Perashat Behar: Rest and Reification

This week’s perasha begins,

“And Gd spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and tell them that when they arrive in the land I am giving them, they shall let the land rest as a Sabbath for the Lord”.

Rashi, quoting the Sifra, asks why specifically this mitzvah (commandment) of shemitta, the Sabbatical year in which the land is meant to be left fallow, is linked to Sinai, of all the commandments, and the answer given is a heuristic one — the general statement of the Sabbatical laws was given back in Perashat Mishpatim, while the details are stated here, yet both are linked to Sinai, thus teaching us that all the mitzvot, both their general statement and the exact technical details, were given by Gd on Sinai. Similarly, the Avodat Yisrael uses this same Sifra to teach that all mitzvot must bring one to a state akin to that of being back at Sinai; one should reach as state through the vehicle of mitzvot as though one were once again standing as at the initial revelation of the Torah. In both cases, the teaching is based on the superfluous mention of Sinai here, but the deeper question is still unanswered, that is, why, of all the laws that could have been chosen, is the set of rules dealing with the Sabbatical year, Shemitta, singled out as being linked to Sinai? Is there something unique that we understand in comtemplating the Sabbatical year that merits a special connection to the Revelation at Sinai?

We will argue that there is a lesson contained within the concept of the Shemitta year that merits this linkage to Sinai, that shemitta will define in various ways our relation to the world we live in and the people we live amongst. By way of definition, shemitta is the agricultural Sabbatical year, and Yovel is the Jubilee year, years in which the land is left fallow, slaves are liberated from servitude, and ancestral homes return to their initial owners. Upon first glance, these shemitta laws seem to orient towards an almost nihilistic disregard for the free market, and all forms of commercial activity. All agricultural work comes to a dead halt, and in the Yovel, all real estate transactions are voided.

In order to develop a deeper perception of these laws, I would like to make use of the concepts of commodification, or reification. Marxist influenced thinkers talk about how the human effort behind products, labor, is alienated by the exchange value of the item produced as a thing in itself. Things we need are reduced from their use value, that is, the value of core items in themselves as needed for existence, and their exchange value, meaning an emphasis upon what such an item can be traded for. Commodities thus become “fetishized” as the human cost required for the manufacture of any item is forgotten, and thus, seeing items as removed from human production and need, we become seduced by “laws” and theory. We begin to imagine that economic laws, which are postulates, seem to take on a real existence that in themselves determine trade, etc. As Lukacs explains, there is a reciprocal process whereby objects become fetishized, that is, things become elevated to the level of independent commodities subject to market laws, while at the same time consciousness becomes reified, that is, the human cost behind production drops to the level of things. Objects come “alive” whereas humanity becomes a “thing”. Eventually, even culture and society become mere products of market forces, determined by the dominant forms of production. We think we are desiring and thinking independently, whereas in reality what is driving us is a product of advertising forces and marketing. Our core ideas of our own individual existence are determined for us by market forces. We like to believe that our truest most authentic core is determined freely by our subjectivity, but Althusser defines the term “subject” in a dialectical manner:

“The whole mystery of this effect lies in the ambiguity of the term subject. In the ordinary use of the term, subject in fact means: 1. A free subjectivity, a center of initiative, author of and responsible for its actions; 2. A subjected being, who submits to a higher authority, and therefore is stripped of all freedom except that of accepting freely his submission’ the individual is interpellated as a subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject; i.e. in order that he shall accept his subjection, i.e. in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection ‘all by himself’. There are no subjects except by and for their subjection’” (from Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays).

