| Behar

We tend to categorize mitzvot as either mitzvot between man and G-d or mitzvot between man and man. Tzedakah is a mitzva between man and man whereas blowing the shofar is a mitzva between man and G-d.

While it is true that certain mitzvot focus on our relationship with G-d and others on our relationship with man, this distinction is rather artificial and of little significance. The Torah constantly weaves various categories of mitzvot, seamlessly moving from one to the other. From the perspective of the Torah all mitzvot emanate from G-d and all are equally obligatory.

With man created in the image of G-d, the way we treat man is much more indicative of our relationship to G-d than how we daven, observe shabbat or keep kosher. One can effectively be a ritually observant atheist (sadly, maybe without even realizing it) and one who does not observe the rituals of Judaism can have a meaningful and enduring relationship with G-d.

Moreover, every mitzva between man and G-d contains a parallel mitzva between man and man. G-d does not need our mitzvot and each mitzva “for G-d” must therefore have a lesson for man. “The reward for a fast day is charity” (Brachot 6b). The primary goal of fasting on Yom Kippur, to discuss just one example, is to sensitize us to the needs of the hungry. There is little point to spend all day in shul fasting, pleading for life, repenting, coming closer to G-d and yet not come closer to those created in His image.

Sometimes it is for us to figure out on our own the multiple categories of mitzvot and at times the Torah directly tells us so. In the first set of the “Ten Commandments” we keep shabbat to acknowledge that G-d created the world, an indication that shabbat is a mitzva between man and G-d. After all, no one was alive when G-d created the world. In the “Ten Commandments” in parshat VaEtchanan we keep shabbat “so that your slave and maidservant may rest like you” (Devarim 5:14) indicating that shabbat is a mitzva between man and man. Interestingly enough the Torah separates these two reasons, with each reason most appropriate to the people to whom it was addressed[1].

It is our parsha, Behar, where we see a beautiful example of the Torah weaving these two categories side by side in the same mitzva. The parsha opens with the laws of Shmita and Yovel. The Torah emphasizes that by having our land lie fallow we acknowledge that G-d is the owner of our land. “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Vayikra 25: 22).

Yet at the same time the Torah tells us that during the shmita year our produce is be shared with “your male and female slaves, the hired and bound labourers who live with you”. And during the Yovel year all slaves are to be let free. Moreover, Yovel is the backdrop for the laws of Ona’ah, the prohibition to charge someone above market price of an item[2]. With land reverting to its original owner in the Yovel year the price for a home must be different in year 15 of the 50 year cycle than in year 25.

Only after the Torah tells us “And you shall not wrong one man his fellow Jew, [by overcharging] and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord, your God” are we given the divine blessing that “the land will then yield its fruit and you will eat to satiety, and live upon it securely” (Vayikra 25:19). We acknowledge that it is G-d’s land by not overcharging our fellow man. It is our business practices that determine our right to the land.[3]

That the primary purpose of Shmita is our relationship with man is indicated by the fact that when Shmitta is introduced in sefer Devarim there is no mention of the land belonging to G-d or even having the land lie fallow. Rather, it the cancellation of loans and the giving of tzedakah which is the only focus of the mitzva. It is as if there were two totally distinct mitzvot – one to have the land lie fallow and the other to give tzedakah. But that would be a misreading of the mitzva.

Sefer Devarim is the book in which Moshe prepares the people for living in the Land of Israel. G-d knew that for most of Jewish history we would be in exile unable to fulfil the mitzva of Shmitta[4]. But while we may not be able to let the land lie fallow we could always fulfil the mitzva of tzedakah – the reason G-d choose Avraham to found the Jewish nation[5]. 


[1] The Jews leaving Egypt had no need to remind themselves of slavery but very much needed to know that G-d is the Creator, while their children seeing the hand of G-d every day in the desert, needed to be reminded that once sovereign in the Land they dare not mistreat others.

[2] While the aggrieved party can void a sale only if the overcharge (or undercharge) is more than 1/6th the prohibition to overcharge is, according to many, violated at any and all improper pricing levels. Others argue that the 1/6th reflects the range of the market price which is too difficult to pin down. How one determines market price or a market range in a complex economy is a vital topic but beyond the scope of our discussion. 

[3] While the laws of Shmita and Yovel apply in Israel only – something worth thinking about – it should not need noting that the laws of Ona’ah, price fraud, apply wherever one may live.

[4] Thank G-d we have returned to the Land; yet it it is still not possible to fully observe this mitzva. Each Shmita cycle there is much discussion on what to do with the land – focusing on the mitzva between man and G-d. It seems to me that there is not enough discussion of the social and economic aspects of Shmitta – the mitzva between man and man.

[5] See Breisheet 18:19.