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Home » B'Har

B’har: The Power of What

Submitted by on January 12, 2006 – 4:07 amNo Comment | 1,971 views

Sabbatical

Farmers in Israel are instructed by Torah to work their land for six years and to let it lie fallow on the seventh. When all the fields in a country are permitted to lie fallow for an entire year would that nation not face a very real risk of famine?

In the following verse the Torah addresses this concern. “And if you shall say what shall I eat in the seventh year? And I shall ordain my blessing upon the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for the thee year period.” (1)

When the Torah offers an answer, it usually leaves us to deduce the question for ourselves. In this case the Torah chooses to articulate the question. Is there anything unique about this particular question. (2)

Societal Morality

Society at large lives by a moral code. Governments legislate laws against immoral acts such as murder and theft and encourage ethical behavior such as charity and modesty. If you ask why murder is forbidden, the curt response would probably be, “Because taking the life of another is just plain wrong.”

If you persist and ask, “But why is it wrong?”, the answer may very well be, “because it is!” If you further ask what makes it so, you can expect to hear something like, “If you don’t sense it intuitively, then there is no point in trying to explain it to you.”

This would indeed be the correct answer. Murder is wrong because society intuitively senses the immoral nature of this act. Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States, recently commented that “democratic laws derive their moral authority from the national consent of the people.” (3)

Divine Morality

Somehow a Jew knows that moral authority is more profound than the mere consent of a nation. (4)

If you asked the Torah why murder is wrong it is likely to reply, “Its one of the Ten Commandments!” If you persist and ask why it is one of the Ten Commandments, the answer would likely be, “Do you expect to research and understand the divine?”

Jews too intuitively sense the inherent immorality of murder but to a Jew there is more to it than mere intuition. If G-d ordained this prohibition a divine commandment then it must be immoral for reasons beyond human intuition.

Beyond the Human Mind

Why does a Jew believe that divine commandments are beyond human intuition?

The Mitzvos are generally divided into two categories, ethical commandments that are easily understood, such as the prohibition of theft, and inexplicable decrees that defy human comprehension, such as the Mitzvah of the Red Heifer.

The ethical commandments and the inexplicable decrees enjoy a symbiotic relationship, each affecting the way we view the other. The ethical commandments demonstrate that it is possible to gain a semblance of understanding of G-d’s commandments. The decrees demonstrate that in the final analysis G-d’s wisdom exceeds ours. (5)

If we were only given the decrees, then our lack of understanding would have alienated us from the Mitzvos. We would be unable to internalize the Mitzvos and thus be prevented from developing an affinity and enthusiasm for them.

If we were only given the ethical commandments, we would have assumed that all  divinity is within the grasp of human comprehension. Naturally this would have caused us to dismiss all theistic notions that are beyond our understanding.

The inexplicable decrees teach the Jew to view even the easily understood Mitzvos through the prism of divine wisdom, recognizing that even ethical commandments, such as prohibition of murder, are beyond our cognitive or intuitive grasp. (6)

Two Questions – One Word

This is the meaning of the question, told in the Passover Haggadah, asked by the wise son. “What are the…decrees and commandments that G-d our Lord has commanded you?” (7) The wise son understands that even the easily understood commandments have dimensions that defy human comprehension, and so he asks to understand the true meaning all the Mitzvah categories, not only the decrees but the commandments too.the power of what innerstream

We now return to the question posed in our original verse, “And if you shall say what shall we eat in the seventh year?” The only other question that the Torah introduces in the manner of ”and if you shall say” is that of the four sons, “and if your son shall say.” It is therefore safe to assume that this question is also asked by one of the four sons. Which of the four sons asks this question?

This question is cited in the Torah only after all the laws of the Sabbatical are first outlined. We thus deduce that this question is asked by the wise son, who has studied the entire subject and who is left with but one question. (8)

The wise son’s questions are quoted twice in the Torah, “What is the meaning” and  “What shall we eat.” Though the questions seem unrelated there is one word that connects them. The word What.

The Power of What

The Jewish people are accustomed to this word. We always ask questions, what is the reason?, or what is the meaning? Like the wise son, we ask this question of all commandments and all occurrences,even those we supposedly understand. We realize that in the final analysis our comprehension doesn’t capture the divine thought process.

What is not only a question, its also an answer because in the end the question must be allowed to stand unanswered. We ask G-d for his true reason or meaning but we don’t claim entitlement to his answer. We plumb the heavenly secrets to the extent that the human mind permits, but the rest is humbly left to G-d. Such is the power of what.

The word what thus demonstrates profound humility. We ask it not in quarrel but in acceptance. We ask it not in arrogance but in submission. We ask it not in confusion but in serene faith.

We now see that the words “What shall we eat in the seventh year” is not a question as much as it is a statement. We don’t know what the sabbatical year will bring, but we are also not concerned about a famine. We humbly and confidently place our trust in G-d. (9)

The Torah assures us that G-d will not remain indebted to us if we approach this Mitzvah with the humility prescribed by the word, what. He will ordain his blessing upon the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for all three years. (10)

Footnotes

  1. Numbers 25, 20-21. The three year period encompasses the sixth, seventh and eighth year, as the nation must be sustained till the eighth year’s crop is harvested. (Rashi-Shlomo Yitzchaki, Troyes 1040-1105 France)
  2. Not only is it curious that the Torah articulates the question but the manner of articulation is curious too. Why does the Torah describe the question as a statement? The Torah uses the words “if you shall say what shall I eat,” but since this is a question, the Torah should have said, if you shall ask what shall I eat?
  3. These comments were made at a rally organized by Moveon.org in April of 2005 at which Mr. Gore delivered the Keynote address.
  4. One of the many dangers of “national consent morality” is that a nation is justified in adjusting the moral standard as long as they muster a majority vote of national consent. This process may begin with Euthanasia programs and lead to extermination programs for mentally and physically disabled, and even racial genocide as was the case in Nazi Germany.
  5. Meimonidies laws of Meilah ch. 8. Laws of Temurah ch. 4. (Maimonides, R. Moshe ben Maimon (Egypt) 1135-1204)
  6. This explains why the Psalmist says “He spoke… his decrees and commandments to Israel, he has done so for no other nation and of his commandments he has not informed them.” According to our understanding, the word commandments refers to ethical commandments.” (Psalms 147, 19-20) One wonders why the Psalmist prides himself on being a member of the only nation to receive G-d’s ethical commandments. Is it not true that even without receiving these commandments most other nations accepted these ethical precepts upon themselves? It is not the commandments themselves that Psalmist is proud of but our approach to their reasons. The nations of the world accept these ethical standards because of reasons they intuitively grasp but they ascribe no exalted wisdom to them. A Jew relates to the ethical standard as a sacred decree that contains inner secrets concealed in the realm of the divine.
  7. Deuteronomy 6, 20.
  8. Likutei Sichos vol. 27 p. 185. (R. Menachem M Schneerson Rebbe of Lubavitch 1902-1994) Furthermore, in its introduction, the Haggadah text draws special attention to the word what, “The wise son, what does he say?
  9. We now also understand why the Torah uses the words if you shall say not if you shall ask. (see footnote # 2) This is not a question as much as it is a statement of fact. We don’t know what we will eat but we trust that we will eat. It is interesting to note that the Haggadah also uses the same expression, “The wise son what does he say?”, not “What does he ask?”
  10. For more detail on this concept see Sefer B’er Mayim Chayim from Rabbi Chaim Tchernowiz.
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