Wednesday, 07 May 2014

Written by Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild

One could describe Moses as a man who peaked rather early in his professional career. Several times – the account in Exodus Chapters 19-34 is really quite impossible to correlate properly – he ascends and descends a specific mountain, in the middle of nowhere much, for a Summit Meeting with – well, with God. (see Ex. 24:18). He never gets to see God, apart from one glimpse of God’s back passing by, but according to the Biblical tradition he spends forty days and nights – Twice – receiving the Torah and according to the rabbinic tradition he receives at the same time the entire Oral Torah too; which is an enormous amount of material. Bearing in mind that he will then spend a further forty years experiencing all sorts of setbacks in his relationship with the people he is leading, their prevarications, obstinacy, anxiety, disobedience and downright ingratitude, it is hard for any thinking person to hold firm to the idea that he received at this point ALL the Five Books that are given his name (in the first of which, of course, he never even appears, since it describes events before his birth.) Sometimes one gazes upon the naive foolishness of Fundamentalists with awe and even a grudging respect; It must take an especial form of stupidity, of strict separation within parts of the brain, to cope with and to believe uncritically the idea that in Exodus Chapter 20 Moses was informed and wrote painstakingly down everything that was going to happen up until Deuteronomy Chapter 34 and his own demise – and yet each rebellion, each problem that follows comes as a new surprise to him as well as to God, and is described in the narrative as though it was a crisis that had not been foreseen.

But then in Behar the Torah feels it necessary to refer back once again (Leviticus 25:1) As though it were an afterthought, something that Moses had neglected to mention until now. In the meantime the Tabernacle has been built and the priests ordained and the sacrificial system explained in its due sequence and detail, plus the various detailed minutiae of the ritual. Just before this sidra starts there is an unfortunate incident (24:10-23) where a son of a mixed marriage (which implies such took place!) gets involved in a quarrel and blasphemes. Without being asked God launches into a complex list of potential crimes which may or may not require the death penalty. Blasphemy is one which does, and the unfortunate man is duly stoned.

So now we switch abruptly back to the top of Sinai, and a totally different topic. ”When you come into the land which I will give you…” Now, either God already knew at this point that this particular generation would become known as the Dor HaMidbar and never get to the land, so that this command would remain totally hypothetical – or God didn’t. The Book of Exodus ended on the first day of the first month of the second year (Ex. 40:17) when the tabernacle was fitted together like some massive IKEA kit of parts, and the Book of Numbers starts on the first day of the second month (Num. 1:1), i.e. exactly one month later, so Leviticus – the first part of which comprises the User’s Manual for this structure – with its instructions and events (some tragic, such as the death of Nadav and Avihu, or the execution of this blasphemer) effectively occupies just these four weeks and that means that even by Leviticus 25 we are still in the early days of what is to become a forty-year odyssey through the wilderness. The Israelites are still a disorganised rabble, they have no land, no crops, no harvests – they have no need for any Sabbatical years, and their journey will in any case eventually stop short of the time required for a Jubilee as well. But suddenly we are thinking long-term, strategically, we are thinking in terms of land and vineyards and fields and orchards, we are thinking in half-centuries and what to do to correct any imbalances in land-ownership that may develop over these periods should some become rich and some become poor, should some need to sell a house in a walled city or an unwalled village, or themselves into bonded labour to pay off severe debts; suddenly we are talking of how the Israelites should treat foreigners who live in their land, when they are now the host nation and not the powerless refugees. It is a wonderful vision of a society based on checks and balances and respect for the mortality of man and the transience of human ownership and the eternity of a Covenant and a God. The Israelites will have duties to themselves and to their descendants and to each other and to the strangers amongst them and to their neighbours and to the Levites who are somehow, due to their special status, placed above this ‘normal’ routine (25:32).

So – Why is it necessary to state suddenly that these laws, that are still in effect so important – not because we live in a world of Sabbatical Years and Jubilee Years, but we do live in a world of rental agreements and leasing agreements and sale agreements, of property deals and mortgages and debts and repossessions and issues of mutual responsibility in urban settlements – why is it necessary to stress that these laws were given on Mount Sinai? It is as though the Torah text, having got distracted into dealing with the after-effects of sudden death in the sanctuary, having allowed itself to muse upon the problems of skin diseases and female reproductive systems, having issued decrees concerning the moral duties incumbent upon all to care for and ‘love’ the blind, the crippled, the deaf, the poor, the stranger – suddenly has to pull itself together and return to the mode of ”As I was saying……” Having dealt with some inconvenient and rather messy incidents in the present, the Torah can now look again to the future – the presumed future, the presumed imminent future. God will give us the Land, and all we can do is to possess it in a form of leasehold; the terms will be strict; the Land must not be bled dry, its resources wasted, its soil exhausted, its legitimate owners or their heirs dispossessed permanently.

The early Zionists took this vision and worked hard at it. The results are not perfect, but they are in many ways better than could have been expected, and they deserve our respect and admiration; much of the land was taken into communal ownership, the desert made to flourish. As for the rest of the world – Well, maybe one day we too will learn to come out of the desert and make a land flourish – rather than, as so often seems to happen, taking a land and turning it into a desert instead……

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild.
Ordained Leo Baeck College 1984


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.