This week's parsha
The Fifth Year
A popular Israeli joke claims that there are three ways to do anything: the right way, the wrong way, and the Jewish way.
In fact, a careful reading of the Torah shows that it sees everything in the world as belonging to one of three primary domains: the good, the bad, and a third realm that's more difficult to define. In Halachah (Torah law) it's called "the optional" (reshut); in Kabbalah and Chassidism it's refered to as "the translucent husk" (kelipat nogah) or simply, "the undefined". Basically, in this third category a thing is not what it is, but what you make of it. It can be elevated to the realm of holy, or dragged down into the realm of the profane -- depending on what you do with it, what you use it for, even what you're thinking while you're involved with it.
For example: Eating matzah on Passover or making kiddush on a cup of wine on Shabbat is a mitzvah, a G‑dly deed. For a Jew to eat pork or a dish containing both meat and milk is an aveirah, a transgression of the divine will. And then there is a third, "neutral" domain: your ordinary lunch on an ordinary Tuesday. Or take another common human activity -- the financial transaction: giving charity is a mitzvah, stealing is a sin, and then there's all the mundane buying, selling, borrowing and investing that goes on in between. Or take speech: words spoken in Torah study and prayer are holy, gossiping or lying is forbidden, and then there's all the other talking we do that's neither here nor there.
According to the Chassidic masters, however, this "neither here nor there" is the most important component of our mission in life.
In both the realm of the holy and the realm of the profane, we have no input into the nature of the deed. The only thing we decide is what we will do. Will we do the mitzvah, or will we allow the opportunity to bring G‑dliness into the world pass us by? Will we create a void in our souls by transgressing the divine will, or will we strengthen our character and give pleasure to the Almighty by resisting the temptation? The mitzvah is a mitzvah regardless of whether we do it or not, and the transgression is a negative deed whether or not we succumb to it. Our actions have a profound effect on our own inner being and on the state of creation, but do not define the nature of the deed. The rules exist independently of ourselves -- the only real choice we have is to conform to them or rebel against them.
But G‑d did not create the human being just to play a part in a pre-established cosmic plan. He has enough passive players in his universe -- atoms, trees, cows, planets and angels. G‑d created man because He desired what the Talmud calls "a partner in creation" -- someone who would write the rules and chart the plan together with Him.
This, says the Rebbe, explains a curious thing about the laws of the fruit tree outlined in the 19th chapter of Leviticus. There G‑d commands Moses that the fruit of the first three years of a newly-planted tree is forbidden for consumption; that the fruit of the fourth year should be brought to the holy city of Jerusalem and eaten there under conditions of ritual purity; and that beginning with the fifth year, the fruit is ours to do with as we please: pack those apples on a picnic, sell them in the marketplace, open an applesauce factory -- it's up to you.
The strange thing here is the order. One would think that the proper sequence would be from the bottom up -- forbidden, optional, holy. Instead, we go from one extreme to the other and then end up in the middle.
In truth, however, the fifth year is the loftiest of all. Here, in the domain of the optional, is where the most meaningful aspect of life is acted out. Here we not only determine what we will do, but also what the significance of our deed will be. The raw clay of creation is placed before us, while the Creator stands by and waits to see what we will make of it.