The Book of the Covenant and Mount Sinai
“At Mount Sinai”
A teaching that is familiar to us from our earliest childhood states:
“And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” – R. Akiva said: This is a major principle in the Torah. (Sifra Kedoshim 2)
The verse that is cited here is from Parashat Kedoshim, which we read just two shabbatot ago. Before discussing the connection to our parasha, let us stop for a moment and ask: On what basis does R. Akiva make his statement? Where do we find the Torah awarding special importance to this mitzva of loving one’s fellow Jews?
Some scholars attribute R. Akiva’s statement to the revolt against Hadrian and the deaths of R. Akiva’s own students, as we recall during the current period of the counting of the Omer. However, we shall propose a conceptual basis for the statement that has its source in the Torah, rather than a merely historical explanation.
Our parasha begins with God’s words to Moshe at Mount Sinai:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying… (Vayikra 25:1)
This verse prompts Chazal to ask the well-known question, as cited by Rashi:
“At Mount Sinai” – Why is the subject of shemitta [the laws of which follow immediately afterwards] juxtaposed with [the fact that God gave these laws to Moshe at] Mount Sinai? Is it not the case that all the commandments were given at Sinai?
Rashi proposes a halakhic response to the question, focusing on the details of the laws. His answer does offer an explanation for the mention of Mount Sinai in the opening verse of the parasha, but it fails to explain why Mount Sinai appears twice more, later in Parashat Bechukotai:
These are the statutes and the judgments and the teachings which the Lord set between Himself and Bnei Yisrael at Mount Sinai, at the hand of Moshe. (Vayikra 26:46)
These are the commandments which the Lord commanded Moshe for Bnei Yisrael at Mount Sinai. (Vayikra 27:34)
Why does Mount Sinai rate such prominence? And what is its connection with the parashot of Behar and Bechukotai, the concluding parashot of Sefer Vayikra, such that this pair of parashot is bounded by Sinai on each end?
The Book of the Covenant
In order to answer this question, we must go back to the end of Parashat Mishpatim. At the end of the multitude of mitzvot set forth in the parasha, we read:
And Moshe wrote all of the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent the young men of Bnei Yisrael, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. And Moshe took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. And he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people, and they said, “All that the Lord has said we will do and obey.” (Shemot 24:4-7)
These verses record that Moshe committed the Book of the Covenant to writing and read it in the hearing of the people. What the verses do not tell us is the content of that Book. What was it that Moshe wrote?
Let us try to understand exactly what this Covenant and its content are. As a model for comparison, let us consider the covenant of marriage. When a bride and groom stand under the chuppa, a rabbi recites the blessings and usually says a few words about the beauty and wonder of marriage. After that, the ketuba is read. The ketuba is a document that stipulates “what happens if.” It sets down the husband’s obligations towards his wife, both during the marriage and, God forbid, if the marriage ends. This is the essential nature of a covenant.
The Covenant – The Blessings and the Curses
It seems, then, that the Book of the Covenant mentioned in Parashat Mishpatim actually refers to the list of blessings and curses in Parashat Bechukotai. There are verses from the end of the section of the curses that lend support to this view:
For Bnei Yisrael are mine, as servants; they are My servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God You shall make no idols, nor shall you erect a carved idol, or a pillar, nor shall you install a figured stone in your land, nor bow down upon it, for I am the Lord your God. You shall observe My shabbatot and revere My Sanctuary; I am the Lord. (Vayikra 25:55–26:2)
These verses clearly echo some of the themes from the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God”; “You shall have no other gods…”, and also Shabbat. However, other than these, the rest of the Ten Commandments do not appear here in the parasha in any recognizable form. Instead, extensive attention is given to the details of two other commandments: shemitta and yovel. Why is it specifically these two laws that are addressed here? What place do they have in the Book of the Covenant?
