Shiur #03: Vayikra Rabba 1:1 (Part 2 of 2)

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

B. Interpretations of the phrase "giborei koach:" The Rewards for Shemitta


The next section of the petichta advances both agendas, the interpretative and the ideological:

"[The] mighty in strength that fulfill His word" (Ps. 103:20). 

Of whom does Scripture speak?

R.  Isaac said: Of such as observe the Sabbatical year. 

We often find that a man fulfills a precept for one day, for one week, for one month.

But does he perhaps do so for the rest of the days of the year? 

Now this man sees his field untilled, his vineyard untilled,

and yet he pays his taxes and does not complain –

have you a mightier man than this? 


The midrash continues its interpretation of the petichta verse.  The first part of the petichta focused on the opening phrase of the verse, about God blessing His malakhim, with special emphasis on the meaning of the term malakh Hashem.  This section goes on to interpret the second phrase of verse, "mighty in strength that fulfill His word." It also continues to develop the theme of the similarities between God's divine and mortal servant.  Thus far, the midrash has suggested that only a select few, the prophets, can possibly be associated with the angels.  Now the midrash opens up this club to a much wider membership.  It declares that any farmer who properly observes the laws of shemitta and refrains from working the land during the seventh year merits being among the "mighty in strength," and he receives the attendant rewards. 


The midrash explains why it is that the observance of this mitzva is singled out as the defining characteristic of true divine service.  First, it notes the length of commitment.  Most ritual observances require obedience for only a limited period of time.  Thus, the prohibition against labor on Shabbat lasts only a day, and the prohibition against bread on Passover expires after a week.  The prohibition against cultivating one's fields during shemitta, however, last an entire year.  This requires a level of commitment unparalleled in Torah law. 


The other, perhaps more significant factor is the personal sacrifice demanded from the Jew who observes shemitta.  Giving up one's source of livelihood and sustenance for an entire year is a great act of sacrifice and faith under any circumstances.  However, the difficulty of observing shemitta during the period of the Amoraim was particularly acute.  The Roman Empire exacted a real-estate tax known in rabbinic literature as the "arnona."  According to the historian Gedalyahu Alon, Jewish farmers were initially exempt from this tax during shemitta under Julius CaesarHowever, by the time of the Amoraim, this exemption had been eliminated.  Jewish farmers thus had to pay taxes despite the fact that they were not producing anything from their land. 


This situation must be viewed in the larger context of the political and economic life of the Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine during the third century C.E.  This was not a period in which Jews were singled out for persecution or ill-treatment.  Nevertheless, growing instability within the Empire as a whole, including runaway inflation, led to an increasingly crushing tax burden and desperate economic circumstances for people throughout the Empire.  We can only imagine that for most Jewish farmers of the time, whose financial situation was likely already precarious, not working one's fields during shemitta while still having to pay high taxes to the Roman government was a surefire plan for bankruptcy and destitution.


The midrash's statement about the merits of those who observe shemitta is thus not an abstract reflection on the nature of this mitzva.  Rather, Chazal are addressing the real concerns of the common people of their times. Chazal understood the great difficulties and challenges involved in observing shemitta under these circumstances.  They offer these farmers their encouragement, declaring that those who do, indeed, succeed in observing shemitta are worthy of the highest praise and reward.


The midrash now goes on to explain the exegetical logic behind its claim that the phrase "[the] mighty in strength" refers to those who observe shemitta:


And if you should say: 

The verse does not speak of such as observe the Seventh Year, [here is a proof to the contrary]. 

It is said here, "That fulfill His word" (devaro)

and it is said elsewhere, "And this is the manner (devar) of the release" (Deut. 25:2). 

Since by davar used in the latter passage, Scripture means the observance of the Seventh Year,

Here, too, davar means the observance of the Seventh Year.


