1. What is the name of this week’s parsha? What does it teach?

A: Behar (Sinai) – it means At Mount Sinai. Rashi brings the Midrash which shows that just as the parsha of shmitta (7th year agricultural sabbatical) was transmitted with all of its details and parameters were given at Mount Sinai, so too all the mitzvos were given in their completeness at Mount Sinai.

2. Does a Jew transgress a prohibition if he lends with interest? Overpriced?
Why does the verse about interest state “you shall fear Hashem” and also “I am Hashem your God who took you from Egypt?

A: Yes – in fact there are at least two prohibitive mitzvos to lend to a Jew with interest, as well as one positive command (that one should only lend to a non-Jew when charging interest). The verse uses two words for interest: Neshech, and Tarbis – which Rashi and the Gemarra understand as not referring to two different things, but to a double whammie for the same thing (lending with interest). Both the lender and borrower transgress them Neshech means ‘bite’ – namely that lending with interest is not like theft or injury, that come all at once, but like a snake bite whose venom subtly spreads throughout the victim, and slowly paralyzes him, just as interest slowly overcomes and leeches the life of the lender. The word for loan has the same root as to accompany (Levi – Leah’s 3rd son when she said “now my husband will ‘accompany’ me”). The idea is that in giving a loan to another you accompany him in life, by sharing in his burdens –however one can accompany for good, by giving generously and considerately (one gets six times the amount of mitzvos if one gives his tzedaka with a smile and kind attention), or one can accompany like a venomous snake bite, a loan shark.

Tarbis comes from the word Rav/Raba (Toda Raba – thank you VERY MUCH) –meaning a lot, or abundance. Getting involved in borrowing and lending to a Jew with interest, one starts with the desire to have more, to seek an abundance until it overrides one’s morals. The word Rav we see in an interaction between Yakov and Esav. Yavov is fleeing from Lavan’s house and returning to Israel, and realizes he will soon be approaching Esav’ territory (who has vowed to kill him). Yakov makes a three-tiered plan to succeed: war, prayer and gifts. At first Esav proudly refuses the tribute saying “I have much (Rav)”, but Yakov tells by his words ‘Rav’ that his brother has a desire for abundance and will thus be amenable to receiving his gifts. Thus Yakov persists, saying “Please take my brother, for I have Everything (Kol)” – demonstrating that his desire is to use and appreciate what he has, but not to ever-increase his portion for the sake of abundance. (We have the opportunity to reflect on our lot and reaffirm that our life is carefully dealt to us when we make our morning brachos, in particular ‘asher asa li Kol tzarki’ – to He who has provided me with everything I need.)

Pirkei Avos says one with 100 wants 200, and one with 200 wants 400 – one’s appetite goes up with one’s acquistion’s, and contentment will, by it’s nature, forever allude the one whose material desire is deep down a desire for abundance – as the wisest of men said “A man does not die with even half of his desires fulfilled”. True happiness and peace can only come when one can appreciate what one has, and trust that the Creator is providing him with exactly what is fit for him according to his long term and short term purpose, and nobody can take away from you from what you are supposed to have, and another’s gain is totally quite irrelevant to your life. Thus the prohibition of interest falls on the borrower as well. However, because these lessons are harder to practice than to read about, the Torah encourages us saying “you shall fear Hashem” – in that you might think you can be deceptive and clandestine in these matters, and find loopholes and third parties to get around the issue, so you must take to heart that you can’t hide from the One who asked you not to, and even your thoughts are revealed before your Creator. Furthermore, the verse repeats “I am Hashem your God, who took you out of Egypt” – to tell us, that in truth it is only right that the one who gave us life and liberty, and brought us unto His wings, can set parameters for how to use the blessings he gives us, just as a government can ask their new immigrants to pay taxes, and a parent who gives a child a car to use can ask him to use only a certain type of fuel.

Another reason why lending to a Jew with interest is so wrong, is alluded to in the verse, when it says ‘do not lend to your brother with interest’. In other words, it is very nice for a taxi driver to give underprivelaged people rides for half-price, but not if they are his parents. If we see ourselves from a true perspective, we will come to the understanding that all Jews are our family, and therefore to lend to them with interest, or any other means of taking advantage, is downright cruel and avaricious.
The Vilna Gaon notes the word for interest ’Ribis’, is the same as for Bris (covenant), for it establishes (or breaks) a bond between people, as well as between us and our Father in Heaven, who asks us not to lend to His other children with interest, but rather to generously help them when they are in need. The gemattria or ribis/bris is 612 – which the Gaon (Genius), says demonstrates that this mitzvah is a microcosm for all 613 mitzvos, and one who properly conducts himself in regards to interest is as though he fulfills the other 612 mitzvos, by realizing the fundamentals of faith, unity, precedence for the spiritual over the material, and self control latent in this mitzvah.
A non-Jew on the other hand, while being a divine creation, is not your brother, and normal business rules are relevant to him. The Hebrew word ‘goy’, really means ‘nation’ – and by also being used to refer to an individual non-Jew, we learn that each of them is really a separate entity, and grouped mainly due to external factors, whereas Jews are actually all part of the same tree which is rooted in our patriarchs and matriarchs, and like a all parts of a tree, we all share the same goal (and therefore to think that I can gain at another Jew’s expense is perverted, like two roots fighting over a supply of nutrients), and have the same DNA (even though we all have individual expressions). Even historically, we see that when Jews are moved from place to place we can preserve our unique identity, and remain a single people, despite our external variances, whereas non-Jews always eventually assimilate into their new residence, and lose touch with their distant relatives and ancient forefathers.

