Thoughts on the parasha and "total victory"


Thoughts on the parasha and "total victory"

Here's another interesting article by Rabbi David Harbater relating the parasha to current times.
Shabbat Shalom!

The “total victory” conundrum–lessons from Shemita

From the very beginning of the war and until this very day, Prime Minister Netanyahu has declared that the war against Hamas will not end until Israel has achieved “total victory”. Now, aside from the difficulty of defining what constitutes “total victory”, it is hard to imagine Israel ever achieving it, given the fact that in some of the places in which the IDF previously claimed to have dismantled Hamas’ command structure–such as Jabalya in the north of Gaza and Zeitoun in the center­­–and then left, Hamas has returned and gained control once again. Furthermore, Politico just reported that, according to US intelligence, in more than seven months of war only 30-35 percent of Hamas fighters have been killed, around 65% of the terror group’s tunnels are still intact, and, to make matters worse, Hamas, in recent months, has recruited thousands of new members.

Thus, it appears that “total victory” over Hamas is an unrealistic and unattainable goal. At the same time, I believe we can all agree that, ideally, we should eliminate Hamas and its accomplices, and we should reach the point when we can declare “total victory”. The question at the heart of this matter is, therefore, to what extent should we make strategic political and military decisions based upon lofty ideals and to what extent should we make them based on concrete realities on the ground? In addressing this complex question, I believe we can gain insight from the biblical mitzvah of Shemita about which we read in Parashat Behar this week.

The Torah says the following:

“The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce–you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield” (Leviticus 25:1-7).

According to this text, we are prohibited from sowing and reaping the fields, as well as pruning and picking vines, in the Land of Israel every seventh year. Instead, the land is to lie fallow. During this year all the produce of the land is to be enjoyed by all, landowners and neighbors alike. This is known as the mitzvah of Shemita (meaning “release”), or the Sabbatical year. Some suggest that allowing the land to rest for a year helps the soil renew and nourish itself, much as we need to rest on the Sabbath day to renew ourselves, while others suggest that the purpose of the mitzvah is to remind us of God, the Creator and Master of the world, and to inculcate faith that even if we don’t work the land for a year, God will provide for us.

Personally, I think Shemita is a beautiful mitzvah that reflects some of Judaism’s loftiest and most noble ideals. That is why, during the Shemita year, I am delighted to have the opportunity to share with neighbors and friends the delectable figs growing on our large fig tree outside our home in Efrat.

The problem with Shemita, however, is that it doesn’t merely involve the sharing of fruit from our backyard gardens but the shutting down of the entire agricultural industry which could spell financial ruin and potential famine in agrarian societies, as were the norm in biblical times. Indeed, because God foresaw the likely resistance to this mitzvah, He promises “I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years.” (Leviticus 25:21). In other words, God, in Shemita, is asking us to suspend our real-world concerns and live instead by the ideals of faith and trust in Him.

While this is nice in theory, it was not always easy to implement in practice. After the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Roman government abrogated its previous tax exemption which forced many Jews to compromise their observance of the Shemita and, as a result, the Rabbis felt they had no choice but to relax some of the Shemita laws. Furthermore, with the rise of Zionism and the settlement of the Land in the late 19th century, there was a real concern that, if the Shemita were observed, the colonies would turn into wastelands which would spell the end of the entire Zionist enterprise just when it was beginning to gain traction. Thus, some leading rabbis at the time devised a halakhic (Jewish legal) mechanism called heter mechira (lit., "sale permit") whereby the land could be sold to a non-Jew for the duration of the Shemita year under a trust agreement and it would revert to Jewish ownership when the year was over. Since the land would belong to a non-Jew, the Jews could continue to farm it. This mechanism was later embraced by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook–the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine–with some changes, and it has been accepted by large segments of the religious Zionist community in Israel ever since.

But for those of us who rely on the heter mechira, what is to become of the great biblical ideal of Shemita? I believe the answer can be found in an effort to preserve its spirit. For example, we can spend more time during the year exploring nature and the outdoors, working to preserve the environment, and sharing our material blessings with others.

Thus, Shemita serves as an example of the tension that sometimes arises between the ideal and the real, and the need to adopt a more realistic approach without forfeiting the ideal altogether. I believe that the leaders of Israel today would do well to learn from this example. Rather than declaring the idealistic, but apparently unrealistic, goal of “total victory” over Hamas, they should decide on more realistic goals while preserving the ideal as a clarion call for us to do what we can and never rest until, one day, we will be able to declare the “total victory” of light over darkness and of goodness over evil.

If you would like to invite me to speak at your synagogue or community please contact me at [email protected]

Rabbi Dr. David Harbater

Author | Public Speaker | Jewish Educator

For speaking engagements in your synagogue or community, please contact me: [email protected]


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