Behar: Torah, Actions, and Moshe’s Curse

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 2 months ago

      Sometimes our parashah is called בהר; sometimes it is called בהר סיני. For a reader unfamiliar with the Torah, looking at a list of parshiot and wanting to jump to the Sinai experience, it would be fairly reasonable to open to this parashah—and to be disappointed. For a reader somewhat more familiar, it would be easy to say that one who wants to read about the Sinai experience should read the second half of Shmot and the entirety of Vayikra: all of that is the Sinai experience, with a few “outside” additions.

      If the disappointed first reader had then been sent to parshat Yitro, he may have asked why he was “tricked” in the first place; but if he had been given the explanation of the second reader, the same question might have remained. If all the “experience” parshiot like Yitro and all the “legalistic” parshiot like Mishpatim are part of the Sinai experience, why is this specific “legalistic” parashah, seemingly a fairly minor one, singled out as being from Sinai? The content, laws pertaining to life in the Land of Israel, does not seem at first glance to help answer that question.

      Indeed, one does not need to be an uneducated reader to ask this question. Sifra, for example, asks it: מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני והלא כל המצוות נאמרו מסיני—“What does shmitah (the first of the laws discussed in the parashah) have to do with Sinai? Weren’t all the mitzvot given at Sinai?” The author of Sifra[1] (one of the most educated readers we expect to ever run across) offers one explanation: מה שמיטה נאמרו כללותיה ודקדוקיה מסיני אף כולם נאמרו כללותיהם ודקדוקיהם מסיני—“As all the principles and details of shmitah were revealed at Sinai, so all the principles and details of all the laws were revealed at Sinai.”

      Another possible explanation would address a very interesting debate. Vayikra is a book that addresses kedushah almost constantly, one type after another. In parshat Kedoshim, we addressed the kedushah of the individual and the people; in parshat Emor, we addressed the kedushah of the Temple and the kohanim, and then the kedushah of time and the festivals. In this week’s parashah, we address the kedushah of place.

      And this raises the question: “spatially,” where is the central source of kedushah? An answer many Jews, and many Western non-Jews, would be likely to give is Sinai. On the other hand, many Jews (and a fair number of evangelical non-Jews) might answer the Land of Israel. In some sense, this is the same question as: what is more important, the existence of the Torah, or its fulfillment through our actions? If the most important thing is that the Torah exists, then Sinai is the place with the most kedushah; if our actions are what matters most, then Israel, where the mitzvot are fulfilled, becomes that center.

      Much points to the latter being the more correct view. Sinai after our departure, after all, became just a regular mountain; the Temple Mount, on the other hand, has retained its status through the destructions and the millennia. The same goes for the entire Land of Israel. And our parashah, in its name and contents, seems to say the same thing: Sinai had kedushah because the laws given there pertained to the Land of Israel.

      It is a big mistake to yearn for our days in the desert, as if it were a time when kedushah could “really” be witnessed. Our ancestors, who were there at Sinai and collected manna, dreamed of the Land of Israel, and, as we will see in parshat Shlach, did not have the collective courage to get there. Until geulah, our exodus from Egypt is still a work in progress—but we are much farther along the road to kedushah now.

      So is the rest of the world. When we came into the Land of Israel and began (occasionally) following the Torah, building the beginnings of the society it portrays, the world took notice. Our ideas were exported, particularly to Europe, where, over the millennia since the beginning of our last exile, they took hold and created Western society. We were able to see the kedushah spread. A whole continent gradually became civilized, free and prosperous, and while imperfect, its effect is now felt round the world, shining its blessing and gradually helping free man from the curse of Adam—where the kedushah penetrates, survival becomes significantly easier.

      Of course, in our davening, when we say the Shema, we run into the flipside of this: “Watch out, lest your heart be deceived, and you stray and serve other gods and bow down to them; and God will get angry at you and he will close the skies and there will not be rain, and the ground will not give its fruit.” This, too, primarily applies to the Land of Israel, but that does not mean that we do not see it elsewhere too. The World Wars (really one war with a 20-year break) were the beginning of the West turning away from Torah[2], and today, in the United States, we see wild vacillations between values more and less compatible with Torah. And the repercussions are swift: observe the current inflation and shortages, and how rapidly life is becoming more difficult. Today we witness, even outside of Israel, how rapidly the skies close up and the ground stops bearing fruit when societies worship false gods, and how exactly the curse plays out in a modern economy.

      When we say Shema and come across this, it should scare us. But at the same time, it should make us grateful. There have been times when the effects of this curse materialized slowly, and those in power had time to deeply entrench themselves, and find narratives that prevented the public from connecting cause and effect. This time, the actualization of this curse has been so swift that perhaps the public will successfully take note. It is wonderful that the Torah exists, but real kedushah lies in its materialization in the actions of people, and our parashah hints at this with its name and its contents.

      [1] In Brachot (11b and 18b) it is attributed to Rav, and the Rambam goes with that attribution; however, Malbim notes that much of what is found in Sifra is also found in Yerushalmi, consistently attributed to R. Hiyya.
      [2] Really, they were a demonstration of the ultimate failure of Western culture as it stands; more on that BE”H in another post.

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