osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

I gave the drash for Seudat Shlishit Yesterday

My local synagogue is now bereft of an official Rabbi, since Rabbi & Rebetzen Breidowitz made aliyah (moved to Israel) in May. So we are having rotating speeches among the members of the congregation. Those with Rabbinic ordination get the main spots of Saturday Morning early service (hashkamah), and Saturday morning main service. But they are asking various lay members to take the Saturday evening Seudat Shlishit spot. I was asked to do yesterday's. Amusingly, Shmuel was separately asked to do the drash for the main service. I give basic bullet points below.

- This week, Matot-Ma'aseh, contains the description of the cities of the Leviyim and the Arei miklat (Cities of Refuge). Chapter 35.

-We previously see the cities of the leviyim mentioned in Yovail (Jubilee) in Vayikra 25:29-34. In 28: explains that property is returned in the yovail “v’shav l’achuzato.” Then state: “But if a man shall sell a place where he dwells in a walled city, and the time of his redemption shall be until a year from his sale, these are the days allotted to his redemption.” If not redeemed, then it is transferred forever, it does not go out with the Yovail. Exceptions are: 1) unwalled city, because the house is considered tied to the land they surround (v.31). 2) Cities of the Levites, because “the houses of their cities are their inheritance, they are given to them forever.” (v.32) and the fields surrounding them “shall not be sold, for it is their inheritance forever.”

-Despite the greenspace surrounding the city being an "achuzah" for the Leviyim, they are prohibited from building or planting on the surrounding green space (Rashi 35:2). It may only be used for grazing. (35:3) This is similar to the rule governing all "achuzah" during shmittah (Sabbatical year) and yovail. In other words, the achuzah of the Leviyim is in perpetual shmittah. Why?

-What do we see from this? A walled city is not considered an “achuzah,” except for the cities of the Leviyim, which are apportioned evenly among the tribes. Why? And why are the Leviyim prohibited from planting in the space around their cities.

-In addition to the discussion of the cities of the Leviyim, the text then goes on to explain the arei miklat. This raises the question: why is the one who kills by accident sent to a city? Even if we accept the various explanations offered of why we have this din at all, it seems odd that we would send such a one davka to a city. Why not some other area in each tribe, for example? Why a city under the control of the Leviyim?

-This brings us to the role of the City in halacha. The city is a unique environment with separate laws. Outside the city, one is constantly reminded of the presence of Hashem, and sees the impact of God’s approval or disapproval directly manifest. As Deut 11:10-12 states: “For the land to which you will come to inherit is not like the land of Egypt from which you went out, where you planted seed and watered it with your foot and it became a green garden. The land to which you will go to posses it is a land of hills and valleys, from the dew of the sky does it drink water. It is a land for which the Lord cares, it is always in the sight of the Lord from the beginning of the year until its end.”

-An achuzah shares certain characteristics of a feudal tenure. God dictates when, who and how the land is used. Thus, perpetual shmitah around the cities of the Leviyim.

-In the city, life is more complex. The most direct influence upon an individual in a city is other human beings with bichirat chofshi. While God is, of course, still manifest in daily affairs, the recognition of God is much more complicated.

-Thus, walled cities (other than those belonging to the Leviyim) are not an achuzah – an inheritance gifted us by God that simultaneously serves as a barometer to our relationship with God (in that when we anger God, the land loses productivity).

-Instead, cities are a uniquely human construct. Cf. Kayin. The city acts to concentrate human behavior. (e.g., Ninveh – which is capable of immediate collective tshuvah) When human beings behave well, the city is a source of law and stability which projects beyond the walls of the city. When people influence each other negatively, they have a greater capacity for evil. Although God sets the framework and provides halachot that can guide the dwellers in a city, the ultimate power in the city – and the ultimate responsibility for the city – lies in the behavior of its inhabitants.

