May 30, 2024
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For much of the 19th century, the tzadik Reb Shmuel Salant, zy”a, was the beloved leader of the Yishuv haYashan, the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael during Ottoman rule, serving as the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Yerushalayim for more than 70 years. Instrumental in establishing Yeshivas Etz Chaim as well as Bikur Cholim Hospital, Reb Shmuel guided the Jews of Yerushalayim through years of poverty and hardship with kindness and sensitivity.

While sitting in the beis midrash one day, learning with his talmidim, a simple woman of the Holy City once came to Reb Shmuel and asked, “By mistake I left a piece of unsalted, un-kashered meat on the windowsill and a cat jumped up and ate it! Is the cat now treif?” The talmidim struggled to hold in their laughter, but regained composure when Reb Shmuel flashed them an intense glare. The rav stood and walked over to the shelf, removed a large halachic sefer and opened it, making it appear that he was looking up the law. In a sincere and thoughtful tone, the rav answered: “I’m so sorry, giveret, the cat is treif, and going forward, you should be careful not to put meat on the windowsill before you salt it, to avoid placing a ‘stumbling block’ before the unwitting cat and to save it from sinning.”

After the simple woman left, Reb Shmuel told his students: “One must be exceptionally very careful with kavod ha-briyos and never laugh at a question you are asked. However misguided or unlearned, all questions—and those who ask them—must be honored!

***

וַיְדַבֵּר ה׳ אֶל־משֶׁה בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר: דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַה׳:

Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai: Speak to Bnei Yisrael and say to them, “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Shabbos of Hashem (shemitah).” (25:1)

Rashi encourages us to try to understand the connection between our sedra’s opening pesukim:

מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני?

What is the relationship between the concept of shemitah and Har Sinai?

והלא כל המצות נאמרו מסיני?

And are not all the mitzvos given on Sinai?

Why does the Torah specify this mitzvah as being given at Mount Sinai? There must be some intrinsic connection; what does shemitah have to do with Sinai? In contemporary Israeli culture, one might use an idiomatic expression meaning, “What’s that got to do with anything?” Or, “What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?”

Just as the fundamental and philosophical principles of shemitah, and its intricate halachos and details of its observance, were all stated at Sinai, all of Torah and mitzvos, with their general principles and their finer details, were stated at Sinai. In fact, in our parsha, while Am Yisrael is on the plains of Moab, they are getting a full review of all the laws.

Shemitah directs the focus of an agrarian-based society toward a collective spiritual reorientation. It is an opportunity to strengthen our emunah and live a more Shabbosdik existence for a year. What Shabbos achieves with regard to religious re-jew-venation and menuchah for the individual, shemitah accomplishes on a national level. And even for those of us who are not directly engaged in the farming industry, a sensitivity to hilchos shemitah directs us toward harmony with the spirit of the land with the goal of strengthening our emunah. We begin to rely more on faith in God, and less on our own physical strength and material abilities.

This is why, beyond “the price of tea in China” and the mitzvah of shemitah’s logistical placement in these verses, our sedra follows up by voicing a challenging question:

וְכִי תֹאמְרוּ מַה־נֹּאכַל בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת הֵן לֹא נִזְרָע וְלֹא נֶאֱסֹף אֶת־תְּבוּאָתֵנוּ

And if you should say, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year? Will we not sow and not gather in our produce?’

וְצִוִּיתִי אֶת־בִּרְכָתִי לָכֶם בַּשָּׁנָה הַשִּׁשִּׁית וְעָשָׂת אֶת־הַתְּבוּאָה לִשְׁלשׁ הַשָּׁנִים

Know then, that I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years.

(25:26).

Rebbe Leibele Eiger of Lublin, author of Sefer Toras Emes, wonders aloud why the Torah has given voice to the farmer’s doubts—and by extension to our human concerns: “What will we eat? How will we survive…”

דברי השאלה הזאת יורה על המבקש אמונה,

בעוד שלא נתפשטה האמונה בלבו לראות בחוש השגחתו ית׳ בכל פרט, אמנם לבו משתוקק להגיע לשלימות האמונה הזאת, שגם איש כזה חביב לפני ה׳ ית׳

The wording of the (farmer’s) question shows that he is seeking emunah.

Although emunah has not expanded in his heart to the point that he can plainly see the Divine providence in every detail of life, nevertheless, his heart yearns to reach this complete faith—and a person in this state is precious to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

The great Rav Dovid Trenk, zt”l, a gadol in chinuch, was a guide and mentor to countless students and fellow teachers. In a speech to educators, Rav Trenk mentioned this very point in the name of Rebbe Zusha of Anipoli. “Certainly the Torah could have directly made the point that Hashem promises to provide an extra measure of bounty before the shemitah year (to make it clear that there will be enough to eat when the land is resting). Such a clear reassurance would have eased the fears of those who were to let their land lay fallow and assuage their doubts and concerns about how they would survive the Sabbatical year.

“However, [through this indirect approach,] the Torah teaches us a bigger lesson: the value of emunah forged through questioning. Asking a sincere question of the Ribbono Shel Olam or of parents, or teachers, is precious. A heartfelt question is to be encouraged and it deserves an answer.”

In our sedra, human questioning is part of the Torah haKedosha, a pasuk canonized for all time! May we learn from this Divine example of honoring the questions, doubts, fears and uncertainties of all. And may we take to heart the message that in matters of faith and philosophy, as well as in issues pertaining to the minutiae of Jewish law, there is no such thing as a foolish or unlearned question. Even if it is about the “kashrus” of a cat that ate treif.


Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpia of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.

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