the mitzvah of Shemitat Kesafim in its most literal sense.

Did We Win?

press confIn their press conference yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz insisted that we won the war against Hamas.  They correctly pointed out that Hamas, and the entire Gaza strip, suffered unprecedented damage that will take many years to repair, that Hamas lost around 1000 fighters, some of its most senior leaders, and most of its rockets, tunnels and other weaponry, and that Israel benefitted from wide-ranging international understanding.  They also pointed out that Hamas was forced to capitulate, eventually accepting the very same cease-fire proposal that they refused before the ground invasion. 

Netanyahu made the decision to avoid a full-scale reconquest of the Strip, which would probably have led to the deaths of many of our soldiers and subjected Israel to significant international pressure.  Apparently, he also doesn’t want to have to rule the Gaza strip again.

On the other hand, several members of his cabinet – most notably Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett – argue that because of that very decision, the operation was a failure.  They correctly point out that while Hamas has been weakened it has not been destroyed, and that if they are able to replenish their supplies and reinforce their control as they have after previous cease-fires, the next round of fighting is inevitable, and it will be even more difficult next time.  Additionally, at least in Bennett’s opinion, the prospect of regaining control over the Gaza strip, including the ruins of Gush Katif, would not be a negative thing.

So who is right?  Did we win or lose?

The answer will be clear only with time.  If we are able to keep Hamas weak and prevent it from rearming, and if sustained quiet prevails on our southern border for a significant period of time, then Netanyahu’s tactical decision will be vindicated.  If not, then we indeed failed to achieve our objective.  Personally, while my world-view is closer to Bennett’s, I’m willing to wait and see.

But regardless of who turns out to be correct, at this point a few things should be exceptionally clear: 

  • We can never agree to a Palestinian state with total sovereignty over any land west of the Jordan River. This war we just fought against a fairly powerful Hamas army was a direct result of our disastrous withdrawal from Gaza nine years ago.  Even if Netanyahu is right that reconquering the Strip isn’t wise right now, we can never allow any Palestinian entity, or anyone else for that matter, to have sovereignty there. 
  • Even more so, we cannot entertain any such thoughts regarding any parts of Judea and Samaria, which are significantly closer to our population centers.
  • On a day when Al Qaeda militants just captured the border crossing between Israel and Syria and imprisoned 43 UN peacekeeping soldiers, we should be asking ourselves what things would look like if, God forbid, these guys were sitting on the hills overlooking Tiberias. Thank God we never made a deal with Syria and withdrew from the Golan.  Any such ideas should be removed from the table permanently.

And if Netanyahu is right, it’s only because the world tied our hands.  If we had international support, we could and would have recaptured the Gaza strip and destroyed Hamas long ago (or probably would never have left in the first place) – and the Arab population of Gaza would be much better off.  We must therefore hold the UN, the Europeans, and even the Americans, partially responsible for this mess – even if President Obama and Secretary Kerry are insulted when we say that.

Those leaders, however, are paying the price for their own errors as well.  Obama took pride in the “achievement” of withdrawing American forces from Iraq, he balked and decided to back down from his threats to attack Syria, and in return he got ISIS and the brutal murder of James Foley.  According to intelligence officials quoted in the media, the fear that ISIS operatives (especially those like Foley’s murderer, who have Western passports) will now conduct major terrorist attacks on American or European soil is very real.  One can only shudder with horror at the thought of what might happen if American and European foot-dragging allows Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.  And Prime Minister Netanyahu is absolutely right that all of these groups (Hamas, ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Iran, etc.) are ultimately all the same.

History has shown time and again that what starts with attacks against Jews never ends there.  Thousands of years ago, God told Abraham “I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3).  It has been true throughout history, and it is happening again in front of our eyes.