-With this framework, we may understand both certain halachot that deal directly with the City and with certain textual and aggadic passages. As a halchic matter, we note that judges are designated as sitting in the city gates. (Compare with the common law custom of riding circuit, where justice emanates from the King). But because the city is neither intrinsically good or intrinsically evil, it is subject to a variety of laws that reflect the potential for its inhabitants to succeed or for them to fail. Consider the law which states that if a betrothed woman is found cohabiting with a man not her betrothed in the city, it is assumed that she did not cry out – the implication being that those within earshot would automatically come to her aid because that is the behavior the city should inculcate. Rashi, quoting the Talmud, observes that if it were a city in which a woman could cry and none would come to aid her, then she is assumed to have been subject to force as if she were in a field.

-In this context we may also understand the eglah arufah (Deut. 21:1-9). The death of a stranger, even outside the city, represents a failure of the city to project Order and law. The eglah arufa –which is explicitly described as a kaparah (thing which brings forgiveness) -- has many of the characteristics of a karban chatat (sin offering), including a form of viduy (confession) (testifying that they did not do this thing, nor are they aware of who did it). Of note, the ceremony must take place in the most primitive of surroundings. The steer, which has never worked and never had a yoke upon it, is led to a valley “which has not been worked and not been cultivated.” The eglah arufah thus represents an atonement for the failure of the city to exercise proper jurisdiction. While the people are blameless, there is still a lingering guilt that lawlessness could persist even in the wilderness. As such, the atonement takes place through an animal and in surroundings unshaped by human hands, just as the human attribute of law failed to extend into the surrounding countryside.

-Returning to this week’s parsha, we can understand the arei miklat as the effort to achieve positive influence over the accidental murderer. Such a person achieves redemption not by “good works” or through punishment, but by the presence in a city administered by the Leviyim, the teachers of the law. Bearing in mind that one sent to a City of Refuge must be judged by the court as guilty of "negligent homicide," it is clear that repairing the damage to accidental killer caused by his accidental murder requires the presence of positive influences, and that maintaining peace in society generally requires the reinforcement of positive influences in the city. Thus, the section ends that we are not permitted to settle the matter with ransom "lest the land be filled with blood." Even if blood feud is settled, permitting such conduct without subjecting the person to the influence of the city and law threatens to undermine the power of positive law in the countryside.

-Finally, we may also understand the ultimate destruction of a city – the commandment of the Ir Hanidachat. The Ir Hanidacahat (Deut. 13: 13-19) represents the ultimate negative influence of the city. Here, rather than a concentration of positive influences, the city becomes a concentration of negative influences. Following on the heels of the warning against a false prophet and a “deceiver in your midst,” the torah warns that you may hear “certain men, wicked men in you midst, have led astray the people of their city saying ‘you should walk after and worship other gods whom you did not know.” Although the Talmud tells us that this case would never occur in reality, the Torah includes it both as an example of how a few deceitful and wicked individuals can influence an entire city – and the collective responsibility of Israel as a whole to prevent such wholesale contamination from spreading.

-This brings us to another element of the city – its universality. While cities are in the tribes, they are the only place of a comingling of tribes and the reinforcement of the idea of B’nei Yisroel as a single people bound together by God’s law and not by family and tribal allegiances. This fits with the mission of the Levites, who are scattered among the tribes, providing a reminder of the broader purpose of Israel. Indeed, it is also of note that the shifts of the Kohanim, who have God as their direct nachala, likewise dwell in these cities rather than maintaining their own separate estates.

-Jerusalem represents the ultimate archetype of the city. It is twice removed from the jurisdiction of any tribe. It lies on the border of Yehudah and Benjamin, and thus belongs to no single tribe. It was not part of the original kivush ha’aretz (conquest of the land), but was only conquered in David’s time. The spiritual center of the city, the Har Habaiyit (the Temple Mount), was not even acquired until David, as King, purchased it on behalf of the Nation from Arunah the Jebusite near the end of David’s reign and well after the conquest of the city of Jerusalem.

-Jerusalem is thus the ultimate achuzah of all of b’nei yisroel and of no one. It is a walled city, belonging to no single tribe, not part of the kivush ha’aretz, with the Temple Mount purchased from a non-Jew even after the city was made capital of the nation.

