Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot are celebrated a week apart. These celebrations mark two tremendous gifts that have been bestowed upon us: the gift of a unified Jerusalem as part of the State of Israel and under Jewish control, that we received only 45 years ago, and the gift of the Torah, that we received over 3000 years ago. As we commemorate these two events, the question will be whether or not we will really take the time to appreciate these gifts. Sadly, we tend to experience these not as gifts, but as taken-for-granted realities. And it is exactly the taken-for-granted that is the problem.
We all grew up with the reality that the Torah is the heritage of the Jewish People and that it is the foundation of our religious life. And for those of us under 45 – I personally missed it by just 1 year – we have grown up with the reality of Jerusalem as a unified city. Once this becomes part of our reality, it is easy to stop appreciating it and begin taking it for granted. We may become dissatisfied because things are not more perfect. We may begin to focus on all the negatives – real or perceived – and to discount these blessings that surround us each day.
How do we learn to see our blessings as gifts? There are hints to an answer in both parshiyot which make up a double parsha. Parashat Behar opens with the mitzvah of the Sabbatical Year. The key word in that section is shabbat, a word which means rest. Just as the Shabbat of the week is a day of rest, the Shmitayear is a year of rest. What is the purpose of this Shabbat? The Sefat Emet provides an answer, one which plays on the word sh’b’t:
“When you come to the land… it shall shavat a shabbat to God” (25:2)… For this is the mitzvah of Shmita, that to the Children of Israel the land is being given to them anew [each seven years]. And on every Shmita the gift renews itself. As the verse states, “And let God give you [from the dew of the heavens and the fat of the land]” (Breishit 27:28) [the “and” being interpreted to mean:] let God give you and give you once again…
For the Children of Israel are prepared to receive this gift…for they understand that they are merely sojourners, and they discern that the land is truly God’s and [hence] they constantly attach themselves to the gifting power… For on every Shmita the land returns (shavta) to God. This is similarly found in the Orach HaChayim who writes that on every Shabbat a new life is given to Creation.. And just as this is true for the Shabbat of Creation [the weekly Shabbat], so it is true for Shmita.
According to the Sefat Emet, Shabbat is not only about rest, it is about “returning”, another meaning for the same Hebrew root. By our not working it, the land returns to God on the Shmita year. And what is the purpose of this return? So that it can be given to us anew when the Shmita year concludes. So that we can appreciate that it is from God and, more than that, so that we can be blessed yet again, so that we can again receive this tremendous gift.
For us to receive this gift, however, we must do something beyond not working the land. We must discern that this gift is from God, we must “attach ourselves to the gifting power.” Simply stated: if we learn to see these things as gifts, then they will indeed become gifts. And not just gifts, but gifts that are constantly renewing, constantly being given again and again. “And Let God give you… Let God give you and give you again.” If we perceive every sunrise, every blade of grass, every breath that we take, as a gift, then they will become gifts, they will become gifts that we receive every minute, every second, every day.
It isn’t easy to maintain this attitude, this consciousness. It is so easy to take everything for granted. So how to become and remain aware? By stepping back to appreciate and by doing without. When we don’t work one year out of seven, or one day out of seven, we can take some time to reflect, and gain the distance to appreciate what it means to have land, to have a country, to be able to provide for oneself and one’s family. And when we are forced to do without work for one day or one year, we may feel deprived of something central to our lives. But it is exactly this state of deprivation which is a “giving back to God.” By taking it away from ourselves, we appreciate what we had, and we are therefore able to receive the gift again.
Movement is the key. It is the movement back and forth, in our immersing ourselves in our work and in our withdrawing from our work, in our giving to God and receiving back from God, that prevents the relationship from becoming stale, that keeps the relationship alive and vibrant. Which brings us to parashat Bechukotai. This parasha closes the book of Vayikra opens with a description of the blessings that we will receive if we obey the commandments. Here the key work is halakh, to go or to walk. This occurs in the opening of the blessing: “If in My decrees you will walk, teleikhu… “, (26:3) and at its summation: “I will move about, vi’hit’halakhti, in your midst, and will be your God, and you shall be My people.” (25:12).
Going or walking in the path of God’s laws is not a new concept. Indeed, the very word for Jewish Law, halakha, derives from the same root. It is the way one walks, acts, and engages with the world. But the idea of God walking, or moving about, in our midst, is new. Not only does it seem – at least for many of us – a little too anthropomorphic, but it also stands in stark contrast with how the Torah has been describing God’s presence until now, which was not walking, but dwelling, shokhen, in our midst. In the middle of Shemot we were told: “They shall make me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell, vi’shakhanti, in their midst” (Shemot 25:8, and repeated in 29:45-46). Indeed, the Sanctuary is called a Mishkan because God dwells therein, and, for the Rabbis, God’s very presence on this Earth is denoted by the word “Shekina.” So what’s all this about walking about?
Having God in our midst is clearly not enough. If God just dwells, and we just dwell alongside God, then pretty soon we will take God’s presence for granted. And if we are not doing anything interesting, if we are just dwelling, God might also get a little tired of us. The verse right before God walking among us hints at this: “And I will place My Tabernacle in your midst, and My spirit will not abhor you.” (26:12). What does this mean? Doesn’t it go without saying that when we are doing everything right and God is present in our midst, that God will not abhor us? But it doesn’t go without saying. For if the relationship remains stagnant, if God is present in our midst, but we are just sitting side by side, doing everything right but never anything interesting, well, then, things can get pretty stale. Familiarity can indeed breed, if not contempt, certainly boredom and dissatisfaction.
The relationship with God was established when we decided to live together in a committed bond, in a covenant. The relationship stays alive when we are not just being, but when we are doing. And our doing cannot be rote performance, going through the motions. It must be with movement, with walking about, with dynamism. When nothing is taken for granted, when we are always finding new ways to connect, to light the fire, to do something about the tremendous gift of God and God’s Sanctuary in our midst, when we, in short, walk about, then God as well will “walk about” in our midst, constantly renewing our relationship, transforming it from stationary to dynamic.
As we approach Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot, let us commit to never taking these two gifts for granted. Unlike our working in this world, we can never withdraw from Yerushalayim or the Torah so that we can fully appreciate how precious these gifts are. But there is much we can do. We can read personal memoirs of people who lived through, and people who fought in, the Six-Day War; we can watch news clips and movies; we can see how things were beforehand so we can truly appreciate how things are today. And we can be constantly moving about – working to renew our relationship – with Yerushalayim and with the Torah. “The words of Torah should be every day in your eyes as if there were brand new.” (Sifrei, Ekev). If we can bring our passion, our excitement, our moving about, to this relationship, if, every day, we can see the Torah as a gift, then every day our relationship with it, and with God, will be renewed, and we will truly receive God’s gifts each and every day.