BEHAR - Two Aspects of Holiness and the Price of Tea in China

This weeks parsha begins with a strange juxtaposition in Jewish literature. G-d commands Moshe regarding Shemittah (The Sabbatical Year) at Mt. Sinai. Thus, Rashi asks, "What does Shemittah have to do with Mt. Sinai?". This question is the Modern Hebrew equivalent of "What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?"

Rashi answers generally – that it’s to teach that all Mitzvot came from Sinai. However, the same juxtaposition appears at the very end of the parsha, which states, “And you shall keep My Sabbath and revere My Sanctuary, I am G-d.”. The Sabbath and the Sabbatical year are certainly linked. The Mikdash/Sanctuary is, according to the Ramban (with a whole heck of a lot of textual and forensic evidence) a prerpetual recreation of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Yet, it’s not really bothersome that Shabbat and Mikdash are put side-by-side. Anticipating a later metaphor of A.J. Heschel, Ramban explains that the term ‘Mikdash’ is a reference to Shabbat itself – it’s a sanctuary in time.

The two imperatives, “Mora” and “Shmira”, highlight two different themes of holiness. One aspect of the Holy is that it’s a complete break from the temporal. It’s Wholly Other, belonging to a different quality of existence. When one steps foot into a Sanctuary, or when the sun goes down on Friday, there is a complete break with everything that came before. The second relates to the way in which the Holy interacts with the world around it. The Holy re-enters the mundane world as a polestar, raising up everything that comes within its sphere, sanctifying the mundane. This duality is reflected in nearly every expression of Holiness, be it temporal, spatial, or human. It is the central theme of the book of Vayikra as well.

The best example of the latter aspect of holiness is in our parsha as well. After recounting the laws of Shemittah and Yovel, the Torah records a number of laws that pertain to commercial and social justice (including a prohibition against overcharging, which could regulate the price of tea in China). The refrain through all of it is that we are enjoined to remember that the Earth all belongs to God, the lesson which the Sabbatical year is designed to reinforce. Thus, observance of Shemittah affects the behavior of the ensuing 6 years. Nonetheless, Shemittah has no independent Kedusha, no ‘Kedushat Ha-Zman’ (as opposed to Yovel, which does).

Mt. Sinai, on the other hand, is almost the exact opposite. It has the independent holiness, but, at least initially, doesn’t reach beck to the world it left. For a brief moment, it was the place where G-d and man met. It was a holy place- no man could set foot upon it The next day, however, nothing persisted. This suggests that the initial experience was completely other-worldly, and couldn’t be ‘unpacked’ and integrated into a mundane reality. Only by placing it at the center of the community on a ongoing basis could God’s Presence begin to affect its context.

Thus, Shmittah and Har Sinai appear as competing ideas of Holiness – other-worldly vs. paradigmatic. The end of the parsha demonstrates that the normal case is that both are present and necessary. On Shabbat, it’s cessation from work on one day which shows that my work on the other six are chosen and meaningful. If I’m forced to create, my creativity is a mere compulsion. If I choose to create, and demonstrate this choice by demonstrating the ability to stop creating, then ipso facto, all of my creative labor becomes meaningful. Such it was with God’s creation, and so it is with our own (See Pachad Yitzchak’s first Ma’amar on Shabbos). It’s also the point that Neo makes when he suggests to the Mayor of Zion that ‘we control the machines and they don’t control us, because we can turn them off’.If you can’t turn them off, then you’re not in control of your world; it controls you. You’re not a creator, you’re a creature of compulsion.

If I may apply this to a contemporary setting – there’s a UO emphasis on the ‘Shmirah’: true holiness and this world are completely separate entities. Never the twain shall meet. God and Caesar, Jacob and Esau, have divided Olam Ha-Zeh and Olam Ha-Bah between them. MO seems to have the opposite problem. Holiness is diluted by being placed on the table with so many other things. Torah in the morning, secular studies in the afternoon. A year of Yeshiva, 4 of college. Shmittah and Torah – which feature prominently in next week’s parsha, and whose neglect are attributed as the cardinal failures of the First Jewish Commonwealth, are specifically prone to neglect. Instead of entering into the profane as holy objects, they are themselves profaned by being lumped together with the rest of the profane world.

True holiness is when these two elements are experienced at two sides of the same coin.

שמור וזכור בדיבור אחד נאמרו

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