Behar - Bechukosai - Sensitivity Training
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Imagine a gourmet's culinary delight composed from the finest ingredients.
Prime cuts of meat, fresh herbs and spices, perfectly ripened fruits and
vegetables, newly milled grains and the perfect complement of wines.
Imagine the finest linens appointed with beautifully wrought sterling and
the most delicate bone china. Completing the picture perfect display are
crystal goblets and pitchers mixing their faceted rainbows among the
colorful explosions of fresh flowers and decorations. Imagine all of it
presented on the veranda of a beautifully aged villa perched on a cliff
overlooking the tranquil sea at sun set.
Take the same food and menu and present it on paper dishes with plastic
cutlery and Styrofoam cups served on a cardboard tray in the basement
cafeteria of the local JCC.
Tell me, are details important?
The Parsha begins with an emphasis on details. (Rashi 25:1) "Why does the
Torah associate the laws of Shemitah (Sabbatical year) with Har Sinai. To
teach us that just as the laws of Shemitah were presented to the Bnai
Yisroel with all its details and particulars so too all the Mitzvos in the
Torah were taught to Moshe and transmitted to the Bnai Yisroel with all
their details and particulars."
The just quoted Rashi is among the most famous in the Torah. It is the
foundation of our faith and the fundamental construct of our practice. It
mandates our acceptance of the Oral Law no differently than our belief in
the divinity of the Written. It underscores what I have always said, "We
are not the People of the Book. We are the People of the Non-Book." Many
religions and ideologies believe in the divinity of the Written Torah. It
is only the observant Jew who believes equally in the divinity of the Oral
There is a famous Medresh that describes the non-Jewish reaction to the
uniqueness of the Torah. Honoring parents is fifth of the Ten Commandments.
The Medresh states, (liberal translation) "The non-Jewish world will review
the Ten Commandments and when they see that G-d included "Honor your Father
and Mother" they will proclaim, "What a sensitive and generous G-d He is!"
The Medresh is presenting us with a contrast between the basic tenets of
Yahadus (Judaism) and those of other religions. Most other religions
present detailed manifestos of their deity's religious and devotional
expectations. The concern and instructions for human relationships and
interactions are relegated to the back burner until all religious functions
have been well established. That is why it was common throughout history
for the local religious institution and its functionaries to live in
relative luxury while their constituency lived in squalor and poverty. Not
so with the Torah. The Torah is different. It is as if G-d has enough
self-confidence to share center stage with His humans.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the end of last week's Parsha,
the story of the Blasphemer, and the beginning of this week's Parsha, the
laws of Shemitah, are intentionally juxtaposed to make the following
contrast. The Laws of Shemitah are presented in great detail. The laws of
the Blasphemer were not presented at all! So much so that when the incident
occurred the verse states (24:12) "They placed him into custody until they
were told what G-d wanted them to do!" They went to Moshe and Moshe turned
to G-d for the answer. Moshe himself did not know what to do with the
Blasphemer! G-d then instructed Moshe what to do.
Rabbi Hirsch writes, "For that incident involved a law which had been given
on Mt. Sinai only in general outlines; the generalizations and details for
its implementation were so obviously lacking that when it first became
necessary to invoke this law in practice, inquiry had to be made of G-d
concerning the procedure to be followed."
Imagine, regarding His own honor G-d did not present elaborate instructions
and expectations; yet, regarding the honor due to parents G-d gave
instructions as well as stating the reward for doing so! What a sensitive
and generous G-d we have!
I believe that it all has to do with details. A Torah lifestyle is detail
oriented. There are laws and procedures to address most every situation and
circumstance. From birth to death there are questions that should be asked
and answers that are available to give. However, asking questions in search
of answers takes great conviction and humility. A person who believes that
he or she should know, or does know everything will not seek outside help.
The only person who seeks answers from others is the person who recognizes
his personal limitations and subjectivity. Such a person may have the
courage to be vulnerable. Such a person may have the conviction to do what
is right, to do what he or she is told.
If a person desires to know the word of G-d he will search out teachers who
are able to teach him the word of G-d. He will desire to know the details
and minutia of G-d's expectations.
In this regard G-d is certainly the best role model. He pays close
attention to details. He never neglects the honor and concern due to
others. His law addresses all situations, and if sensitivity can be defined
as attention to detail, He is certainly sensitive as only He can be.
All of us have heard time and again' "It's the thought that counts."
Unquestionably, I agree; however, it presumes that the thought has
substance; the thought reveals attention and detail. It's one thing not to
have given a gift due to time or financial restrictions; however, the
replacement card had better show concern and attention. More often than not
a creatively presented card has far greater meaning to the recipient than a
desired but poorly presented (e.g. unwrapped) gift.
By contrasting the story of the Blasphemer with the laws of the Sabbatical
year and this week's double Torah portions we are presented with another
important lesson. Do not skip on the details when it concerns the respect
and needs of others. The Shemitah year involved a social recalibration
regarding The Eved Ivri (Jewsih slave) as well as attending to the needs of
the Levits and the poor. Therefore, the laws are extensive and
detailed. However, when it concerns ourselves our personal honor and
needs, be sure to minimize our expectations and demands.
Parshas B'Har further contrasts G-d's concern and sensitivity for us with
His demands for our behavior toward Himself. The Parsha begins with
Shemitah. Although Shemitah is not necessarily a legal or ethical concept
that we would have undertaken on our own had G-d not commanded us to do so;
nevertheless, the entire focus of Shemitah is us! The redistribution of
economic wealth and station; the freeing and redeeming of Jewish slaves;
the sale and redemption of ancestral properties; caring for the destitute
and the needy; the prohibition against charging interest; and the proper
treatment of a day laborer and stranger. It's only at the very end of the
Parsha that G-d redirects our attention to Himself and concludes, "Do not
make gods for yourself; Keep my Shabbos."
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.