On our way to Shavuot from Pesach, we read three Torah portions that epitomize the deep structure of Judaism. The challenge of freedom is to make it a blessing. How can we avoid frittering it away in dissipation, keeping it from morphing into a curse? The Hebrew names of these parshiyot bear the message: mountain, laws and wilderness. The Torah forges a religion designed to get us through the chaos of an engulfing wilderness with a ramified system of legal prescriptions whose inspiration is rooted in the revelation at Mount Sinai. A faith-based community is the matrix of individual survival in a hostile environment.
The midrash ponders the connection between the loftiness of revelation and the intricacies of the law. What on earth do the particulars of the sabbatical year (allowing the land to lie fallow for a whole year) have to do with the words spoken at Sinai? Aren’t such mundane details an embarrassment to the very concept of revelation? Absolutely not, is the midrash’s emphatic answer. The Torah stresses the link between Sinai and shmittah intentionally to deliver the larger truth that the entire corpus of Jewish law, in all its generalities and specificities, flowed from Sinai. (Rashi on 25:1).
One need not be a fundamentalist to appreciate the deep insight of the midrash. For all its narrative skill, the Torah is essentially a book of law, reducing the sublime to the concrete. The covenant that was to bind God and Israel was irremediably legal in character. Subsequent developments would not change the spirit of the system. As codified in the mishnah some 400 years after the canonization of Hebrew Scripture, the Oral Law fully shared the ethos of the Written Law. They were kindred souls determined to imprint the seal of God on human behavior.
Metaphorically speaking, human life may have originated in a garden, but its natural habitat is the wilderness, a forsaken place to be settled, ordered and exploited by human ingenuity. To turn chaos into order, humankind had to resort to collective action, to assert the welfare of the whole over the pleasures of the individual. For the Torah, it was the power of divinely sanctioned law that harnessed the passions within to withstand the storms from without. Only a holy community could generate an island of stability within a world of turbulence. Yet there was no promised land at the end of the journey. Human emotion continued to erupt as before. “Most devious is the heart; it is perverse – who can fathom it,?” cries Jeremiah in a fit of despair in this week’s haftarah (17:9). The bounty of a land flowing with milk and honey was unattainable by a society mired in self-gratification. Exile turned out to be the normative locus of Jewish history.
According to another midrash, the ultimate purpose of the commandments is to purify and ennoble humanity. Without that pervasive rationale, it is simply impossible to explain the countless, individual specifications of the law. Does God really care whether we slaughter an animal from the front or the back of the neck? The midrash plays on David’s declaration that “the word of God is pure – (tzerufah). Hence, it burnishes (le-tzaref) those who live by it (B’reishit Rabbah 44:1 on II Samuel 22:31). Put differently, the Torah aims to imbue us with a level of self-restraint that is not normally ours. We must learn to transcend the destructive impulses that well up uncontrollably from within. Renunciation and discipline are the keys to virtue. Neither justice nor culture nor community is within reach where appetites are allowed to run amok.
This is the spirit which animates the high-minded legislation of Leviticus 25. To diminish the accumulation of inequities that eventually unravel the fabric of society – that was the goal. In consequence, farmers were instructed to let their fields lie fallow every seventh year. Nor were their property rights operative in that year. Whatever grew naturally was free for the taking, even by animals. In the fiftieth year, all land sold since the last jubilee year, was to revert to its original owner and indentured kinsmen were to be released. Similarly, it was forbidden to lend on interest to kinsmen who had fallen on hard times. The quest for holiness restricted the pursuit of personal wealth. The lord of this manor or sacred community was none other than God, to whom all land and humans belonged. Nothing could be alienated in perpetuity.
Long after sovereignty was lost and the Temple reduced to ashes, Jews reconstituted themselves in exile as the people of the Book. The written word had become not only an incarnation of God but also a portable homeland. Religion again reinforced communal cohesion. The requirement of a minyan for public worship compelled Jews to live together. Rabbinic Judaism expanded the communitarian ethos of the Bible. Admitted on sufferance, Jews strove to be wholly self-sufficient. Wherever they settled, they formed a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community sustained by self-help. Jewish law made their settlements into models of self-governance, collaboration and mutual aid.
Thus, when they arrived in America some 350 years ago, they were primed to flourish in a country where government would eventually assume a posture of non-interference in matters of religion. Their ancient spirit of collective self-reliance accorded perfectly with the robust spirit of this new and free nation-in-the making. America has proved to be the great exception in the dark exilic experience of the Jewish people precisely because of the convergence of values. In addition to the ample opportunities that America came to afford Jews as individuals, it also fostered the creation of strong private associations as the wellspring of social capital for its public institutions. Faith, philanthropy and voluntarism functioned as the seedbed for the institutions of the organized Jewish community as well as for the American body politic. Nothing symbolizes this congruity of spirit more strikingly than the inscription on the Liberty Bell, taken from our parashah: “Ye shall proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof (25:10).”