The Spiritual World that Survived – Love Israel
This week’s parasha, Emor, deals with many commandments, the lion’s share of which relate to halachot (Jewish laws) of the kohanim who served God in the Temple. One of these mitzvot is the mitzvah of “truma”: a certain percentage of the field’s yield given to the kohanim. The parasha details under what condition the kohen can eat from the truma and when this is forbidden; who of the kohen’s family can eat from the truma and who cannot, and other issues connected to this commandment.
The mitzvah of “truma”, though obligatory for every farmer in the Land of Israel, is to a large extent a voluntary commandment because the Torah does not determine the percentage of the yield which the farmer must give the kohen. Therefore, even one sheaf of wheat can be the “truma” from an entire field. Any addition to this one single sheaf is given from the goodness of the farmer’s heart as he recognizes the significance of this mitzvah.
Why would a farmer want to give “truma” to a kohen? We can understand this if we analyze Am Yisrael’s original social structure as it is described in the Torah. In the past, the nation was divided into tribes with each tribe generally working in a specific sphere of the nation’s life. One tribe dealt with commerce, another with politics and governance, and yet another might have an expertise in wines. But we must be clear. This was not a caste system or an extremely hierarchical society. The members of a tribe were not obligated to work in that tribe’s field of expertise. It was not a person’s fate from the day of his birth. But each tribe had an area – some important part of the life of the entire nation – that became its specialty.
Only one tribe was the exception: the tribe of Levi. This tribe, some of whom served as kohanim in the Temple, did not receive parcels of land in the Land of Israel as the other tribes did. The tribe of Levi was the one in charge of leading the nation spiritually. They worked in the Temple and in teaching the entire nation Torah. Therefore, they did not live in one particular area of the land, but rather were scattered in small towns all over the land to allow for easier access to their spiritual roles.
The farmer who works his field and sees blessing in his yield might see the field as merely an economic issue disconnected from the spiritual and ideological world. But the Torah instructs him to put the spiritual world “into” his field. How? By setting aside a certain percentage of the yield and giving it to the spiritual tribe, the one busy teaching Torah. In this way, the farmer becomes a partner in the Levi’s spiritual work and that of the kohanim. This adds values and holiness to the farmer’s work.
This Saturday night and Sunday, Am Yisrael will be celebrating Lag Baomer. It is an ancient custom to mark the 33rd day of the Omer as a day of joy and of visiting the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meiron in the Upper Galilee. As this custom became more popular, its original reason became less known. What happened on this day and what’s the connection with Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai?
Rabbi Hayyim Vital (Safed, 1542-1620) was one of the students of the great Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Ar”I, z”l). He wrote the reason for this custom in his kabbalist book “The Gate of Intentions”, a reason that relates to the mitzvah of “truma”.
The Talmud tells us about Rabbi Akiva, the greatest of Tanaim in the 1st and 2nd centuries, who had thousands of students. Over a short period of time, a terrible tragedy struck the nation: all of Rabbi Akiva’s students died within a few weeks. The Talmud says their deaths came as punishment for “not being respectful to one another”. Despite being knowledgeable about Torah, their interpersonal relationships left much to be desired. The influence of this event on Jewish society is described in the Talmud with one short and powerful sentence. “The world was desolate.” In a short time, the nation’s spiritual leadership disappeared. Desolation, emptiness, and a deep void were felt in the world. But Rabbi Akiva did not despair. He set up five students, the most important of whom was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and these five students continued the tradition of learning Torah and teaching it to the nation. They were the ones who made the desolation blossom again.
Rabbi Akiva’s thousands of students died between Pesach and Lag Baomer. On Lag Baomer, therefore, the tradition of passing Torah from generation to generation was renewed by the teacher – Rabbi Akiva, and his student – Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. This, says Rabbi Vital, is the reason to celebrate on Lag Baomer. On this day, we celebrate the survival of Am Yisrael’s spiritual world; the survival of our spiritual greats, the teachers of Torah; the fact that ultimately the world did not remain spiritually desolate – It has Torah, it has values of truth, and it has values of justice and peace.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Site