Once again, the midrash explains a part of the petichta verse in light of another Biblical verse.  Here, the midrash connects the term devaro, "His word," in the petichta verse, with the phrase "zeh devar ha-shemitta," which introduces a section on the laws of shemtita in Devarim 15.  Just as the "davar" in Devarim refers to shemitta, so, too, must the "davar" in the petichta verse refer to shemitta. 


This conclusion will seem particularly problematic to anyone who has been trained in medieval peshat or contemporary styles of exegesis.  The straightforward reading of the verse from Psalms is that "devaro" refers to all of God's words, not a particular subset of laws.  Furthermore, the word davar appears over a thousand times in the Bible; there does not seem to be any reason to link these two particular usages of the word.  Finally, Devarim 15 does not even talk about not working the land during shemitta! Rather, it discusses the independent obligation to forgive debts during shemitta. 


It would seem that what is really driving Chazal's reading is their "ideological" agenda to promote and encourage the observance of shemitta.  In light of this desire, the rabbis "found" the appropriate verse in Devarim to "prove" that part of the petichta verse in fact refers to the observance of shemitta.


While I believe that there is much truth in this understanding, it needs to be taken with two caveats.  First, I do not think that Chazal would have recognized the claim that their reading does not emerge primarily from their engagement with the text but rather from their preconceived ideas and agendas.  In my opinion, Chazal did not think in terms of the dichotomy between peshat and derash that dominated post-Talmudic discussions of biblical exegesis.  Rather, they saw the process of the study of Torah as more of an organic unity, in which different approaches and aspects join together in a single conversation.  This is the approach of many rabbinic darshanim to this very day.


Second, in this case I think that there may, in fact, be an element of careful inspection of the biblical text taking place.  As far as I can tell, Devarim 15:2 contains the only example in the Torah of the term davar being used to introduce a body of laws.  This observation may underlie the rabbis' insistence on linking these two verses.  When the verse in Psalms mentions "osei devaro," they are immediately reminded of the only set of laws that are specifically identified as davar, the laws of shemitta.  If this speculation is correct, it is an example of how midrashim often contain careful insights and observations about the biblical text, even in cases where interpretive issues appear to take a back seat to other agendas.


C.  Interpretations of "osei devaro:" The Greatness of the People of Israel at Mt. Sinai


The next section offers a new interpretation of the term "osei devaro," this time in light of the words that follow it:


"[Those]… that fulfill His word" (Ps. loc. cit.). 

R. Huna in the name of R. Aha said:

Scripture here speaks of Israel, when they stood before Mount Sinai,

who undertook fulfilling before hearkening, having said,

"All that the Lord has spoken will we fulfill, and hearken" (Ex.  24:7).


The last two sections of the petichta verse are somewhat redundant.  Both refer to those who obey "devaro."  The key difference is that in first of these phrases, the verb "assah" is used, while in the following one the verb "shama" is used.  This juxtaposition of verbs in the context of obeying God and His davar immediately reminds the rabbis of one of their all-time favorite verses in the Torah: "Kol asher diber Hashem na'aseh ve-nishma" - "All that the Lord has spoken we will fulfill, and hearken" (Shemot 24:7). For Chazal, this verse epitomizes Israel's unconditional acceptance of the divine authority at Mt. Sinai.  They are particularly struck by the order of the verbs assah and shama in this verse.  Understanding "nishma" as "we will hear" rather than "we will obey," they view this verse as expressing Israel's willingness to "do" the will of God even before they have "heard" what it is. 


By linking this creedal verse in Shemot with our petichta verse, the midrash suggests a new category of individuals who can be compared to the angels.  Now all members of Israel who accepted the Torah at Mt. Sinai are counted as if they are among the celestial beings.  On the one hand, this new definition is more narrow that that of the previous section.  In principle, any Jew in any generation can observe shemitta and receive this heavenly status.  The Children of Israel who stood at Mt. Sinai belonged to an elite generation, which has long since passed from the earth.  On the other hand, all Jews are the spiritual if not the physical descendants of those who stood at Sinai.  By observing the mitzvot in general, any Jew who keeps the Torah in some way partakes in the exalted status of his ancestors who first received it. 


