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Torah Attitude: Parashas Mishpatim: Greater than angels
December 23, 2007
By phrasing their acceptance "we will do" before "we will listen", the Jewish people clearly indicated that they accepted upon themselves all commandments that G'd would later instruct them to do. The Sadducee berated Rava because it made no sense to him that the Jewish people would obligate themselves to follow G'd's commandments before having heard the nature and extent of their obligation. A Heavenly voice rang out in wonderment and said, "Who revealed to my children this secret used by the angels?" The angels accept upon themselves to do whatever G'd commands them even before they have heard His command. At Mount Sinai, the Jewish people had complete trust in G'd and were ready to fulfill His words out of love. The Jewish people still cling to the words of G'd and fulfill them with love and dedication. Those who observe Shemitah are even greater than the angels. There is an abundance of amazing stories how individual Shemitah observers have experienced miraculous events. Especially touching is a story about someone who was evicted from Gush Katif. "The land will give fruit and you will eat plenty. And you will dwell upon it in security."
Do and listen to all commandments
Towards the end of this week's portion, the Torah (Shemos 24:4-7) relates that Moses wrote down the words of G'd and read them to the Jewish people. In response they exclaimed "Everything that G'd has said we will do and we will listen to." This acceptance did not only relate to the instructions they had received in Marah (see Shemos 15:25 and Rashi ibid), and the Ten Commandments they had received at Mount Sinai. By phrasing their acceptance "we will do" before "we will listen", they clearly indicated that they accepted upon themselves all commandments that G'd would later instruct them to do.
Rava and the Sadducee
The Talmud (Shabbos 88a) tells a story about a Sadducee who scorned Rava, one of the Rabbis of the Talmud, and said to him, "You are a rash people for you let your mouth precede your ear [at Mount Sinai]. You ought first to hear [what G'd commanded]. Then if you like it you would accept it, and if not you would not accept it." The Sadducee berated Rava, because it made no sense to him, how the Jewish people could obligate themselves to follow G'd's commandments before having heard the nature and extent of their obligation.
Secret of the angels
The scorn of this Sadducee was very different from G'd's reaction related in the Talmud (ibid). Immediately after the Jewish people exclaimed "we will do and we will listen" a Heavenly voice rang out in wonderment and said, "Who revealed to my children this secret used by the angels?" The Talmud continues and quotes from Tehillim (103:20) "Bless G'd [you] His angels, the strong warriors, who do what He says to listen to the voice of His words."
No evil inclination
The angels are referred to as doing what G'd says even before they have heard His instructions. The Midrash Rabba (Vayikra 26:5) points out that G'd only needs to instruct the angels once as they do not have an evil inclination to challenge their obedience. They know that their whole raison d'?tre is to follow G'd's instructions and have complete trust in G'd's word. Therefore, they accept upon themselves to do whatever G'd commands them even before they have heard the command.
Same level as angels
At Mount Sinai the Jewish people expressed the same willingness as the angels. They too were ready to do whatever G'd would command, even before having heard what G'd expected of them. The obvious question is how could human beings elevate themselves to the level of angels? Rava actually explained this in his answer to the Sadducee. Rava said (ibid), "We observant Jews go with G'd in wholesomeness." Rashi (ibid) comments on this that Rava wanted to impress upon the Sadducee that as observant Jews we have complete trust in G'd and are ready to fulfill His words out of love. Our relationship with G'd is such that we have no doubt that He will not demand anything of us beyond our ability.
This is the secret of the continuity of the Jewish people, and it has sustained us from the revelation at Mount Sinai to this very day. Despite all our difficulties and hardships, we still cling to the words of G'd and fulfill them with love and dedication. Neither inquisitions or pogroms, nor the smooth talk of missionaries have succeeded to remove us from our special closeness to G'd. Many individuals may have fallen by the wayside, especially after the atrocities of the Holocaust, as well as the unlimited opportunities that have caused a tremendous assimilation in the Western world. However, the core of the Jewish people is as strong as ever in our adherence and observance of the word of G'd.
