Parashat Behar: Unquestioning Compliance
The Haftara read on Shabbat Parashat Behar tells the story of the prophet Yirmiyahu’s purchase of his cousin’s field in Anatot, near Jerusalem, shortly before the destruction of the first Bet Ha’mikdash. Hanamel, Yirmiyahu’s cousin, was forced to sell the field due to financial struggles, and so he offered it to his relative, Yirimyahu, following the guidelines presented in Parashat Behar regarding the "redemption" of land which a person was forced to sell after falling upon hard times. This occurred while the Babylonian army was laying siege to Jerusalem, and was poised to conquer the kingdom and drive the Jews into exile. Purchasing property under such conditions was, to put it mildly, an unwise investment.
After Yirmiyahu made the purchase, he turned to G-d to ask why He had commanded him to buy land at that time. As the Babylonian army prepared to drive the Jews into exile, he asked, why did G-d have him pay full price for a piece of land which would imminently be lost to the invading Babylonians?
G-d explained to Yirmiyahu that his purchase of the land would serve sa a symbol of G-d’s promise of the Jews’ return from exile. Although the land was now in the process of being conquered by an enemy nation, G-d assured, the Jews would return, rebuild their country, and once again purchase and cultivate lands.
Rav Chaim Zeitchik (1906-1989) noted that Yirmiyahu questioned G-d’s command only after complying. When G-d instructed him to purchase the field, Yirmiyahu voiced no protest, and asked no questions; he simply did as he was told. Only after the fact did he then turn to G-d and ask for an explanation, raising the legitimate question of why he was told to spend a large sum of money on a piece of property that would soon be seized by the Babylonian marauders.
Rav Zeitchik explains that this reflects a fundamental precept of Jewish faith: we are to faithfully comply with the Misvot, even when we have questions. Of course, we are allowed and even encouraged to ask, to probe, to explore, to study, to inquire, to intensively seek answers to the questions we have. But our first responsibility, before we ask questions, is to observe with complete trust in Hashem and firm belief that everything He commands us to do is the ultimate good.
Rav Zeitchik notes the Midrash’s account of Abraham Abinu’s questions which he asked after the Akeda. Abraham turned to Hashem and asked, "First, You told me that a great nation will emerge through Yishak; then, You told me to offer him a sacrifice; then, You told me not to slaughter him…" Abraham had very legitimate questions about the command of the Akeda. But he posed these questions to Hashem only after complying. He first obeyed the command, and only then he turned to G-d to ask for an explanation.
The commentators explain along similar lines the difference between the questions asked by the wise son and the wicked son, as described in the Haggadah. Both ask their parents why they observe the Misvot of Pesach, but the Haggadah instructs the parents to provide a full, comprehensive answer to the wise son, and to sharply reprimand the wicked son. The reason is that the wise son is described in the Torah as posing his question "Mahar" – "tomorrow" ("Ki Yishalecha Bincha Mahar L’emor…" – Debarim 6:20), meaning, after the Pesach seder. The wicked son, however, asks, "What is this service for you?" (Shemot 12:26). He poses his question during the Seder, questioning why all this is necessary, and this is his mistake – we are to comply first, and then ask the legitimate questions that need to be ask.
We should always be inquisitive and eager to learn and explore. But our first responsibility is to faithfully comply with our Halachic obligations, trusting that this is the way we are to live our lives, even if we as yet do not have answers to our questions.