In other words, the apparently free subject, the “subjective”, is in actuality a secondary manifestation of the surrounding society’s norms and desires. One’s thinking is not purely “subjective”, as we like to believe, rather it is to a large degree “subject”, controlled and produced by, the dominant language and beliefs of society. However, it has recently become clear that this model is a bit simplistic. Even the dominant society, the reigning paradigm, can become itself “subject” and thus be altered by new forces which arise. Much of what is labeled “production”, which in the classical Marxist model was believed to drive consumption, to be the force behind demand, is in our society actually driven and altered by the desires of the consumer, a phenomenon called “social demand”. Thus much of the market now, for example, with the concurrent change in emphasis regarding the image and role of women in contemporary society, is driven by the newly felt power of the women’s market; the woman’s needs and situation within the system were entirely overlooked in Marxist thought (the domestic sphere, for example, was not at all taken into account within the framework of the “surplus value” concept; cf. Myers, in The BLOCK Reader in Visual Culture).

Thus we see that even forces which appear to be liberating and transformational can themselves become subjecting forces within society. The Hassidic thinkers on our perasha read Shemitta as being so central to our relation to all that is around us, that it must be linked to Sinai. This mitzvah provides a route by which, to quote Benjamin, “things are liberated from the drudgery of usefulness”.

The Sefat Emet explains how this “liberation from usefulness” can be accomplished: by turning everything we encounter over to Gd, which, for example, is the definition of “rest” on Shabbat — an annihilation of our desire to control our surroundings. However, renunciation is not a simple matter. There remains the risk that instead of a liberation of all things through holiness, we end up with an exploitation of these sacralized objects based on our own needs masquerading as religious praxis. On the surface there may be the appearance of religious renunciation, but in actuality there is an entirely opposite motivation behind, ranging from the desire to appear holy to some deep seated need for self flagellation. To prevent this, the Sefat Emet teaches, we have shemitta, where even those things through which mitzvoth are accomplished, for example, food, etc, we leave alone. Shemitta teaches us that even the will to elevate and sublate all things into the sacred- must sometimes be surrendered! Thus we must desist even from dealing with the land in any instrumental fashion at all. Levinas and Battaille have shown us how even lofty goals, when pursued with disregard for the Other, can lead to disastrous results (we have discussed this in the past with regards to Heidegger). The dangers of an otherwise lofty concept such as nationalism have been played out so frequently that one would think humanity would have learned this lesson by now, yet the refugee problem only seems to be growing worldwide. Crusades for the “good” have in the not too distant past been seen to rapidly transform into the most horrible evil (Nietzche’s critique of Christian history provides an excellent model: “the Christian goal of eradicating Evil has made the world Evil”). Even the will to improve the world must be subject to critique. Thus, even our attempts to harness the world for the sake of the good must be resisted periodically.

Thus, one can say that keeping shemitta serves to realign our relationship to the world, to sever it from mere instrumentality, and demands from us recognition of the Other, even as we think we are acting in that Other’s best interest. The Degel Machane Ephraim reads this. He quotes the summation passage of Vayikra 25:23 — the land shall not be sold because the land is Mine, and you are gerim v’toshavim, dwellers on the land. The DME explains, that the unique situation of the refugee or stranger is that any interaction with the more privileged “normal” inhabitants of the land is by definition strained and based on suspicion or hostility, but when refugees runs into one another, then they immediately can establish a dialogue based on an understanding of each other’s predicament. The DME states that Gd, being unique and unlike anyone “in the world”, and thus existentially lonely (and of course, the central theme of Jewish mysticism is that Gd is in exile, divided, in a sense a refugee from the rectified state of the cosmos) and is thus also a stranger in this world. So really, the path to dialogue with the Other, the ultimate Refugee, is to become ourselves, or at least to somehow identify, with the Refugee. And the state of being a refugee was well described by Hannah Arendt in her work, We Refugees, from 1943:

…For him history is no longer a closed book, and politics ceases to be the privilege of the Gentiles. He knows that the banishment of the Jewish people in Europe was followed immediately by that of the majority of the European peoples. Refugees expelled from one country to the next represent the avant-garde of their people…

The stateless one, the person who finds themselves outside of the “normal” conventions of society, beyond the illusions of stability provided by concepts such as nationalism, who recognizes that at any moment one’s condition might suddenly be that of the refugee, that is the one who can most closely relate to the spiritual, the divine.

This section, dealing with the laws of Shemitta and Yovel, concludes with the following verse, Vayikra 25:55 — “For to me are the Israelites servants, my servants that I have redeemed from Egypt”. The Ohev Yisrael explains that there are no instances where a person referred to as a “servant to a tzaddik”, only a servant to Gd. This is so, he explains, because that state, of servitude to the righteous, cannot exist. A human being can be an “eved Hashem”, a servant of Gd, but never be an “eved hatzadik”, the servant of a tzaddik. Why is this? Because the definition of a servant is one who does something in place of another person. However, there is no spiritual or moral obligation that one person can discharge in the place of another, there is no way to relieve even the tzaddik of his or her responsibility. I cannot give charity, or work towards social justice in someone’s stead; he or she would still be mandated to do everything in their power to improve the lot of humanity. I do not absolve him or her of their responsibilities. However, we can be “servants of Gd”. Gd’s obligation is to feed the poor, promote social justice, and make the world a better place for all beings. This we can be charged to do in Gd’s place, in fact we must do so and not wait for Gd alone to better the world. Since we must, in a sense, stand in for Gd, whose responsibility it is, as it were, to better the world, we can assume the title of Eved Hashem, Gd’s servant, since we are charged to stand in for Gd in ensuring welfare for the other.

The laws of Shemitta and Yovel, then, teach us that we must renounce thinking that we are Gd’s agents when it involves subjugation of the Other, which teaches us to resist using even the good in an instrumental fashion. The only instance in which we can feel that we are acting in a Godlike manner — is when we are involved in making another person’s life better. And for this reason, out of all the commandments, this one is linked to Sinai.

As a postscript, there is an interesting reading by R. Zadok Hacohen of Lublin, in the book Pri Tzadik, which turns our initial question regarding Shemittah and Sinai on its head. This teaching reflects one of the central radicalisms of Hassidic thought, in its sensitivity to the fragile state of humanity even at the highest levels of spirituality, where one would assume a kind of safety. R. Zadok explains that shemitta is a route by which humanity can recover its ideal state of spiritual transcendence by being freed for a period of time from the material needs of the body represented by agriculture. It is the obstacles created by the mundane needs of physical being that obstruct the soul from reaching the spiritual heights one is capable of. The best example of pure spiritual existence unimpeded by material needs is that of the Israelites in the desert, who subsisted upon manna for 40 years; it was in this state that they experienced the revelation at Sinai, prior to their spiritual fall in the sin of the golden calf. Thus our initial question is inverted by R. Zadok — how is it, that while in the ideal state the people attained at Sinai, that shemitta, which represents the way back to that perfected state from a more material state, was taught? Why was the path to a perfected state taught to those already at such spiritual heights? R. Zadok derives from this midrashic question a rather profound lesson on the fragility of spiritual attainment. The reason that shemittah was linked to Sinai was that Gd at the outset recognized that humanity would have its ups and downs, that perfection was not a stable possibility for the people, and that all the dictates and commandments would be necessary to shield humanity from themselves. The example given is that of the archetypical first man, Adam, who mystics portray as having been at the highest level of spirituality, living easily in a world in which all material needs were accounted for. The mystics (such as Luzzatto) state that the physical world of pre-sin Adam was what we’d call now the spiritual, and that his spiritual world is beyond our current capacity of cognition. And that was largely because at that point in time, pre-sin Adam was entirely without sin. However, he did sin, and most importantly — was prepared to sin even at this exalted spiritual state. In other words, reaching great spiritual heights does not prevent great spiritual collapse, it is human to rise and fall, and if one can suddenly find oneself a refugee in the material world, it is also a reality in the spiritual world. One can find oneself dispossessed, a refugee even to one’s self, but the linkage between Sinai and Shemitta reminds us that there is always a way home again.

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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