Torah Portion: Behar
May 25, 2019 | 20/Iyar/5779
Appel’s Parsha Page
Sabbatical and trust in God
by Rabbi Yehuda Appel
The story is told of a European Jew at the turn of the century who, tired of the constant grind of poverty, determined to solve his plight by playing the lottery. Fearing that what he was doing was not exactly “kosher,” the fellow went to his rabbi and asked approval for the plan. He explained that his actions would do nothing more than provide the Almighty with the opportunity to send him some well-needed money. Moreover, the fellow said, he had complete trust that God would answer him.
“How many tickets are you buying?” asked the rabbi. “Three” said the man. “One should be enough for God,” was the rabbi’s laconic reply.
The concept of bitachon — “trust in God” — plays a critical role in Jewish thought. Just as a person should strive to observe the Mitzvot, he or she should also try to develop bitachon, a consciousness that God is actively involved in our lives. In fact, the acquisition of this “God awareness” is so vital that some commentators explain this as the true goal of Torah observance.
While true acquisition of bitachon can be a tremendously liberating experience, it is also very hard to achieve. We live in a world where our daily routine and the “natural course of events” actually may lead us to forget about God. How many of us limit our lottery purchases to one ticket?!
In striking fashion, this week’s Torah portion addresses this issue. Much of the Parsha is devoted to a description of laws concerning the sabbatical year (“shmita”) that takes place in Israel every seventh year. In Biblical times, debts were cancelled on the shmita year, and servants were set free.
Even today, farm land is not to be worked during the shmita year. Throughout the entire Land of Israel, no Jewish farmer should plow or plant. This hiatus not only helps improve the quality of the soil, but provides the Jewish People with more free time to study Torah. This system of shmita, however, would seem to create one great problem: a lack of food! Concerning this issue, however, God assures us not to worry:
“Perhaps you will say, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year for we cannot sow nor gather our crop?’ I (God) will command my blessing upon the sixth year and it will bring forth (enough) produce for three years.” (Leviticus 25:20-21)
The Chazon Ish (20th century Israel) explains that while this does not guarantee that every individual will receive a triple crop, it does mean that collectively the Jewish People’s land will yield crops in far greater abundance than would be “natural.” In this way, we are reminded that it is God who is the force behind the natural order, and when He so chooses, He dispenses in proportions far beyond “natural.”
In this sense, the shmita year parallels the Sabbath, whose major function is also to remind us that it is God who created the world — and ultimately controls His world. Integrating this idea into one’s life is the foundation of bitachon — true trust in the Almighty.
The Guiding Light
Hurtful Words by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen
On two occasions in Behar, the Torah instructs us not to afflict our fellow Jew. In the first instance, the Torah states: “When you sell an item to one of your people or buy from one of your people, a man should not afflict his brother.” A few verses later, the Torah seemingly repeats itself: “Do not afflict your people and fear your God, because I am HaShem, Your God.” The Gemara explain that there are two different types of onaah (affliction); the first verse refers to onaat mammon — affliction relating to money. The second relates to onaat devarim — hurting someone through words. In general, the Rabbis do not compare two specific Mitzvot and say that one is greater than another; however, in this instance, they compare the two forms of affliction. Initially, one would think that onaat mammon is more severe than onaat devarim because when a person is hurt verbally, he does not lose any tangible object; however, when he is afflicted financially, then he suffers a real loss.
However, surprisingly, the Gemara says that onaat devarim is considered a greater sin than onaat mammon for three different reasons. Firstly, with regard to onaat devarim, the verse says, “and you should fear your G-d” but it omits this when discussing onaat mammon. The Maharsha explains that people are more likely to notice when someone is trying to commit onaat mammon but that it is far easier to conceal one’s true intentions to harm people verbally.
Someone who harms others financially is aware that people will likely recognize what he is doing but continues regardless. He shows a lack of fear of God, because he is unconcerned that God is totally aware of his actions but he also demonstrates no fear of what people think of his actions. A person who harms people in a concealed way, demonstrates that he fears people more than God — he is only concerned that people not think he is a cruel person, but he is unconcerned that God knows his true intentions. He is considered on a lower level than one who harms financially because he demonstrates greater concern for the opinion of other people than for God.
Secondly, the Gemara says that onaat mammon merely harms people’s property, whereas onaat devarim is worse because it harms someone’s very being. This particularly refers to a person’s emotional well-being — the damage done to them by a careless word can penetrate to their very essence. A frightening example of this is related by Rav Dov Brezak: He relates how a well-respected man in his forties required counseling because of a traumatic childhood experience — on one occasion his mother called him ‘tamei’ (impure). That single labeling damaged him so deeply, that it stayed with him for the rest of his life. This provides ample indication that harmful words can cause untold damage.
The Gemara continues with a third aspect in which onaat devarim is worse than onaat mammon — if a person deceitfully extracts money from his fellow he can repair the damage by simply returning that which he unjustly took. However, when one harms someone else with words, no amount of apologizing can change the past — those words can never be taken back. It is a common occurrence in relationships, especially in marriage, that a few insensitive words have long-lasting damage and that damage can never be fully healed because those words can never be fully taken back. Perhaps a corollary of this aspect of the severity of onaat devarim is that once harmful words are spoken, they can rapidly have a ‘domino effect’ whereby the consequences of these few words can be so far-reaching that it is impossible to ever undo the damage those words had done.
It is very clear from the Gemara how serious the sin of onaat devarim can be; moreover, it is a very difficult Mitzva to observe properly — we are constantly involved in conversation with other people and it is very easy to hurt their feelings through a thoughtless statement. Moreover, because we speak so much, we can forget how serious a sin it is to hurt other people’s feelings. The Chazon Ish once witnessed a man strongly rebuke his young son for moving something on Shabbat that may have been muktza (an item that it is prohibited to move on Shabbat). The Chazon Ish told the man that his son may have transgressed a Rabbinical Mitzva, but that the father had definitely transgressed the Torah mitzvah of not saying hurtful words.
One technique to help be more watchful of this mitzvah is to develop the attitude that we should be just as careful in it as in all other mitzvot such as kashrus — we would never eat something without being certain that it was permitted to eat it. So, too, we need to try to develop a sense of vigilance that what we are about to release from our mouth is permitted. The best way of doing this is by learning the laws and ideas behind it.
It is instructive to end with one final saying of the Chazon Ish — he used to remark that one of the greatest possible sources of joy is that he lived his whole life without causing pain to his fellow Jew.
May we all be merit to only do good with our speech.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” — Viktor Frankl
Morah Rivka was teaching her first grade class about saying berachot (blessings) and davening (praying).
“For example children,” said Morah Rivka, “Before we go to sleep, we should sing shema. Who here says their prayers at night?”
Little Moishie answered, “My mommy says my prayers.”
“I see,” said Morah Rivka. “And what does your mother say?”
Moishie replied, “THANK GOD HE’S IN BED!”
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