In Hebrew the expression for a non-sequitur is: "How are the laws of shmitah (agricultural sabbatical laws) relevant to Mount Sinai?" The source of the expression is this week's Torah portion. The Jewish people were only a few months out of Egypt, nowhere near conquering or working the land of Israel, and Moses was instructing them on how to let the land rest after six years of working it.
What happens when someone says something completely out of context? How do people react? A moment of awkward silence? Puzzled faces wondering what provoked the comment? I would have loved to have seen the faces of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai when Moses began to transmit these laws!
Imagine the conversations: "What is he talking about? What land? Don't work the land in the seventh year – we haven't worked the land for one day! We're not anywhere near entering the land now. And what's this about the 49th year and 50th year? Letting the slaves go free? Whose slaves? We were just slaves! Proclaiming freedom in the land?! And 50 years from now?! How old will I be then? Is he talking about my kids or my grandkids? What's happened to Moses? Aren't there more pressing things to talk about – like finding water in the desert and helping us not get lost? Why doesn't he focus on the present, instead of wandering into some distant future reality that is impossible to relate to? Why doesn't he wait until we enter the land, work the land, and then tell us how to let it rest in the seventh year? Why can't he just focus on the present?"
According to the Sforno, a 15th/16th century biblical commentator, at this point Moses really thought that the Jewish people were about to enter the land of Israel. If that were the case, then the laws about the sabbatical year were important to understand now and not later.
But perhaps Moses did not really believe that the Jewish people were about to enter the land of Israel. Perhaps, Moses did not want to focus only on the present. For Moses, you couldn't understand the present unless you looked at it through the prism of the future.
A major principle in Judaism is being raised here, one that could trigger an interesting conversation with students and young people. The principle is our relationship with time – should we strive to be fully mindful in the present moment, or should our consciousness of the present be a product of our relationship with the future?
A common idea circulating in many spiritual circles is the idea of mindfulness, to be fully present in the moment. Meditation and other practices help to gather all of one's awareness and strengthen one's focus on the present moment. In Hebrew we might call this having full kavanah (intentionality). Without it, we sleepwalk through life, never fully seeing the interconnected oneness of reality.
On the other hand, this week's portion teaches us a different approach to the sanctity of time. Our awareness of this moment needs to be a function of the distant idealized future. In the distant future the shmitah cycle will be realized and the jubilee year will be celebrated. Freedom will be proclaimed. Until then, I need to live with a profound awareness of the brokenness of the world. Only when I envision an ideal world can I truly begin to understand the brokenness of the present moment and be impelled to heal the world.
Perhaps Moses' mentioning the laws of shmitah at Mount Sinai wasn't so irrelevant after all.
Prepared by Aryeh Ben David, consultant, Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning
Additional commentaries and text studies on Behar at MyJewishLearning.com.