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Greetings from the Holy Land. My hiatus from this blog has seen me swept away with many demands on my time, many blessings. The broken keyboard was an invitation to step away from the weekly posts and give myself over to a few months of solid teaching.

And now here I sit, in Jerusalem. Got here Tuesday.

In honor of this place, I want to share with you a terrible secret.

Perhaps the most famous question in all of Torah commentary (posed a thousand years ago by Rashi, the most authoritative of all later interpreters) is “ma inyan shemita etzel Har Sinai?” What’s the idea of the Sabbatical Year together with Mount Sinai?

It’s a good question, considering that the only time the Bible ever tells us explicitly that God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai is in the section outlining the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. So what’s the connection? Why here, of all places?

Far beyond the realms of Torah scholarship, this question has become embedded in broader Jewish consciousness. Years ago a rabbi friend of mine was visiting Israel, and happened to watch an old rerun of Kojak. When one of the characters said, “what’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?”, my friend laughed to see Rashi’s question, verbatim, flash across the bottom of the screen—“ma inyan shemita etzel Har Sinai?” What’s one thing got to do with the other?

As is so often the case, everything. The answer Rashi gives, in the case of the Sabbatical Year and Mount Sinai, is that the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years prove that the entire Torah in all its details was given directly by God to Moses during their meeting on the fiery hilltop. Oddly enough, especially for Torah discussions, where pretty much anything is open for debate, challenge, reevaluation and, especially, irresolution, this answer remains entirely uncontested.

What this means is, it’s a widely if not universally accepted premise within traditional Jewish circles that the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years prove the validity of the entire Torah. This is a serious load to carry. If you have a fraction of a appreciation of what the Torah means within Jewish tradition, you will recognize that to prove the validity of the Torah is to prove the validity of Judaism itself, to prove even the reality of existence and, reasoning back, possibly to prove even God. We say that the Torah preexisted creation, that God looked into it and created the world. According to tradition, the Torah is not a reflection of reality, rather its cause.

What’s interesting though is not Rashi’s uncontested “fact”, but its implications. The centuries of commentators move on from his bold assertion (which is based in very early sources), to question not whether the Sabbatical and Jubilee years prove the authenticity of the Torah, only how. Over the centuries, the discussion on this matter has been rich, layered and profound.

And with this we arrive at our terrible secret, which is really just my attempt at an answer to this thousand year-old question. I decided to write about it yesterday evening, as I was sitting beside David’s Tower within the walls of the old city, watching what I fully expected to be an exceedingly dull, drawn out sound-and-light show, but which turned out to be not half-bad and blessedly brief.

Sitting there, watching the play of colors on the ancient stone walls, I was thinking about triumphalism, and the propensity of some to flaunt possession of this land, this place.

Our tradition teaches us that after the sin of the Golden Calf, in order to renew the covenant (and live), the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years were established as the cornerstones of a system of reward and punishment. With the first covenant, the Torah was entirely free. The second came with responsibilities. The Sabbatical and Jubilee years became our part of the bargain. Keep them, and all would be well; fail, and the consequence is exile, perhaps the gravest of all possible punishments.

At the heart of these two multifaceted commandments is the principle of hefker, ownerlessness. God outlines these laws and says, ki li ha’aretz, “for the earth is mine.” The Sabbatical and Jubilee years are a manifest expression of this deeper spiritual truth. These mitzvot (commandments) call upon us to release indentured servants, allow the earth rest, share all food freely and nullify debts. The essence of everything we’re meant to do and not do during these years is letting go—spiritually and physically.

And this letting go is the terrible secret. We were given this land, this earth, as an inheritance, but to earn it, to merit living here we must let it go. We must give up our sense of unqualified possession and open to a deeper recognition of “ownership” beyond the narrow, human realm. We must awaken to a deeper sense that all that exists, all of creation, is part of something far greater than our specifically human drama.

Why is this so terrible? It speaks to the spiritual irony that the only way to gain what we most want is to relinquish our very grasping for it. What does it mean that to merit this land, this earth we’ve been dreaming of for millennia, we’ve got to let it go?

There is much discussion in the commentaries about the Sabbatical Year’s role as the condition for living in the land. The Torah itself makes this abundantly clear when it says the earth will ‘vomit’ us out for failure to keep the Sabbatical Year. The third to last sentence of the entire Tanach, the full body of our most sacred texts, reemphasizes this by stating that not keeping this commandment was the reason for the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and the cause of our exile.

