from the heart of jerusalem

Sounding of the shofar, igniting a spirit of unity


We’ll call him Gabi (not his real name), a most unlikely recruit. None of us had any idea how and why he had gotten into our unit — he was overweight, to put it mildly, and was always the last to finish every run, the last to get his gun cleaned and ready for inspection, and the last to get out to the parade ground in the morning.

On our masa’ot (forced marches) it became obvious that he was in the wrong place, and in a lot of trouble. I could hear his heavy breathing, groaning and agonizing as he struggled to keep up somewhere behind me, until finally I could not bear it any more. We were heading up a difficult hill, so I told him he could grab on to the straps of my back pouches and I’d try and help pull him. 

Very quickly I realized I was in a lot of trouble. It’s not like I had such an easy time myself, and now I was pulling someone else. And then something incredible happened: one of the guys pushed in between us, grabbed Gabi and started pulling him in my stead, and a few minutes later someone else pushed in and repeated the same exercise; all night long through this grueling trek, in what could not have been planned, the entire unit took it upon themselves to give new meaning to the IDF tradition, that “no man gets left behind.”

Simply put, once a few of us made looking out for our buddy a priority, it became everyone’s priority. Although it might have appeared that we were pulling Gabi, in a way, he was also pulling us, and we were really all pulling each other — which, of course, is what being part of a unit is all about.

The first of this week’s double portion, Behar, begins with a fascinating mitzvah: Every seven years in the land of Israel, we are meant to allow the land to lie fallow. We don’t farm, and people have time off from tilling the soil, to nurture their souls.

And after every seventh Sabbatical year, the 50th year is a Yovel (Jubilee) year, when once again we allow the land to lie fallow. And at the end of this 50th Jubilee year, all lands return to their tribal owners by heritage, and indentured servants go free. Thus we are reminded that nothing is really ours, and we do not own the land, it is a gift we are given, with which we are meant to serve a higher purpose. 

The Torah tells us (Vayikra 25:9) that this moment, when the lands are restored to their original owners and servants go free, occurs at the end of Yom Kippur, when the shofar is sounded throughout the land. Indeed, even today, we blow the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur, recalling this mitzvah. 

Why was the shofar blown throughout the land? The Sefer Hachinuch points out that this must have been an extremely difficult thing to do.

The seventh Shemitah (i.e., the 49th) year, when the land lay fallow, was followed by the Jubilee year when, again, one did not work the land, all the slaves went free.

For many people who had purchased land which was worked by indentured servants similarly acquired, the end of Yom Kippur presented a difficult new reality. Free labor, all gone; the land one had depended on, now restored to its original owners. 

Suggests the Chinuch: when the owners heard the blast of the shofar they knew they were not alone — everyone had to free their indentured servants.

But why did that help? Perhaps because we are tremendously influenced by what everyone else is doing.

Think about it: why did we all throw away our wide, fat ties? Fat ties actually make more sense — you are less likely to stain your shirt; but no one is wearing wide ties and we want to be in style. Why would anyone ever start smoking? The most significant reason kids start smoking is peer pressure; they want to belong. Often, changes for teens in family roles and social status along with physical changes can lead to much insecurity; if smoking a cigarette is the price for being included, then so be it.

And that is exactly what a person would be experiencing as all of a sudden, on the day after Yom Kippur, he awakens to a new reality where he no longer owns his land, and he has no servants to help him till his fields.

What will people think of him? Will he or she still command the same status and respect?

Isn’t it interesting that in the parsha of Vayakhel, Moshe gathers the people together, the entire congregation of Israel, to build a Tabernacle (the Mishkan), on the day after Yom Kippur (see Rashi Shemot 35:1), the day on which the Jewish people are meant to come together as the piercing sound of the shofar stills dissent and bonds in the shared experience of the beginning of a new year.

Indeed the Rambam in his Hilchot Deot (6:1) points out that it is the way of man to be drawn after the behaviors and opinions of his friends and compatriots. As such it behooves us to choose our environment well. And a person who finds him or herself in a negative environment must do everything he or she can to move away from such places, even to the point of leaving a country if evil presides there. (Imagine how different the world might have been if all the Jews of Germany had left in 1933 as soon as Hitler came to power.)

Indeed, this may well be what having a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel is all about: here we are meant to create an environment where in everything we do, we recall that blast of the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur, when we are reminded that we don’t really own the land or anything else, it is simply given to us on loan in order to create a better world, a world in which no human being is ever left behind.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.