Parashat B'har

A New World

The reinterpretation of the term 'forever' encourages us to strive for new realities within our own lifetimes.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

The primacy of the Oral Law has always been the bedrock of our belief system. Torah Shebichtav (Written Law) without Torah Sheba’al Peh (Oral Law) is likened to a body without a soul. Thus, when Oral Law seems to contradict the Written Law our sense of textual loyalty seems violated.

Our parshah is home to one of the classic examples of this apparent incongruity. The Torah states, “You shall sanctify the 50th year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all of its inhabitants; it shall be the Jubilee year (Yovel) for you.”

What are the implications of this freedom?

The Torah teaches that a Jewish servant works a six-year period of service. At the seventh year, “if the servant shall say, ‘I love my master...I don’t [want to] go free,’ then his master shall bring him to the court…and he shall serve him forever (le’olam).”

The Torah Sheba’al Peh, however, clarifies that the term “forever--le’olam” means until Yovel. How so? Ibn Ezra (12th century Spanish commentator), cites a verse from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) which implies that the world olam can mean a period of time. Since Yovel is the longest block of time in the Jewish calendar, the word olam, taken in the sense of “a long time” is appropriate.

But even if Ibn Ezra is technically correct, we must still ask why the Torah opts for the more ambiguous “olam” when it could simply say, “Yovel.” Why create confusion in the first place?

The words of the Ramban (Nachmanides) on this topic are cryptic: “The enlightened one will understand that ‘forever’ (le’olam) is literal--for one who works until Yovel has worked all the days of the world (olam). In the words of the Mekhilta (legal midrash on Exodus): Rebbe says, Come and see that the world is only fifty years old as it says, ‘And he shall work forever--until the Yovel.’”

Ramban is describing the nature of the world. In some mystical way the world only exists for 50 years. Rabbeinu Bechayei (late 13th century Spain) cites the Kabbalists who say that 50 represents the circle of life.

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Rabbi Asher Brander

Rabbi Asher Brander is rav of Westwook Kehillah in Los Angeles, California.