A 1907 postcard depicts the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai.
A 1907 postcard depicts the Israelites gathered in awe at the foot of Mount Sinai for the revelation of the Ten Commandments.

For a relationship with God, we’ve got to make progress every day

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Behar

Leviticus 25:1–26:2


This week’s Torah portion focuses on a unique set of commandments that demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

We are supposed to leave our land fallow in the entire Land of Israel. This is not just crop rotation as a good agricultural practice. This is a complete rest for all farmers in the same year. The shmita year testifies to the trust that we have in God to provide for us. In fact, this year in Israel is a shmita year, and there are many farmers that have adopted the practice to leave their land fallow. (Leviticus 25:2-4)

We are further instructed as follows: “You shall count for yourself seven sabbatical years — seven years, seven times — and they will be for you, the years of sabbatical years, 49 years.” (Lev. 25:8)

We are then told that year 50 is designated as the Jubilee Year in which all property is returned to its original owner. (Lev. 25:11-12)

This 50th year is unique in that it does not fit into the cycles of 49 and it carries with it much more power than a regular sabbatical year. Freedom is granted to everyone and property is reunited with its owner. It is like a big reset in the game of life and everyone gets a chance to start anew. In essence, one could call this Jubilee Year a great gift.

There are two methods by which one can acquire something. An object can be gifted, or it can be earned.

Pesach is a time when we were gifted our freedom. In fact, the entire experience was something that we did not earn on our own. The language that God instructs Moses to use to tell Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave is demonstrable proof that it was something that would just happen to us without us having to earn it. “You shall say to Pharaoh, ‘So said God: Israel is my first born’.” The first born is a title that is not earned. The privilege associated with that title is also not something that one can achieve through their own effort.

The Exodus from Egypt was something that was completely outside of the natural order. In classic Jewish thought, we believe that time itself is a construct that God exists outside of the space-time continuum. There was no requirement on our part for our release.

One of the ways in which this point is emphasized is through the requirement to rid ourselves of hametz (leavened bread). What is the connection with hametz? Dough can only rise when given time to do so. If our freedom was dependent on our own efforts, we surely would have had to put time, as well as effort, into achieving that aim.

The fact that we eliminate time as a factor speaks to the reality that our emancipation from slavery was a really a gift. Matzah is eaten to demonstrate that time was not a factor in our freedom. There are actually multiple commandments involving our removal of hametz, and the consequences of eating hametz are severe. It seems that God does not want us to overlook this reality.

Ironically, there is a dichotomy in our approach to hametz. During the course of Passover it is forbidden and must be destroyed. Fifty days later, it is actually elevated to the holiest experience of being brought as a sacrifice. On the holiday of Shavuot, there is a unique communal offering known as the Shtei Halachem (The Two Loaves).

Shavuot is when we celebrate the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. That experience was completely supernatural, as well, but it was something that we had to earn.

“You shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the day of rest, from the day you bring the omer of the waving, seven weeks and they shall be complete.” (Lev. 23:15)

We are given a commandment to count seven cycles of seven, just like the years that we mentioned above. And what are we counting from? From the bringing of a measure of barley known as an omer. Barley was primary animal fodder and not set aside for human consumption.

The omer offering is brought on the second day of Passover, which is the day following our freedom. We are supposed to acknowledge that we were unrefined as slaves and then count seven complete weeks in which we work on our characters to be worthy of receiving the Torah at Sinai. The commandment to count 49 days from the time that we left Egypt until we reach Revelation speaks to the notion that we have to progress from day to day in order to earn the right to participate in the covenant with God.

The two loaves of fine wheat bread that we bring are indicative of the fact that we are now closer to being the refined human beings that are capable of enjoying a relationship with God.

And they are brought from hametz, because time was a factor in our earning the right to have that revelation.

The Torah itself is regarded as a gift that we were given only after our own efforts. It is similar to the Jubilee Year that is also earned after seven cycles of seven years.

We are currently in the midst of the count up to Shavuot on June 4. Now would be the perfect time put in that effort.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto.