When probing Bibles mystery, dont get boxed in by history


Leviticus 25:1–26:2

Jeremiah 32:6-27

Among the most common words of the Torah are “The Eternal One spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai” — and that is exactly how this week’s exactly how this week’s parshah opens. The fact that this very short portion — only 57 verses — opens this way puzzled the sages.

The Book of Leviticus is said to have been given by God to the Israelites at the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting, during their wanderings in the desert. But verse one of chapter 25 indicates that God spoke these words to Moses on Mount Sinai, meaning it was given earlier. What do we make of the historical confusion or anachronism?

One rabbinic sage, Rabbi Yishmael, explained it this way: The general concepts found in Leviticus were given at Mount Sinai, while the details found in this parshah were spelled out in the Tent of Meeting.

Rabbi Bernard Bamberger, author of a Leviticus analysis in “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” prefers an adage that there is no before or after in the Torah. The Torah is not bound by normative patterns of time, logic and form.

Another perspective comes from S. David Sperling, a professor at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, who says that the Torah considers the subjects of theology and history differently than we would. As moderns, when we read history, we expect that the stories being written about are true, that the events really happened, while we do not read theology through the lens of what is factually true.

But the ancients were not interested in writing history the way we are.

More important than detailing what happened was understanding what it meant. Our biblical ancestors believed that God worked through fiction, as well as through fact. So if a law is attributed to “Moses on Mount Sinai,” it is being given the highest degree of sanctity. This means, then, that our ancestors found great meaning in the words of this section of the Torah and believed that its origins must be sacred.

The overarching theme of Behar is that of redemption, or g’ulah, a word we don’t use often in our society, but one that is critical in the Torah. The parshah is book-ended by verses reminding us that we are not the ultimate possessors of the land but that our will and dominion is secondary to God’s.

“When you enter the land that I assign to you,” verse two reads, “The land shall observe a Sabbath of the Eternal.”

The instructions continue: “Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Eternal: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.”

God is telling the people that the Earth belongs not to us, but to God, and that it is ours to use as a privilege and with responsibility. We must, then, temper the benefits we wish to derive from the land with a sense of long-term commitment to the well-being of the land.

Similarly, the conclusion to the parshah sounds the message that our role in the universe is second to God’s.

Think about the megalomaniacs of our time as we read these words: “You shall not make idols for yourselves or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I the Eternal am your God. You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, Mine, the Eternal’s.”

Here we are taught not to make gods out of ourselves or our creations, not to make monuments to our own glory. God is teaching us modesty and humility.

Since we are but resident aliens and God is the Creator, the meaning of human existence isn’t found through what we can create, but rather by how we create societies that enable redemption — of land, of people and of the human soul. May we work toward the creation of a culture where all humanity can find ultimate redemption.

Rabbi Daniel Feder is the spiritual leader at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at [email protected].