The marvelous event at Mount Sinai is well behind us. The biblical narrative, since then, has covered a long and trying road: the Mishkan has been built and dedicated, and numerous laws have been introduced in detail. Now, quite unexpectedly, as we reach the 25th chapter of Leviticus, the Torah brings us back to Mount Sinai:
And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: when you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Shabbat unto the Lord (Vayikra 25.1-2).
Ma inyan sh’mita etzel har sinai? “What are the sabbatical laws doing at Mount Sinai?” ask our sages of blessed memory.
One possible explanation is that by the introduction at this pointthe law pertaining to the land—namely, that of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years—emphasis is being laid on the fact that the revelation at Sinai, where we received the Torah and the commandments, had one aim: the building of a model society by the people of Israel in their only real, sovereign land.
The exalted moral code of Mount Sinai was not intended to guide a rootless cosmopolitan individual, but a whole people living on its land and cultivating it. The juxtapostion, after a long interval, of the event at Sinai and the life of the land serves as a twofold reminder: first, that the ideals of the Torah must not remain in the lofty realm of the abstract, but should be realized on the soil of the land itself; and second, that this land is more than a mere geopolitical or agro-economic entity; it is also capable of celebrating the Shabbat, and expected to do so. Just as a human being possesses an “extra soul” which finds expression on Shabbat, so the land, too, in its own way is entitled to its Shabbat (verses 2-6).
This Shabbat of the land and the Jubilee year are considered by many thinkers to be among the most advanced social reforms in history. They protect society against the evils of feudalism and totalitarianism, assuring an inherent “liberty to all the inhabitants in the land” (verse 10) and the right of each individual to “return to his home and to his family.” These reforms can be carried out only when Torah and Land meet, when the “children of Israel come to the land which I give you.”
The choice of haftarah, Yirmiyahu chapter 32, is no less telling in showing that land, “down to earth” as it is, is capable of conveying the most important spiritual messages. If the Torah reading presents a message of freedom and equality, the prophetic reading offers us a message of hope, manifested even in the darkest moments of despair.
Jerusalem was under heavy siege by the Babylonian armies for the third consecutive year. The enemy troops on the ramps were attacking the city from all sides: within the city, the sword, famine and plague raged.
Yirmiyahu, the prophet Jeremiah, had been thrown into jail by a king who was angered by his public pronouncements that the city was about to fall into the hands of the enemy and the king himself taken into captivity. And then, while still in jail, he announced that “the word of the Lord” had told him that his cousin Hanamel would suggesting to him that he buy a field in Anatot, outside Jerusalem.
Hanamel, in fact, did come and offered the field for sale and Yirmiyahu, forewarned by God, completed the transaction, paying Hanamel 17 shekels of silver. The deed was signed in public for everyone to see and ostentatiously deposited with Yirmiyahu’s secretary, Baruch Ben Neriah.
At this point, after getting all the attention he wanted in his purchasing of the field, Yirmiyahu made the following public statement:
For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says: “Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land” (32.15).
Yirmiyahu was not fooling himself, nor did he intend to fool others concerning the gravity of the situation. Was he not the one who had been imprisoned because of his pessimistic forecasts? Yet, unlike some latter-day opinion-molders, he wanted to share with his people not only the reality of impending doom, but also the hope of eventual triumph.
Seventeen silver shekels (estimated at seven ounces or 200 grams of silver) was probably not a large sum of money at that time. It was not the size of the investment which was important, however; it was Yirmiyahu’s readiness to invest in land in circumstances which made that land appear utterly worthless. The 17 shekels were a tangible investment in the future of the land and of the people.
Yet, it was not Yirmiyahu who emerged the hero of the day, but his all-but-forgotten cousin, Hanamel. Yirmiyahu was told how to act by God; he merely followed orders. Hanamel, on the other hand, was no prophet, but a simple citizen, one of the rank and file of the people. That he was ready at such a time to do business in real estate with his cousin the prophet was proof, even for Yirmiyahu himself, that the battle over the land had not been lost. It was then, when Hanamel appeared, that Yirmiyahu said (verse 8): “I knew, this was the word of the Lord.”
Yirmiyahu could easily have suspected that his cousin was only after the silver shekels. He did not, however, resort to suspicion and mudslinging. Instead, he made Hanamel into a hero, seeing in him a true representative of the people, one who does not despair, in the worst circumstances. Indeed, inspired by Hanamel, Yirmiyahu prophesies about the future, encouraging more investments in this threatened land: “Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”
Yirmiyahu himself was troubled by doubts, which he expressed in his prayer to God (32.11-25), but his doubts were silenced as God replied: (verse 27): “I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?”
The way from Sinai to the Land might be long and arduous, but it is one of freedom and equality, faith and hope.
—Adapted from the writings of Rabbi Pinchas Peli, z"l