Greater than angels
This strength is especially noticeable in the observance of the laws of Shemitah. This year is a Shemitah year and it is literally a sabbatical for the land of Israel. As it says in Parashas Behar (Vayikra 25:3-4), "Six years you may sow your fields … and you may gather its produce. And in the seventh year there shall be complete rest for the land a Shabbos for G'd. You shall not sow your field …" Since the Shemitah year of 5642 (1881/82) there has been a revival of the observance of these laws. Every seventh year more farmers have joined the ranks of the Shemitah observers. With extreme self-sacrifice they leave their fields barren and orchards unattended for a whole year. The Yalkut Shimoni (Tehillim 103:20) interprets the aforementioned description of the angels as strong warriors, who are ready to accept the words of G'd before they have heard them, to refer to those who observe the laws of Shemitah. The Yalkut says, "It is common to find a person who fulfills a commandment and controls himself for a day, for a week, or even for a whole month. But where do you find someone who will fulfill a commandment and control himself for a complete year? And this person constantly watches his barren fields and his unattended orchards and he keeps quiet. Is there any stronger warrior than this person?" Only someone who has complete trust in G'd, and acts out of love, is able to control himself from working his fields for a whole year. Rabbi Chaim Shmulevits points out that those who observe Shemitah are even greater than the angels, for as the above Midrash explains the angels have no evil inclination. But these are human beings who have an evil inclination challenging them, and nevertheless they have the strength to adhere to the Shemitah laws and leave the land unattended for a whole year.
However, G'd does not shortchange anyone. He promises in the Torah to bless those who observe the Shemitah laws. As it says (Vayikra 25:21) "And I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year. And it will yield a crop for three years." However, we live in a time when G'd hides Himself behind the laws of nature, and there is no guarantee that we will experience such open miracles. Nevertheless, there is an abundance of amazing stories how individual Shemitah observers have experienced miraculous events. One of the most famous stories goes back to the Shemitah year 5719 (1958/59) in the village of Komemiyut. They had some crop in the fields left from the sixth year. It was meant for animal feed and was permissible to harvest during Shemitah. One fine Friday a huge hoard of locusts swarmed all over the area and descended upon the neighbouring, non-Shemitah observant, villages. The farmers of Komemiyut came running to their rabbi in panic, as this was the only permissible feed for their animals available. While the locusts were coming closer and closer the Rabbi tried to calm his congregants. Just as the locusts reached the border of the fields of the little village they made a sudden u-turn and flew away without touching any of the crops of these valiant farmers.
Gush Katif evictee
Before this Shemitah year started farmers who had undertaken to keep Shemitah were interviewed by the Israeli newspaper Homodia. They spoke about their expectations for this year as well as their experiences in previous Shemitah years. Especially touching was a story about someone who had been evicted from Gush Katif. Just one year before the onset of Shemitah he managed to rebuild his family business and invested millions in his new venture. People could not believe that he was ready to put everything on hold for a year. But he explained that during the last Shemitah year he had moved his operation to Jordan where he ran into serious problems till he finally found a piece of land in a small Arabic village, Kfar Kassam. The expenses were enormous and he ended up with a very meager crop. However, at the end everything worked out beyond his wildest expectations, as this valiant farmer relates, "When the Shemitah year was over, I checked my books and found that despite everything I had stilled earned a huge profit. So here I am this year, in exactly the same boat, one year after founding a new company. The only difference is that this time I am not afraid at all. I saw the Divine blessing then, and I believe that G'd will give us His blessing this time too."
G'd does not only bless the Shemitah observer with prosperity. There is an additional blessing in the Torah (Vayikra 25:19). As it says, "The land will give fruit and you will eat plenty. And you will dwell upon it in security." Every Jew worldwide hopes and prays these days that our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land will be able to live in peace and prosperity without daily worry and danger of rockets and missiles raining down upon them. In the merits of the strong warriors of the Shemitah observers, may G'd take mercy and fulfill His promise in these troubling times. And may we soon experience the fulfillment of G'd's promise, to bring the ultimate peace to the Jewish people and the whole world, with the coming of Moshiach. Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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