D.  Conclusion - Parasha Verse


In the final section of the petichta, the midrash continues to focus on the revelation at Mt.  Sinai:


"Hearkening unto the voice of His word."

R. Tanhum b. Hanilai said:

Normally a burden which is heavy for one is light for two,

for two is light for four;

but can a burden too heavy for sixty myriads be light for one? 

Now all Israel were standing before Mount Sinai, and saying:

"If we hear the voice of the Lord … any more, then we shall die" (Deut.  5:22),

whilst Moses heard the voice by himself and remained alive. 

You have proof that this is so,

in that out of all of them He called only Moses;

wherefore it is said,

"And the Lord called unto Moses."


Here, Mt.  Sinai is invoked is not to celebrate the greatness of the people of Israel at that moment, but to contrast their relative failure when compared to Moshe's triumph.  The midrash illustrates the situation through a device called "be-nohag she-ba-olam" (translated here as "normally," but literally "according to the way of the world").  A be-nohag she-ba-olam functions as a sort of inverse mashal.  In a mashal, the darshan points out a similarity between our day-to-day lives and the way in which God relates to the world.  In a be-nohag she-ba-olam, the darshan points to a discrepancy between the norms of our daily life and those that regulate God and His relationship with us. 


In this case, the midrash focuses on a simple law of physics:  A load that is too heavy for one person may still be manageable for two or more people.  However, a load that is too heavy for six hundred thousand people will certainly not be lifted by a single individual.  What is the contrasting situation regarding divine matters? The midrash now presents a reading that involves the juxtaposition of two verses from the Torah.  In Devarim 5:22, during Moshe's recounting of the events at Mt.  Sinai, we learn the people of Israel could not handle hearing the voice of God directly.  This situation is parallel, in the eyes of the midrash, to the burden that cannot be lifted by the six hundred thousand people.  One would think then that if six hundred thousand people could not withstand God's voice than certainly a single individual would not be able to do so.  Yet Moshe was able to withstand God’s voice all by himself.  Indeed, Moshe is called into the Tabernacle for a private conversation with Him.


At long last, we have arrived at the "parasha verse," the first verse of the week's reading and the ultimate destination of the petichta.  The midrash here offers one final interpretation of the pertichta verse from Psalms.  Thus far, the midrash has built on the understanding that this verse suggests that there are some humans who are on par with the angels and deserve the title malakhei Hashem.  The midrash presented a series of possible candidates for this status: the prophets in general, those farmers who observe shemitta, the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai, and finally Moshe.  The petichta as a whole has thus emphasized the greatness of the Jews' leaders and forbearers in time of yore, and at the same time the potential for angelic greatness on the part of even simple Jews who make great sacrifices to do the mitzvot.   Focusing on Moshe is, in sense, a return to the petichta's original focus on the prophets.  Indeed, the first prophet whom the midrash identified as being called a malakh Hashem was Moshe.  Now, however, by singling out Moshe, the midrash emphasizes his unique stature.  From the rabbinic viewpoint, no mortal came closer to the angels than Moshe.  Only he ascended to heaven and spoke to God face to face.  As we shall see in subsequent shiurim, this theme of Moshe's special status emerges as the central motif of the entire first parasha of Vayikra Rabba.


Finally, this petichta introduces Vayikra Rabba's strategy for presenting the book of Levitcus to a broad audience.  Rather than concentrating on the voluminous details of the sacrifices present in the first chapters of Leviticus, the midrash focuses on a single element of the first introductory verse: the fact that God called out to Moshe and established a relationship with him.  It is this fundamental possibility of a relationship between humans and the divine, reflected by the institution of sacrifices as well, which captured the rabbis' interest.  This theme allows the rabbis to transcend the technical details of the sacrifices, which are no longer of practical relevance and are difficult for people to relate to.  Instead, they draw out the underlying message of the sacrifices, namely, that God seeks out man and desires to establish a relationship with him.  This is a message that is relevant and understandable to all people at all times.