Shemitta and Yovel
The commandments of shemitta and yovel are bound up with Eretz Yisrael, the only place where they are applicable and meaningful. However, in contrast to other mitzvot that are related to the land, these require not only that Am Yisrael is living on the land, but also that there is full Jewish sovereignty in the land. This is the reason why Yovel is not observed at the present time, as well as the reason why our shemitta is extremely limited.
These two commandments are bound up with the land, and both of them express the significance of the brotherhood amongst Am Yisrael. This theme arises repeatedly over the course of the sections on shemitta and yovel:
If your brother grows poor and has sold away some of his possession… And if your brother grows poor and his means fail with you, then you shall relieve him, though he be a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. You shall take no usury of him, nor increase, but fear your God, that your brother may live with you… And if your brother who dwells by you has grown poor and is sold to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a bondservant… (Vayikra 25:25:39)
The verses speak of “brothers” – not in the same sense as the laws of inheritance, i.e., children of the same parents, but rather in the sense of the general fraternity of members of the same nation. The Torah does not speak here about a “neighbor” or “friend,” which would suggest a relationship of choice and affinity, but rather of a “brother,” pointing to a shared fate and destiny.
Usury and Non-Jews
Here a few words about the prohibition of taking interest are in order. Over the years, much attention has been given to the fact that the Torah prohibitions taking interest from Jews, but permits taking interest from non-Jews. How is this possible? What is the meaning of this discrimination?
It would seem that the question itself is based on a mistaken premise. What the Torah permits is not that one take interest from a non-Jew, but rather that one pay interest to a non-Jew. This is the essence of the law; it then follows logically that one may also take interest from a non-Jew. It is very important to discern which element is the essence or root of the law and which is an outgrowth or corollary. The fact that the essence of the law is the license to pay interest to a non-Jew is reflected in the language, le-nokhri tashikh, indicating an active action that one performs towards someone else, rather than a passive act that another party performs towards him.
In fact, the verb tashikh is in the causative form, which actually means allowing an action to happen. For instance, the expression “lehashikh nachash” means allowing a snake to bite someone else. Similarly, “le-nokhri tashikh” means allowing a non-Jew to charge interest to one of us, to a Jew. One may not allow a Jew to charge interest to another Jew.
All of Israel are Brethren
If we think about it in the simplest terms, interest is a very logical financial device. Just as one is permitted to charge his neighbor for use of his ox or his house, so it would seem that a person should be able to charge for the use of his money, since the possession of money itself can produce profits, as we know very well from our experience of the modern financial system. This reality existed in biblical times too.
However, the Torah informs us that we may not charge interest from, or pay interest to, another Jew. The reasoning here is that someone who is poor will have great difficulty rehabilitating himself if he must return every loan that he takes with interest. And it is this consideration that the Torah limits to Jews alone.
This special sensitivity, this special quality of unity among Am Yisrael, is what the Book of the Covenant is all about. This is the Book that was read to the nation at the gathering at Mount Sinai, and it was concerning this principle that Bnei Yisrael declared, “We shall do and we shall obey.” The Book of the Covenant includes commandments between man and God, but most of it concerns the relations between people, which require sensitivity in these areas.
This, then, is the crux of the Book of the Covenant: the unity and sensitivity between man and his fellow man amongst Bnei Yisrael. It is with regard to this covenant that the blessing and the curse are set forth in Parashat Bechukotai. Even on the literal level of the text, it is clear that there are verses in the section on the blessing that are very similar to verses appearing in Parashat Behar, which describe the observance of the shemitta. For instance, in Parashat Behar we read, “And you shall eat of the old fruit [i.e., of the previous year]” (Vayikra 25:22), and in the blessing we find a very similar verse: “And you shall eat old store…” (Vayikra 26:10). This is just one of many examples illustrating the content of the Book of the Covenant.
The covenant is forged with Am Yisrael as a nation. If this is indeed the essence of the covenant, we can understand R. Akiva’s assertion that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is a major principle in the Torah.
Translated by Kaeren Fish