In the Torah, we’re promised that if we do let go, if we do share this world and keep the commandments of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the earth will naturally provide all we need. We’re promised that we don’t actually have to work so hard, we can slow down, step back and let go, and all will be well.

No human could make this promise, and some interpreters take this to be the foundation of Rashi’s claim for proof of divine origin.

Through linking the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee Years so intimately with Sinai, the Torah is telling us something very significant about the nature of reality, of change, of peace, justice and freedom. Sinai is the paradigm of collective awakening. It is the moment of shift, when and how we come to God not only as individuals, but together, as humanity. To achieve this fulfillment of our collective potential, we must shift our relationship to the world and ground ourselves in the principle of hefker, letting go of any fixed sense we have of who we are and how the world works. We must relinquish our conception that how things are today—our governments, our economies, our societies and families—are how they are because we are somehow fixed in how we are. To open new doorways of possibility, we must release our narrow sense of who we are and what we are doing here.

Nothing is given. Everything can change in an instant. The Torah is offering us a terrifying glimpse of how that happens. To change the world and find ourselves again standing before Sinai, we must let go completely.

The Jubilee takes this to the ultimate extreme. It is, as I’ve called it, God’s holy reset button, a new beginning. We have the capacity to do just this. But to move from where we are today to where we have the potential to be involves this terrible, divine process of letting go. We cannot enter the Promised Land with our old ways intact. We must, as Joseph, Abel, Eve, Adam and so many of our spiritual masters have done before us, sacrifice our very selves to the service of truth.

It isn’t easy, but no one said it would be. From where we stand, God’s justice seems a terrible price to pay. From the other side, from that world where unity and sharing have replaced enmity and hoarding, it appears the most wonderful gift imaginable.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Yonatan

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[I apologize for the delay in getting this out. Friday I was in no condition to write anything.]

“Now here [the sages] have awakened us to a great secret of secrets from the Torah… Bend your ear to hear what I am permitted to make you hear from it, in language that you will hear. And if you merit, you will comprehend…”
–Nachmanides

You may not have the slightest interest in the Torah (Hebrew Bible), which is completely understandable. You may even think of it as a primitive text filled with unconscionable violence and an alarmingly arrogant, malevolent god. Still, I urge you to at least consider that there may be some good reasons why it has survived as a major religious guide for so long. The secret Nachmanides is pointing towards is certainly one of them. Its relevance penetrates beyond any national, religious or cultural boundaries.

It would be difficult to overstate the authority of Nachmanides as an interpreter of the Torah. Known in traditionalist circles as the Ramban (from the initials of Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), his commentary on the Torah has been a central text for nearly eight hundred years. Drawing from all possible sources to illuminate deeper meanings, it makes clear that he devoured the canon whole, and retained every morsel. His insights are challenging, and sparkle with fresh possibility even today.

Before looking at the relevance of his secret for our time however, we must acknowledge an innate difficulty. When the Ramban wrote that he would say what he was “permitted”, he did not have anyone sitting over his shoulder, staying his hand. In dealing with ancient Hebrew, we’re faced with a language that aimed to express the essence of a thing through the word used to describe it. This is why the word for “word” and the word for “thing” are one and that same: Davar means both “thing” and “word”—there is no separation. The situation at hand is a perfect illustration of this. In referring to something as a great secret, the Ramban is pointing towards what is in essence secret. As Akiva Tatz has put it, ‘it’s not secret because no one will tell you; it’s secret because no one can tell you.’ This is the Torah version of, ‘The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.’

Seen in this light, the Ramban’s call to bend our ears is not hyperbole, it’s literal. I won’t be able to tell you the secret. Still, we can dance around the periphery, hoping to fall in. As the Ramban indicated, if we merit, we will comprehend. In this instance, the word for “comprehend” can also be read as contemplate, examine or study. If you’re still reading, congratulations! Apparently you’ve got some merit under your belt.

In order to investigate the Ramban’s secret, we’ll work from the outside in. First off, if we take a giant step back and look at the Torah from a distance, perhaps the simplest and fairest way to characterize it is: It’s about service to something greater than ourselves. This should come as no surprise to those aware that the traditional tally of the number of commandments contained in the Torah comes to six hundred and thirteen.

