Most of us have been on an aeroplane. We book our tickets, arrive at the airport and queue for check-in. Once on the plane we look for our designated seats and try to fit our hand luggage into the overhead compartment. We have either booked our kosher meal or we have our own provisions. We like a bit of leg room and if the person in front doesn’t lean his seat too far back, it is usually moderately comfortable. Of course the privileged few don’t sit among the plebs, but in Business Class or better still, First Class. There they have plenty of leg room, daily newspapers provided and a hot meal, no doubt, “on the house.” Stewards and stewardesses bring drinks and duty-free items for sale and generally help all the passengers feel as comfortable as possible. Despite this lengthy description of a typical plane flight, I have not mentioned the most important detail. What have we not said?
This week we read about the mitzva of shemitta. It is not an easy mitzva to keep. For a nearly a whole year all work on the land is forbidden. Nothing may be planted. Fruit which grows by itself is available for anybody to take. Vegetables which grow by themselves are forbidden. Even in the eighth year, it takes a few months for crops to grow and become edible. As the verse says, the people will ask, “What are we going to eat in the seventh year if we may not sow or gather in our produce?” Farmers need to have very strong faith and trust in Hashem to keep all the laws of shemitta. This year I heard an interesting question on this mitzva.
One would have thought that if a mitzva is easy to keep, the punishment for non-compliance should be severe. If the mitzva is hard to keep, the punishment for non-compliance should be light. Why then, is the punishment for non-compliance with this difficult mitzva so severe – expulsion from Eretz Yisroel, as we read in Parshas Bechukosai (26:32-35)? And we could ask the same question in respect of our weekly Shabbos.
The Ramban on Vayikro (25:2) hints at the answer. The weekly Shabbos and the shemitta cycle are not ordinary mitzvos. They are the very basis of our faith. They testify to the fact that there is a Creator, who created the world for us to live in, for us to keep His mitzvos and to move on, in the course of time, to the World to Come. The six years of the shemitta cycle represent the six millenia when there will be a certain hester panim – hiding of Hashem’s existence. The seventh year in the cycle represent the seventh millenium in which there will be a total revelation of Hashem’s existence and His dominion over the whole world.
There are many other important mitzvos. We observe kashrus. We celebrate Yomim Tovim. We do acts of kindness etc. However, it is most essential for us to know Who created us and what for— what is the purpose of life, where do we go after this life? It is these concepts which we are reminded of by these mitzvos of Shabbos and Shemitta. The punishment for not keeping Shabbos and Shemitta is severe, even though these mitzvos are difficult to keep, because they represent our raison d’être as Jews. Without belief in the concepts that these mitzvos represent, Torah is merely a pleasant life-style, a moral but meaningless existence.
The Mesilas Yesharim starts his classic work with the following words; “The foundation of true piety and the root of perfect service of Hashem is that we should have a clear knowledge of what is our obligation on this world and what we are hoping to achieve during the days of our life.” The Torah is not just a manual of how to live but why we are living. The Mesilas Yesharim goes on to say, “We have been created to enjoy the radiance of Hashem’s Divine Presence, which is the greatest pleasure that can possibly exist. The place where this pleasure is available is in the World to Come, but the way to be able to reach this destination is this world. As it says in Pirkei Avos “This world is just a vestibule to reach the next world.”
Let’s get back to our plane flight. We have discussed with our neighbor the view from the window, the efficiency of the staff and the comfort of the seats. Now we feel emboldened to probe somewhat. We ask, “Where is your final destination? Why are you going to wherever the plane is going.” We don’t mean to be inquisitive, we’re just making conversation. However your fellow passenger’s response is very surprising. “To be quite honest, I don’t know where I am going. I’m just…on the plane.” “What do you mean, you don’t know where you are going?” you reply in disbelief. “Everyone is on the plane because they have a destination. The purpose of being on the plane is to get to the place where the plane is flying to.” Your fellow passenger is unrepentant. “No, I’m just enjoying the flight. I have no destination.”
This was the vital detail about the plane flight that we didn’t mention before. That it takes you to your destination.Without a destination, the whole flight is a waste of time. And anyone on the plane without a destination is similarly wasting his time. However there is one exception. There is one group of people whose task it is to be on the plane although they have no destination. That is the cabin crew. Their job is to make things as comfortable as possible for the passengers. They just go and come back. And if they have succeeded in providing the passengers with their needs they have done a good job. They have no destination but that’s fine.
Over 3,000 years ago we were offered a choice. Do we want to listen to the voice of Hashem, to keep His covenant, to become His treasured people — a kingdom of priests and a holy nation? We were being asked whether we wanted to travel on a journey as directed by Hashem with the pleasures of the World to Come as our destination — or a someone who merely exists in this world with no destination. All this second group worry about is how comfortable the seats are, how much leg-room there is and whether the food is good. The select few make it into ‘first class’with more comfortable seats, more leg-room. But they are also just there for the flight. They have no destination. There are stewards and stewardesses, Prime Ministers and other politicians whose job it is to look after the passengers. Relatively speaking, their job is important but for the passengers with a destination, it is of passing significance who the steward is. True, in our lives, we also enjoy a ‘comfortable seat’, some even make it into ‘first class’, but that’s is not what should excite us. Our main focus is preparing for our Destination and the pleasure we hope to have there, enjoying the radiance of Hashem’s Divine Prescence. As the Gemara says, (Kesuvos 111b), leven shina’im meicholov, we enjoy milk, especially when it is with our favourite cereal, but much more important and enjoyable is Hashem’s smile. In Tehillim (82:6,7) Hashem rebukes the people — I offered you the choice of being like angels…but you will die like ordinary men.
In just over two weeks, like every Shevuos, which is the time of the giving of the Torah, we are again offered a choice. We can be like passengers without a destination, living a meaningless existence eventually dying like ordinary people. Or we can be like angels, a treasured people and a holy nation. True, we have many mitzvos to keep and we sometimes face difficult challenges but if we are determined, we can be amongst those who will reach a most beautiful destination, where the greatest possible pleasure awaits us. The choice is ours.