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RABBI ASHER BRANDER A New World 
Mishpatim - Shekalim - Mevorchim
25 Shevat 5772 

By: Rabbi Asher Brander, rabbi@kehilla.org

 

TEACHINGS: IN DEPTH REFLECTIONS ON THE PARSHA - BY RABBI ASHER BRANDERIf you are interested in purchasing Teachings:  In Depth Reflections on the Parsha Email rabbibrander@linkla.org 

 

When is forever not forever? (Note: We are not referring to Western society's attitude towards marriage)

In a classic analysis of the relationship between the Jew and Torah Sheba'al Peh (Oral Law), Beis Halevi offers the following metaphysical gem[1]

At first (after the first set of tablets) , when the entire Torah was merely alluded to, Israel and the Torah were two separate entities .... Bnei Yisrael were those who observed the Torah and kept it ... they were akin to a utensil or an ark containing a Torah scroll, [tashmishei kedusha]. But after the 2nd tablets, when Oral Law was given to them, Bnei Yisrael became the parchment of the Oral Law [, as the verse states: "Write them upon the tablet of your heart" (Mishlei 7:3)] . Just as the parchment of a Torah scroll constitutes essential sanctity, .... for the parchment and writing together constitute the Torah scroll, so too the Torah and Israel are one.

Oral Law binds the Jew to Torah in a most intimate way. A soul is parchment and one's mouth the quill for words that create indelible soul prints. Deep analysis of Oral Law now becomes a task of uncovering the collective nishmas yisrael - a profound process of self discovery!

And for the less mystically minded (nebach) ? Oral Torah remains logically compelling. Sans tradition, Shabbos laws are "mountains hanging on threads[2]". "Do not do melacha (work)" doesn't quite complete the Shabbos picture - for what is work and what does it mean to do? Hence the Oral Law serves as a necessary complement to the Written word.

Apparent contradictions between Written and Oral Law however create spiritual anxiety. While Oral tradition emerges victorious, for those who value text, disloyalty to the word causes extreme discomfort. Thus many great commentators (e.g. Vilna Gaon, Hakesav V'kabbalah, Netziv, & Malbim) made it their clarion call to restore harmony between the written word and the Torah Sheba'al Peh

Within Mishpatim resides a classic example of apparent incongruity between the Written and Oral Torah

If the [Hebrew] servant shall say (after the six year period), I love my master ... then his master shall bring him to the court ... and he shall serve him l'olam - forever

L'olam (Forever)! Indeed? Flash forward to Vayikra [25:10]:[3]

You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all of its inhabitants; it shall be the Yovel year for you....

Rashi[4]clarifies that with the onset of the yovel, (Jubilee 50th year) all who carry the title of eved ivri, including the nirtza[5], [the Jewish servant who extended his term beyond the initial six year obligation] must be freed.

Apparently forever is not always forever.

Ibn Ezra, mitigates the problem by redefining l'olam. Koheles [1,10] implies that the world olam may simply mean an extended period of time. Yovel is the longest block of time in the Jewish calendar; thus the word olam, as "a long time" is appropriate. Ibn Ezra's rational approach may satisfy some - but leaves me underwhelmed. While technically correct, one may still ask: Why would the Torah opt for the more ambiguous "olam" in lieu of the more pristine "yovel", in other words - why does the Torah create a problem it must later solve?

How cryptic and enticing are Ramban's words :

The enlightened one will understand that L'olam is [to be understood] literally - for one who works until Yovel has worked all the days of the world. And the words of the Mechilta: Rebbe says: "Come & see that the world is only fifty years old as it says and he shall work forever - until the Yovel"

I desire to be enlightened, but I know people that are above fifty (one of these days, I hope to become an eyewitness). Yet, one senses a profundity in these enigmatic words. Ramban seems to be saying that l'olam is the more precise formulation! Penetrate the term and you will discern the nature of our world - that in some mystical way exists for only fifty years.

