Thursday, May 8, 2014

Possession is 10/10 of the Lords- A Torah perspective on ownership and control

This devar Torah is in memory of Herb Smilowitz z'l, who recently passed away. He was a humble and kind man, and a ba'al tzedaka and ba'al chessed of the highest order. Among other causes, Mr. Smilowitz was a big supporter of RIETS and Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush). Although I did not know Mr. Smilowitz well, through his children, I met him a number of times. I was zocheh to hear some meaningful and powerful stories from his family, during the time I was menachem avel. Mr. Smilowitz had money, it did not have him. In a quiet and humble way, he used his wealth in the most Godly manner possible. Yehi Zichro Baruch.

Herb Smilowitz z'l surrounded by Rabbi Zevulun Charlap and Rabbi Mark Smilowitz
This might be the only time in history when a man had to be "tricked" into being honored.

It's one of the best known Rashis in the Torah

מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני

What does Shemita have to do with Har Sinai?

This question is asked by Rashi on the first passuk in Parshas Behar

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל־ מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר

Unlike almost every time that HaShem speaks to Moshe, here, in introduction to the laws of Shemitah and Yovel, the Torah notes that it happened on Har Sinai. Why single out these mitzvos? Were all mitzvos not given at Har Sinai? To answer the question Rashi explains that just as Shemitah and all of its details were taught at Har Sinai, this also applies to all of the other mitzvos in the Torah.

What Rashi does not explain is why this mitzvah is singled out to teach this lesson. What is unique about Shemitah that it is chosen as an example?

Additionally, we see elsewhere that Shemitah is serious enough to lead to exile and other serious consequences when it is not followed. Why is this mitzvah singled out for such severe consequences?

By way of introduction, I will start with the second question first. The Ramban suggests that shemitah teaches us about the messianic era, which is represented by resting during the 7th year. The Kli Yakkar suggests that Shemitah and Yovel are a re-creation of Har Sinai. To prove his point, he points to several allusions including the number 50 and the use of a shofar, which is referred to in both contexts as a "yovel". As we will see later on, there is no reason to suggest that these explanations are mutually exclusive.

To answer the first question, we need to look at some of the mitzvos that are mentioned in this parsha:

  • Shemitah
  • Yovel
  • Freeing of an Eved Ivri by Yovel at the latest
  • Ona'as mamon (limits on profits) as well as Ona'as Devarim (hurtful words)
  • Prohibition to permanently sell a field or most homes in Israel
  • Returning of field to their original owner by Yovel
  • Prohibition on charging interest
  • Prohibitions against mistreating an Eved Ivri
  • Requirement to redeem a Jewish slave from a non-Jewish owner

If we look at the common denominator between these mitzvohs, we see that the Torah is focusing on ownership and property in parshas Behar. Despite the claims by different proponents of modern economic theory, the Torah's approach to property and ownership is neither capitalist or socialist. It is a unique system.

Bnei Yisrael have left Egypt. They were there long enough to become virtually identical to the Egyptians, both culturally and socially. Just as somewhat paradoxically an abused child runs the risk of becoming an abusive parent, and a captive runs the risk of experiencing Stockholm Syndrome, there was a very real risk that, with the gaining of independence and power, Bnei Yisrael would take an Egyptian view of possesions, particularly to ownership of slaves. It is not surprising that the Torah here uses the word פרך the very same word used to described how BY were enslaved, in discussing the prohibitions of mistreating an Eved Ivri. The Torah also talks of treating him as a תושב, another allusion to the slavery which took place in Egypt. Most telling are the words of HaShem כִּי־עֲבָדַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. Do not think of your slaves as your own. All of you belong to me.

The other mitzvos listed above, also place strong limitations on ownership, from limiting profit, to prohibiting permanent sale of land and property, to prohibiting the charging of interest. What, in the name of Adam Smith is going on here?

After creating man, HaShem blesses them saying

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־ הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבְכָל ־חַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל־ הָאָרֶץ

Be fruitful, fill the land and be koveish it. What is the meaning of that word? Ordinarily, we translate it as conquer, but I think it could also mean something else here. Chazal speak of being koveish one's Yetzer HaRa. In that context, I would suggest it means more of channeling one's physicality, rather than conquering it. Here God is dealing with something inherent in man, and, I believe, particularly inherent in men. Man can be a conqueror. One who aims to control everything and everyone. A person who views the world in a binary way, saying "What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours" and "kochi v'otzem yadi". God is blessing us to view things differently. In the next passuk he says

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת ־כָּל ־עֵשֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי כָל ־הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת ־כָּל־ הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר ־בּוֹ פְרִי־עֵץ זֹרֵעַ זָרַע לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה

Remember, says HaShem, I am the source of everything you have. Use it, but use it for a Divine purpose.

Now we can return to our original question, Why are these mitzvos specifically mentioned as coming from Har Sinai? If we think of what we know of Har Sinai, we begin to see an answer. Chazal say that by the giving of the Torah, Bnei Yisrael reached the level of Adam HaRishon before the sin. The goal of the Torah is for us to perfect ourselves and through our actions, the world. Although that level was inherently unsustainable at the time of Matan Torah, the Kli Yakar suggests that we receive a reminder of that goal through Shemitah, Yovel, and, I would add, the other mitzvos of this parsha. Moving over to the Ramban, these mitzvos are a reminder of the messianic era, the time when God's ideal world will be realized. Through a recognition of the limits of our ownership, we are reminded that we and all that we have, belong to HaShem, and that we should treat each other and make use of our possessions, in a way that shows we realize this. Our choice is to conquer and control the world, or to perfect it.

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