Thursday, 23 May 2024

Written by Emily Carp LBC Rabbinical Student

Vayedabber hashem el Moshe behar Sinai, lemor…

And G-d spoke to Moses on top of Mount Sinai, and said…

This week’s parashah is set atop a mountain. Moses has climbed to the top of this mountain to be spoken to by G-d, and this week, G-d wants to talk to Moses about rest. Rest for people, and rest for the land.

In 2011 I climbed a mountain. A real one, not a hill with aspirations of grandeur. Mount Kenya, seventh highest mountain in the world. And do you know what? I hated every second of the five days I spent up there. I cried every time we stopped on the way up, and for most of the steps I took on the way down. Miserable experience from start to finish.

The prevailing memory I have of the hike is of counting my footsteps. Count to ten. Count again. Keep counting. After 100, assess if you need a break. No? Ok, another 100. See if you can get to 200, 250, 500, 1000. Then you can rest.

Perhaps this is how Moses felt, climbing up Mount Sinai towards G-d’s presence and into the unknown. One foot after the other. It will be ok when you get there. Just keep going. You can rest at the top.

This form of counting, to mark progress and delay rest, is the opposite of the counting that this week’s parashah requires of us. Firstly, obviously, the Torah prefers a base-7 counting method over my base-10. But more significantly, the Torah is counting us into rest, working us towards it, encouraging it. Like a yoga teacher leading a guided meditation at the end of a class, murmuring “breathe in, 2, 3, breathe out, 5, 6. And rest.” You made it. Take a moment. Well done. It’s shabbat. You can relax.

This week’s parashah also talks us through the counting required for the shemitta year, they year in which we are commanded to let our fields grow only what has been placed there by nature, and to leave the gleanings for the strangers amongst us. In many ways, shemitta is shabbat for the earth. 6 years we till and toil, and in the 7th, we leave it alone. The earth too is a living, breathing being. She needs some time off too. Let her rest.

Counting, and particularly counting in 7s, is very popular in Judaism – especially at this point in the year. We are currently counting the omer, the 7 week stretch from Pesach to Shavuot. The 7 weeks during which the Israelites dealt with the panic and trauma of fleeing from their homes into the unknown, with only the bare minimum of resources on their backs. 7 weeks, and they can pause, rest, and take some time to sit at the foot of Mount Sinai as they await the gift of Torah from G-d. The Israelites must have counted their own footsteps as they walked further and further from everything they had ever known, and kept on walking into the desert. Keep going, keep counting. You can rest soon. We don’t know where we’re going but we’ll know when we get there. We’re nearly there. We must be.

Counting on shabbat is also something that we see in one of the more tragic, desolate narratives of the Talmud. The story of Elisha ben Abuya, who was one of 4 men to ascend to Pardes and who subsequently goes mad in one way or another is illustrated twice with stories of him counting on Shabbat. Regardless of how and why he goes mad, and regardless of how that manifests, what is clear from the stories is that this is a man who believes he is beyond redemption. Nevertheless, his student, Rabbi Meir, still wants to learn from him. B. Chagigah 15a tells the story of how, one shabbat, Elisha was riding a horse, flagrantly transgressing the laws of shabbat. Despite this transgression, Rabbi Meir walks alongside the horse in order to learn from Elisha. After a while, Elisha tells Meir that he has been counting the horse’s hoofbeats and has measured that they are now at the edge of the shabbat boundary: Meir must turn back in order to not break shabbat. “Turn back with me” pleads Rabbi Meir, but Elisha responds that he cannot – he has heard from the voice of God that all rebellious children may return, apart from him personally. To me, there is something heartbreaking about this scene.

Elisha has been counting the hoofbeats even whilst speaking – he knows exactly how many steps it takes to reach the boundary and takes care to keep his friend from transgressing in ways that seem futile to him but important for others. This man who believes himself to be unredeemable, yet has so much wisdom to impart to others, is able to teach with half his brain and count with the other half in order to protect those he cares about.

Perhaps Elisha was counting on his horse like I counted on that mountain, sometimes unable to breathe, sometimes in tears. Perhaps Moses, learning the laws of shemitta and rest, learns God’s preferred method of counting the same way too: breathless and emotional. We all need to learn to rest, to know when we have reached the limits of where we can travel at this time. To push ourselves to the top of the mountain but then to take the time we need to stop and rest and admire the view.

Rest is important. Rest counts. Perhaps that is what Moses learnt, behar Sinai.

Shabbat shalom.

Emily Carp, LBC rabbinical student



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