If service is the essence of Torah, then we can reasonably deduce that the Ramban is pointing towards some kind of secret about the nature of service. Even further, we can surmise that he is alluding to the deepest nature of service, the service of service.

While we’re out here looking from a distance, we also need to identify the countervailing force to service. All things in form exist in contrast, duality, so service too must have its counterpart. In biblical terms, we would call this counterforce exile. Just as there are degrees of service, so too with exile. These two forces have a dynamic, inverse relationship. The degree to which we serve is the degree to which we are no longer in exile. Ultimate service, the service of service, is the final end to exile, and vice versa.

The Ramban’s comments relating to this great secret are in large part an elucidation of the deeper nature of this relationship and its consequences. His words serve as both a caution and an alert to opportunity. Throughout his long commentary on the Torah, the Ramban draws attention to the connection between our actions and the fate of the world, the interrelationship between the twin destinies of humanity and the earth. One way to look at it is, he was anticipating climate change by nearly a thousand years (of course he was taking his cue from the Torah, which alluded to this relationship millennia earlier). In conveying the secret at hand the Ramban was pointing towards the essential choice we face: that is, which direction do we take—service, or exile?

To understand the nature of this choice we need to come in for a closer look and examine the Ramban’s remarks in their specific context. In doing so, we find that they relate to two commandments in particular—the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year. Of all the commandments in the Torah, the argument has been made many times over hundreds of years that these two require the greatest degree of selflessness to fulfill. Putting them into practice requires that we look beyond our narrowly defined personal interests and subsume our individual wills to the greater good. Not easy.

The commandments relating to the Sabbatical and Jubilee years include radical prescriptions for economic freedom and ecological renewal. They require that we do more than hope that our individual actions will add up to a sustainable, healthy, peaceful, just, free world; they call on us to align our personal choices with a very clear endgame, a specific, shared vision. They call on us to give up liberty in favor of freedom.

But it goes much deeper than this, obviously, or it wouldn’t be such a great secret. The fulfillment of these commandments points to a mode or degree of selflessness that takes us far beyond any simple prescriptions for socialist economics. To realize the Jubilee, in particular, requires the attainment of selflessness in its ultimate form. And this is where words begin to fail, where we encounter the outer reaches of a new atmosphere and language starts to break apart upon entry.

There is a state—of mind, spirit, body—where all of this makes sense. Where the Ramban’s secret is perfectly clear, and the entire Torah comes into singular, crystal focus. This is also the state where fulfilling the Jubilee not only becomes possible, but natural. It is the end of all exile, the ultimate indwelling. In this state there is no true other. We see clearly that our own wellbeing and that of others, including the earth and all its creatures, are one and the same. This state of transcendent oneness cannot be conveyed in words, but it stands as the remedy to all exile, the ultimate form of service and the destiny of humankind, should we choose it.

I wish I could say more, and hopefully I will. But for now, if we contemplate these ideas, we may come to merit comprehending them…

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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I’m gonna let you in on a little secret; actually, a great secret. But not quite yet.

It’s an abbreviated week. This evening the holiday of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, begins. I’m on my way to celebrate and teach. Because of other obligations, I haven’t had time to prepare something for you yet this week. The remainder of today, tomorrow and Saturday will be taken up with festivities. So, this week what I give you is a promise.

Tonight, we commemorate the receiving of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) and the Ten Commandments. If you think you know what that means, what the Torah is, I urge you to think again. For the past four years, I have been pursuing an answer, aiming to solve a riddle. Nachmanides, the great scholar, philosopher and kabbalist, in his extraordinary commentary on the Torah, points to what he called one of its greatest secrets. According to him, this is a secret that Moses himself, who we traditionally say wrote the entire Torah, did not know.

I have spent the past few years struggling to comprehend what Nachmanides was driving at. I can’t say that I fully understand what he wrote, but I have gained a deeper feeling for it. The commitment I make to you is, by sometime next Friday, June 5th (b’h), I will begin the process of unpacking this secret. I will endeavor to share, to the best of my abilities, some of the truths Nachmanides was pointing towards. I make no promise that it will change your life; I only promise to speak my truth about it.

Until then, may the light of revelation shine upon you.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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