With Rabbeinu Bechayei's help, we present Ramban's essential point - the short story. In Jewish numerology, what separates 49 and 50 is a world of difference. A world, mamash.

Fifty days marks the extraordinary transformation of Bnei Yisrael from lowly slaves to noble mekablei hatorah. Fifty represents metamorphosis8. Every year henceforth, we personally bridge Pesach to Shavuos with an omer period, where we kabbalistically ascend seven emanations from Chesed (kindness) to Malchus (kingdom). On day 49, we have scaled the highest peak - we are at malchus shebimalchus, the kingdom of kingdoms. Now what?

We start again. This time, however we are in a different world9. ... for fifty is the number of utter transformation[6].

Personal, national and indeed cosmic! Davar tziva l'eleph dor[7]. (The matter [of the world] He commanded for one thousand generations), Ramban calculates that a generation is fifty years[8]. The Midrash[9] teaches that our universe has experienced 6 previous existences, each of which lasted for a total of 7,000 years[10] . Our world too will last for 7,000 years. Thus the totality of this Universe's existence will cease at its Yovel.

Yovel the messages teaches that after seven cycles of shemitta - each a new rung of perfection within the world, we are now ready for the dawn of a completely new one[11] At yovel, ready or not, the eved ivri is forced out. He, for whom the world has turned so dark, he, who is at the mercy of another human, he, who may have lost his sense of destiny and independence, is now taught that a Jew never consigned to fate. New worlds and new hopes beckon. Ramban's notion reminds us that we can make new worlds [perhaps most significantly our very own]

And for the rational Jew unaware of the mystical notion of the Yovel cycle ? Ramban's notion still resonates - for it teaches that a Jew need not die to change his world, rather he can transcend worlds in his lifetime.

How many times do we set red lines for our spiritual goals? "This I can do, but I'll never do that" can be the healthy protest of one who engages in slow but steady spiritual progress. A progress that ultimately creates for one a nyer velt, a new spiritual world, a progress that allows one to be very personality he "never" could be.

That is the goal of life. We take a moment, look who we are, who we can never be, and figure out a way to get there.

Good Shabbos


[1] Drush 18. Translation adapted slightly from http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/philhalak/12mhal.rtf

[2] cf. Chagiga 10a

[3] Shemos, 21:5

[4] based on Kiddushin 15a

[5] so named for his pierced ear

[6] Ramban in his introduction to Bereishis writes: וכבר אמרו רבותינו חמשים שערי בינה נבראו בעולם וכלם נמסרו למשה חוץ מאחד שנאמר ותחסרהו מעט מאלהים

Moshe Rabeinu attained the highest level of wisdom known to man Vatichasreihu me'at me'elokim - the 49th level. He was a bit short of Hashem (whatever that means). According to the Zohar, Bnei Yisrael were on the 49th level of impurity and had to be rushed out of Egypt; one rung lower and they sink into oblivion. For at the fiftieth level, one is transformed, in either direction. Is it not interesting that the Levi may only serve in the beit hamikdash until the age of fifty ? In some way his world too has been completed.

[7] Tehillim 105:8

[8] [8] Ramban, Shir Hashirim Chavel edition, p. 539

[9] Bereishis Rabah 3:7 (according to R. Bechayai's understanding)

[10] For a novel approach to reconcile this notion with modern theories of the Age of the Universe, see Immortality, Resurrection, & the Age of the Universe: A Kabbalistic View by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan . See also Tiferet Yisrael, Drush Ohr Hachaim

[11] It is indeed striking that while prohibiting labor in the Shemitta the Torah still cedes ownership to man [Vayikra, 25:5] "your field you shall not sow, . . .", while in prohibiting labor in the Yovel the Torah revokes that ownership [Vayikra,25:11-12] you shall not harvest its aftergrowth; ... from the field you may eat its crop" . In Yovel, we have entered a new world with no prior ownership


 
   
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