May 13, 2004
Lost in Translation
Parshat Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34)
Imagine a foreigner hearing some American idioms for the first time, and the ensuing confusion. For example, when an English speaker wants to say that your point is irrelevant, he says, "What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?"
Most of us don't even know where that phrase comes from (according to one dictionary, it is simply a variant of "What's that got to do with the price of eggs?" and has been around since the 1940s -- perhaps influenced by the expression, "I wouldn't do that, not for all the tea in China."), but we use it all the time nonetheless. If you're a Spanish speaker, you would say to the same irrelevant speaker, "Yo tengo una tía que toca la guitarra," which literally translates to, "I have an aunt that plays the guitar," the Spanish way of dismissing another's comments as not being to the point (the Spanish are much more colorful and vivid in their nonsensical idioms than us Americans). We won't even touch Yiddish idioms -- we'd need a whole bookshelf to analyze those.
The beautiful thing about living in Israel is that even if you have no knowledge of Judaism whatsoever, you will invariably speak "Jewish," as the modern Hebrew language is generously peppered with idioms and clichés from biblical and talmudic sources. To the same irrelevant comment, an Israeli would say, "Mah inyan Shemittah etzel Har Sinai?" which literally translates to, "What does Shemittah [the biblical command of letting fields in Israel lay fallow every seven years] have to do with Mount Sinai?"
While the average Israeli may not even be aware of the origin of this question, it was posed by the Talmud about 2,000 years ago. It refers to, when introducing the laws of Shemittah in this week's parshah, the Torah's prefatory words are, "God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai." Why, out of all the topics discussed by the Torah, was Shemittah singled out as being taught specifically at Mount Sinai?
The Talmud's answer is not so simple: Just as all the details of the sabbatical year were taught painstakingly to the Jews at Sinai, so were all the details of all the commandments taught at Sinai.
But this "answer" only strengthens the question. If the Torah wants to teach that all the biblical details for every commandment were taught at Sinai, why was Shemittah chosen as the paradigmatic example? Indeed, what does Shemittah have to do with Mount Sinai?
Quite a lot, actually. The reason why Shemittah is observed in Israel is the same reason why all Jews observe the Sabbath -- we are meant to have meaningful reminders in our lives of how God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Just as we desist from labor on a weekly basis, so must the land itself testify that God is its Maker through its desisting from productivity.
But why is it necessary to commemorate creation through such drastic observance? After all, we already have the Sabbath. Plus, if we ever want to reaffirm where we come from, why can't we just pick up the Torah and read the Book of Genesis? Rashi says that this is precisely why the Torah began its narrative at the very beginning -- to act as testimony to the other nations of the world that God created everything; consequently, He has jurisdiction to do with the land of Israel whatever He pleases, including giving it for free to the Jewish nation. If it's good enough of a reminder for the other nations, why isn't it good enough for us?
This is why the Torah creates a link between Shemittah and Mount Sinai. Other nations can and should accept that God is the ultimate Creator; they can do so by simply reading Genesis and making intellectual affirmations. But at Mount Sinai we were taught a new way to relate to God. It is not sufficient to internalize theological concepts through reading and contemplation; we have to actually do something in order to show our religious commitment. If we really wish to have the higher, covenantal relationship, we must commit our bodies together with our minds to Divine service.
This, then, is the connection between Shemittah and Mount Sinai. The tremendous sacrifice involved in not working one's field for an entire year is the appropriate example of what it means to serve God as a Jew: not by our intellects alone, but by using every physical faculty at our disposal to affirm our belief and commitment to our Creator.
If the Bible is the basis for the world accepting that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews, then maybe more people need to read the Bible and learn the true meaning of the "Sinai" idiom. In the meantime, we can do our share in raising awareness of the Jewish people's special connection to the land by returning to the lessons of Mount Sinai -- our relationship to God is predicated on our behavior more than our beliefs. We are a people of deed first, of creed second. Hopefully, our efforts in behaving as Jews will make an impression on the rest of the world. At the very least, they will strengthen our connection to our God and our Land.
Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla at Kehillat Yavneh.