3. What is unique about the 7th year? the Fiftieth?

In Israel the land is not worked, and one disclaims ownership of that which grows on his land. (Monetary debts are also waived.) The same rules apply to the 50th year, called the Jubilee, which also causes ancestral plots to return to their owners (in most conditions), and Jewish slaves, who chose to extend their term beyond the normal 6, are also released on Yon Kippur of the Jubilee year. (Nowadays our blowing of the shofar at the conclusion of Yom Kippur is partly an allusion to the blowing that signified freedom, for we are being freed from our sins and the bondage of our transgressions, and given a reprieve for a new lease on life.)

4. Why is it called “a Shabbos for Hashem” and then “a Shabbos of the land for you”

A: for Hashem – means that the mitzvah of sanctifying it should be for His sake, the same as we find by shabbos, which we must also observe for what Hashem intended, and not for our intentions (e.g. a day off, a time for family, etc) – even though these may be components of the day or 7th year, the central theme is to do it because Hashem told us to, and to express our faith in His providence and ongoing creation and the priority of the spirit, via our abstention from the physical and shift to the spiritual.

For you – is akin to the command to Abraham “lech lecha” go for yourself” – In other words, this command may seem difficult and a sacrifice (to not work and relinquish ownership of one’s produce, or to leave one’s home and family to go to an unknown land), but the reality is, is that is for you’re your benefit – and not only in the hereafter, but you will be reaping the fruits before you know it. And lo and behold Abraham became a renowned and wealthy leader before long. So too, those who observed the sabbatical year also merited a triple blessing in their crops that they had more than they needed. This assurance helps us when we must invest in what the Torah asks of us, that we can do what we ought wholeheartedly.

5. Where does the parsha go out of its way to speak to the heart, to allay our lack of trust in the Almighty?

A: We just mentioned – the 7th and 50th year – when we musn’t work the ground. The parsha writes “and if you will ask ‘what will we eat…” “ Know that I command My blessing…

6. When a fellow Jew is going through hard times, why does the Torah say “you should strengthen/uphold him” instead of a more common term ‘you should help him’ or ‘raise him up”?

A: When a person is faltering, it is much easier to help him before he actually falls; often a little nudge can keep a great load from spilling if caught early on (a stitch in time saves nine). We must not wait for emergencies to help our fellow Jews, we should not let them fall into hard times, rather we must keep our eyes and ears open to our brethren to catch trouble before it builds, and also to save others the shame of their difficulties become public.
The term to strengthen also implies an emotional encouragement we should try to give to others, for who doesn’t need a boost in some area of their life (family, study, work, health, friends, investments, character traits, etc.). The Maggid (teacher/parable-teller) from Dubno said that if I see that I have ten portions and the fellow beside me is hungry, than it would seem quite sensible that I am expected to share some of my blessing with him. So too, we all are blessed in some areas, and with those holdings we must try to benefit others, just as the tribes were all given different blessings and estates in order to benefit from interdependence, and learn to cooperate and grow up to become givers, like our Creator.

7. How does the parsha refer to one who lives in Israel and one who leaves it?

A: Living in Israel brings a special relation with Hashem, as the prophet says “His eyes are on it from the beginning of the year until the end.’ The name Eretz Yisrael means ‘the land whose current runs straight to God’. The whole realm of prophecy is a level unique to Israel. Many mitzvos are only relevant to one who lives in Israel. The Ramban says that the forefathers only kept the Torah in Israel, and he brings the Midrash that our fulfilling the mitzvos in the diaspora is merely to keep ourselves trained for doing them in Israel. (Nobody understands this to mean that there is no obligation in the diaspora, but we see that the goal and completion of our service is in our land which Hashem brought us to and promised us.) For some powerful words see Rashi here.

8. How does the mitzvah of counting the Omer parallel the Mitzvah of Torah (study) to which we are building up to?

A: Over some matza on Pesach, Rabbi Bernstein told me that in his experience, many people are discouraged from learning Torah, because it feels like too great a task, and the sea of Talmud is too vast to set sail in. Counting the Omer is a build up to Shavuos, thus these 49 days we are preparing ourselves to be fit to receive as much of Hashem’s Holy Torah as we can. Pirkei Avos lists the 48 ways in which Torah is acquired, and many try to work on these during these days (some say the 49th is to review, others say it for derech eretz – basic proper disposition needed before one is fit to even enter the halls of study (Beis Midrash)). There is a mitzvah to countall 49 days, and the goal is certainly nothing short of the final yard, nonetheless each day and week which we count is a complete and precious mitzvah. This preparatory phase can teach a lesson in how to approach Torah itself, namely that although ou goal is to know and internalize the entire thing and to become shining Torah luminaries like the Rambam and Rashi and the Chafetz Chaim and Rabbi Akiva, still, each day we learn, and each mishna or parsha we learn is a mitzvah and acquisition of unestimable value in its own right.

Read More about the Counting of the Omer and the weeks leading to Shavouth
9. What prohibitions are there on one’s treatment of a Jewish slave?

A: Not to make him do demeaning or futile work, for while he is in our possession, we are responsible for his life and even his rehabilitation to become a forward moving citizen when his time comes to leave. The essence of being Hashem’s people, is that everything we do can be aligned with His Will, and even our everyday affairs can therefore become imbued with a taste of eternity (the Rambam says that if one goes to sleep thinking ‘I am now going to rejuvenate myself in order to be able to have the energy to raise my children to good things tomorrow, or to be able to continue learning or mitzvos, then even his hours of sleep are a mitzvah.) Thus making one do futile work breaks the spirit, and instills apathy and helplessness, making his recovery to a life of meaning and higher-goals more unlikely.

We hope you all have a brotherly, interesting but interest free Shabbos