These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] From the Mountain Top…

Posted on May 15, 2011 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

This past Monday I visited Mount Herzl in Jerusalem with my classmates to commemorate Yom Hazikaron, Israel Remembrance Day. We visited the graves of young soldiers who had fallen recently and those of heroic figures like Hannah Senesh. Many questions raced through my mind as we walked among the graves: Where am I in this narrative? Would I ever be willing to raise a family here knowing that I would be called upon to send my child to the army and possibly sacrifice him/her (God forbid) for the collective? Is the State (or Land) of Israel greater or more important than me, my personal needs and wants? How does one teach children war AND peace simultaneously?

These questions are no doubt still unanswered. But I couldn’t help but noticed that this week’s parsha, Parshat Behar, echoes my experience on Mount Herzl this week.

The parsha opens as follows:

א וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר

1 And the LORD spoke to Moses in mount Sinai, saying:

ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם–וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ, שַׁבָּת לַיהוָה

2 Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath to the LORD.

ג שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְרַע שָׂדֶךָ, וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְמֹר כַּרְמֶךָ; וְאָסַפְתָּ, אֶת-תְּבוּאָתָהּ

3 Six years you shalt sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce.

ד וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת, שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ–שַׁבָּת, לַה’:  שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרָע, וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר

4 But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the LORD; you shalt neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard.  (Leviticus 25:1-4)

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, c.1040-1105, France), one of the most well-known and commonly studied biblical exegetes, asked a simple but critical question on the first verse of Parshat Behar: Why does the Torah mention that these laws were given “on mount Sinai”? After all, weren’t all of the mitzvot given to the Jewish People there?!
Rashi quotes the Midrash (rabbinic homiletic text) that although our default position would be to assume that all the commandments were given at Mount Sinai, some were only related to the Jewish People there. In other words, while some mitzvot are repeated in chapters following the Revelation at Sinai (Exodus 19-20), only an abridged version of the laws of Sabbatical Year appear in Deuteronomy, where most of the laws of the Land are discussed. Why, then, are all the intricacies of the laws of the Sabbatical Year given at Mount Sinai? What significance does this have for our relationship with the Land of Israel and our responsibility to safeguard it?

Listening to the stories of fallen soldiers and watching families grieve beside the tombs of their loved ones, I was forced to confront my relationship with Israel. How am I invested in this place? Why do I care so much? What should or can I do to demonstrate my commitment to Israel? How can I make it better?

As I stood on one of the highest points on Mount Herzl, I experienced clarity, a sort of revelation–if you will–and for a moment, Mount Herzl became my Mount Sinai. I understood that I am invested in this place because I am a Jew who is responsible to bring the values and teachings of the Torah and godliness to the world. God has granted this country to the Jewish People as their ancestral and modern-day homeland, but with a conditional clause: faith. What kind of faith? Faith in individuals’ abilities to live Torah values, faith that God will guide and support the Jewish People in their existence in the Land, faith that there are others in this region and in the world who want to uphold values of peace and justice, compassion and dignity.

This is why the details of Sabbatical Year were given in full at Mount Sinai. To live in Israel requires tremendous faith, a kind of divine intimacy, which motivates our efforts to safeguard our agricultural and ideological roots. In turn, once we have allowed the land to rest and listen to one another, we are able to sow new seeds: seeds of dignity, seeds of compassion, seeds of faith.

When one climbs to the peak of the mountain, one gains perspective. And as I ascended Mount Herzl, I recognized that the death and suffering, vision and hope that fills this land exist because of both a lack or abundance of faith. When I hear of Palestinians struggle to acquire visas to attend family celebrations or care for the sick, my faith wavers. When I hear of Israeli nursery schools in shelters in fear of missile launches, my faith wavers. When I hear of an officer who smothers a grenade to save his soldiers, my faith both wavers and strengthens. When I hear the words of biblical prophet, Yechezkel describing the Dry Bones and how “the breath came into them and they lived, and stood up upon their feet” (Ezekiel 37:10), my faith is restored. When I see a group of young Jews lovingly and painstakingly reflecting on their relationship to Israel and Israelis on this mountain top, my faith is restored.

I encourage all of us to trek up a mountain to its peak and quiet the noise in our lives so we can think about the ‘big picture’ and examine carefully our relationship to Israel–the land, the State, its inhabitants. But as we sit on this mountain top and reflect on Israel and our connection to it, please do so with faith.

Paraphrasing a teaching I learned from, ensure that something eternal is built as a result of your faith.

Shabbat Shalom,