May 25, 2019: Parshat BEHAR Sermon by Rabbi Moshe Edelman

SERMON for Cong Agudas Israel Newburgh Parshat Behar 5779


What is the correlation of today’s Torah reading with the old television favorite, featuring the lollipop sucking Telly Savalas, Kojak?


Many years ago, Kojak was not only a popular show, but it had a run of interest in Israel as well.  The episodes in Israel were shown three to five years later than their showing in the States, but Israelis loved the cops and bad guys show.


In one particular feature, Kojak and Crocker were involved in a disagreement when all of a sudden Crocker made an out of left field, outrageous statement. Kojak readied his response, but the Israeli viewers were reading the Hebrew subtitles for the simultaneous translation.  Kojak said, “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” but the subtitle came from a famous Rashi commentary in the opening verse of parshat Behar today’s  kriyat ha Torah.


Israeli television translated “what does that have to do with the price of tea in China” with “Ma inyan shmittah eytzel Har Sinai“, what does the sabbatical year have to do with Mount Sinai?”  What does one thing have to do with the other? More specifically, why does the wording of the firstpasuk of the Torah in Behar seemingly add Har Sinaiwhen it is rarely invoked in other sentences.  Why talk about shmittahat Mt. Sinai but not other mitzvot?


The Torah states, “And God spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai saying, “And then God commands certain mitzvot about the sabbatical year.” Why bring Mount Sinai into matters of land usage, land conservation, ecology, produce, suspension of annual agricultural procedures, but not with other commandments?


In an 1830’s Torah commentary, the Ksav V’Kabbalah, Text and Tradition, Rabbi Mechlenberg of Koeningsburg, Germany brings a contemporary answer for us.  He states that Jewish life requires an understanding of the place of Har Sinai, God’s Divine Revelation and shmittawhich is symbolic of mankind’s power in the world.


The laws of shmitta are among the most profound ideas of the Torah for modern humanity.  We are taught that we must rest.  We are taught that the land must rest.  We are taught that a Shabbat, a cessation, is a necessary and required element of humanity’s understanding of limits and control.



For us, the questions are:

  1. Where will God be in your life?
  2. Where will Torah study fit in our lives?
  3. What place will tzedakah have in our daily life?
  4. What dimension will tefillahhold each day?
  5. How will mitzvotbe part of our living experience?
  6. What direction will be taken to support building a Jewish community?
  7. What will be done to maintain a vitality in Judaism?


The Torah, by connecting shmittato Har Sinai, teaches that every detail of Torah is significant.  Even those specific mitzvot which were not recorded until years after the Revelation at Sinai are to be treated, revered and accepted as if they were given on Sinai.  In so doing, the Sages were reinforcing their position of responsibility, power and authority.


The Jew who observed shmitta was a Jew of ultimate faith because in the 6thyear of the 7 year cycle, the produce of the earth had to be sufficient to feed you in year 6, year 7 when you did not plant AND year 8 on the heels of the non planting year – and even the early part of year 9 before the crops came in.  A Jew has to believe that what is planted will take hold and keep on producing even after you are no longer seeding the soil.


As Jews, we plant and pray.  We seed and we observe Shabbat.  We clean the field, prepare the soil, invest time, energy, resources, talent and faith in building Judaism for ourselves, our children and their children, our community and our area, even our country.


We toil within a vision of a Jewish life built on knowledge and observance. We believe in Judaism for ourselves and for our neighbor’s children.  We give of our boundless energy and bountiful resources


And Judaism is not limited to Torah and tefillah.  We believe in gemiluthesed.  Celebrating a brit, dancing at a bat mitzvah, being m’sameach hatan v’kallah, assuring a shivaminyan, bringing sides together in a dispute are the Talmud’s parameters for concern of fellow Jews.


Through checks, open homes on Shabbat, a welcoming sukkahand places at the Seder, we express our humility and concern for humanity.


The Chatam Sofer says that the mitzvaof shmittaproves that God is the author, the giver of the Torah.  This parsha guarantees that the year before the shmitta there will be three years of crop until the next harvest. If a human being were inventing such a commandment, she or he would not be so foolhearty to make a three year prediction.  Only God would make such a statement.


So too only people of both intellectual acumen and spiritual faith would say Judaism will survive and thrive.  Men and women who have the heart, soul, mind and devotion to continue to build when others say you are dead, defeated or living in a midbar, desert.


Our task is to connect to Har Sinai.  Our goal is to climb to the mountain’s peak. Pulling, pushing, extending our arms or taking a hand, we must be servants of the Kadosh Baruch Hu while we bless the lives of others through our love and concern for Jews and humanity..


The parsha proceeds from the shmittayear to the yovelyear, the 50thyear, the Jubilee Year when debts are forgiven.


This weekend, Memorial Day, is observed in the United States, but it is TODAY that we read, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” We should reflect on the blessings of freedom and democracy.  We must remember all those valiant women and men who gave the ultimate sacrifice for this country.


While the verse says to “sanctify the 50thyear by declaring freedom inthe land”, which is understood as inIsrael, commentaries teach that freedom and democracy must also exist outside of Israel:


Judaism, like democracy, is the inherited right of all the Jewish people and all the inhabitants of a community or country.  We must re-proclaim it, reclaim it, love it and live it.


Why are the two words Behar Sinai included in the very beginning of the parsha today?  It comes to teach Jews, that we  must do more than put the administrative, governance, infrastructure house in shape. We must  re-energize, re-dedicate, re-vise and re-member why we are here –


To bring Sinai to the lives of Jews and to bring Sinai’s ever contemporary message to humanity.


Sinai calls us.

We must answer.

Sinai calls us.

We must act.

Sinai calls us.


Moshe Edelman 5. 23.2019 revised

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