-Halachically, we see clearly the idea that the City exercises an influence over its inhabitants. Halachically, this is often expressed positively. For example, we have many instances where a practice is forbidden “in the midinah” but permitted in Jerusalem because the chachamim observed that the people of Jerusalem would be so careful of halacha due to the proximity of the Temple and the inherent Holiness of Jerusalem.

-In the Nevi’im and Ketubim, we see again and again expressed the idea that Jerusalem will become the ultimate place of Holiness as the source of Law emanating from God and passing to the Jewish people and to the world at large. For example, Micah declares that when Mashich comes, the nations of the world will proclaim: “Let us go and ascend to the mountain of God, to the House of the God of Jacob, and we shall learn his ways and walk his paths, for from Zion comes Torah and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”

-Indeed, all these themes are expressed in Tehilim 122. A short perek of 9 p’sukim, it neatly outlines this concept of Jerusalem as belonging to all the tribes, a source of law, and therefore the source of peace and prosperity. [quote]

-But just as the City of Jerusalem is the ultimate positive influence, when the people in Jerusalem fail in their responsibility, it creates a strong negative influence over the entire nation. We see this in numerous nevout against Jerusalem and its inhabitants, culminating in the famous Chazon Yishayahu which compares Jerusalem to Sodom and asks “How has the faithful City become a harlot? I filled it with Judgment (mishpat), righteousness rested in it, but now murderers.” (1:21) Redemption is described: “I will restore your judges as at first, your counselors as at the beginning, then shall you be called the city of righteousness, the Faithful City. Zion with Law (mishpat) shall be redeemed, and those who return to Her with righteousness.” (1:26-27)

-Again, this framework helps us understand two things. First, why is the breach in the wall of Jerusalem the “beginning of the end” and comparable to the chait ha-egel and destruction of the luchot (10 Commandments) as a tragedy for the Jewish people? As we noted in the beginning, the wall around the city is a border, dividing the city from the country. It is the wall of the city that cuts off a city from being part of any individual or tirbal achuza, which veils the direct but individual relationship between the individual and God and focuses us upon each other, to influence us for better or for worse. The penetration of the Wall around Jerusalem is therefore the fundamental destruction of Jerusalem and its purpose. The integrity of the wall is symbolic of the integrity of the city. When the wall is breached, the city can no longer hold; its ability to fulfill the Divine purpose is shattered, and its ability to concentrate the positive aspects of the community is lost.

-Finally, we also understand the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. The aggaditah relates that Bar Kamsa took the silence of the Rabbis as a sign that they concurred in his humiliation. But we may also understand that the very fact that such behavior could occur in a city with such leaders illustrates the failure of that generation of leadership to positively influence the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and through them the people as a whole – hence the proliferation of sinat achim that the sages proclaim was the sin that caused the Destruction.

-I want to close with a final, positive image, and one which provides us both hope in the galut (exile) and a way forward to hoped for geullah (redemption). In the time when the Beit Hamikdash was standing, the Talmud relates that people who went to Jerusalem for the regel (pilgrimage festival) did not go directly. Rather, each person went to his closest town, from here they would gather in their cities, and from there they would journey as one large group to Jerusalem, gradually joining with other groups until the entire nation ascended to the Temple Mount. We know this was not for mutual protection, as one might think, because the Torah explicitly promises that God will protect those who ascend to Jerusalem for the regel. Rather, we can only understand this as a deliberate effort of the people to join together in ever larger groups to participate in the mitzvah of the regel together until all differences are obliterated and we come together as one people.

-We have this capacity to positively influence one another. Now we are scattered, the ultimate punishment for us. Broken apart. It falls to us to pull ourselves together, to influence each other positively and to be aware that we must guard against our ability to influence each other negatively. We begin here, in this place, in this community, in a land which is not part of any achuzah, which belongs to no tribe, and where all differences that matter among our people are obliterated. Each positive influence, however small, becomes an influence on our fellow Jews. Each kehilah whatever its size, can become another, stronger, more concentrated positive influence.

-If we succeed, then we will again gather on the road to Yerushaliyim Ha’Bnuya, a City redeemed with law, where Judges sit as they did at first, and the City will again be the Faithful City, and we and all of the nations of the World shall rejoice to ascend to Her to learn the way of the Lord.

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