Sabbatical and Sinai
This week's essay is dedicated in the merit of Devorah bat Mohtaram, may she gain full health and have an easy birth.
Every week, we open our email and read from the Torah portion nice ideas about relationships, spirituality, success and joy. We appreciate the Torah for its relevance, rationality and wisdom. But there's one question we haven't asked: How do we know the Torah is true? Did God really give the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai?
To help answer our question, let's try looking at the reverse argument: that the Torah was written by a committee. In fact, let's imagine that we're the rabbis assigned to write the Torah. Of course, we're not going to tell anyone that we're writing this or else they won't accept it. Instead, we're going to say God gave this book – and hope people believe us.
Now remember, we're starting from scratch. There's nothing yet written – no Garden of Eden, no Ten Commandments. So what would be a good law to include in our Torah? How about "Thou shalt not steal?" That's very practical – let's include it.
"Thou shalt not murder?" Okay, we'll put that in, too.
Now I'd like to propose the following law:
Every seventh year, the entire Jewish people must cease working the fields. They may not plant, plow or harvest – for an entire year, once every seven years.
Do you think this is a good law to put in the Torah?
Sure! We've all heard of "crop rotation." Letting the land lie fallow helps replenish the nutrients, yielding better crops than if you'd use the soil year after year.
One problem, however. If we're an agrarian society (as the early Israelites were), then we live off what we plant. So if we don't plant for an entire year, we'll have nothing to eat!
But there's a solution: Let's store up one-sixth of the harvest in each of the first six years, and then eat from that in the Sabbatical year. Or alternatively, we could divide the country into seven regions; each year, a different region will let their fields rest and borrow food from all others. Simple enough.
Now imagine that our committee proposes a far more radical idea: No dividing the land, no storing up grain. Rather, we simply promise to deliver a triple crop in the sixth year.
Absurd! Obviously we can't guarantee that the sixth year will yield a triple crop. If we're pretending to be God, and promise something we can't deliver, we'll be exposed as frauds!
How long do you think this religion will last if we make this promise?
About six years! As soon as the triple crop doesn't come, we're out of business. The religion's a sham.
So our imaginary rabbinical Torah-writing committee shoots down the triple-crop idea as an impossible option.
Now let's see the Sabbatical year as described in the actual Torah (Leviticus 25:3-21):
"For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops. But the seventh year is a sabbath for the land. During that year, you may not plant your fields nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own. Do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines since it is a year of rest for the land...
...And if you ask, what will we eat in the seventh year? We have not planted nor have we harvested crops. I will direct my blessing to you in the sixth year and the land will produce ENOUGH CROPS FOR THREE YEARS."
What is the Torah's proposal? Divide up the land? Store the grain? No! The Torah promises that "The sixth year will produce enough crops for three years."
The Torah could have written, "Keep the Sabbath law in the seventh year. It's going to be a terrible year, everybody's going to be starving. But as a great reward, you'll get a triple crop in the eighth year." That would have been smart, because then, if it didn't happen, the excuse could always be, "Well, some people were cheating in the seventh year. So God punished us and didn't give us the triple crop."
But no. Our author promises a triple crop in the sixth year, before we even observe the law. There is no possible excuse should there fail to be a bumper crop.
Why would the author – who wants people to believe in the divinity of this book – make a ridiculous promise he cannot possibly fulfill and thereby expose himself as a fraud? Why take such a far-out risk when there are so many other options?
So who wrote the Torah? Who would make such a promise?
This week's parsha, "Behar," begins as follows:
"God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbatical year of rest. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops. But the seventh year is a Sabbath for the land."
Why does the Torah, in relating the mitzvah of the Sabbatical year, specify that God is speaking on "Mount Sinai?"
Because the Sabbatical year is one mitzvah which proves that no human being would ever write this law. Only God could be the Author Who gave the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Learn the Book
Soon we will be celebrating the holiday of Shavuot – the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Jewish tradition tells us that the soul of each and every Jew – past, present and future – stood that day at Mount Sinai. When God's Voice tore through the Heavens, the Torah was engraved on the stone tablets... but was first engraved on the heart of every Jew. The Voice spoke and we heard.
Is the Torah true? This is the time of year to investigate the evidence. Jewish belief needs to be built upon a rational foundation, not a leap of faith. The commentators say that the very reason God instituted the Sabbatical year was in order to give everybody time off to study Torah!
What can we do? Make the commitment to learn. Attend a Torah class in your area. Other ideas:
- Attend a Discovery seminar
- Subscribe to Torah email lists
- Read a good Jewish book
- While commuting, listen to audio classes
- Try out one-on-one Jewish learning, by phone or in person
In "Shema Yisrael," the Jewish Pledge of Allegiance, we begin with the word Shema – "listen." Carefully and calmly, we listen. To the beauty, depth and relevance of our Torah. Intuitively, deep down we know the truth. And the mitzvah of the Sabbatical year invites us to rediscover it once again.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons