ESSAY: Supernal Real Estate
G-d was about to make the most important sale of history;
He had His customer, a developer who specialized in housing
construction. But then His neighbors took Him to court
INSIGHTS: Whose Moshiach?
Were waiting for two thousand years. But do we know
what were waiting for?
Supernal Real Estate
According to Torah law, your neighbor is not just the fellow
on the other side of the fence but someone toward whom you
have certain responsibilities and obligations. One of these
is spelled out in the law of bar mitzra (lit. the
one on the boundary), which states that when a person
wishes to sell his field, his neighbors (i.e., those who own
land that borders the land being sold) must be given first
priority to purchase it, provided that they are prepared to
meet the price and terms of any prospective buyer. This law
is enforced by the court, to the extent that if the property
is sold to an outside buyer without being first offered to
a neighbor, the neighbor has the right to pay the purchase
price to the buyer and evict him from the land.
Halachah (Torah law) is more than a divinely ordained
code of behavior for life on earth: it also describes G-ds
own code of behavior, the manner in which He chooses
to relate to His creation. In the words of the Midrash, G-ds
way is not like the way of flesh and blood. The way of flesh
and blood is that he instructs others to do, but does not
do so himself; with G-d, however, what He Himself does, that
is what He tells Israel to do and observe.
If G-d commanded us the law of bar mitzra, He conforms
to it Himself.
Thus, the Talmud tells us that when Moses ascended
to heaven to receive the Torah from G-d,
the angels protested to G‑d: What is
a human being doing amongst us? Said He to them: He
has come to receive the Torah. Said they to Him: This
esoteric treasure, which was hidden with You for nine hundred
and seventy-four generations before the world was created,
You wish to give to flesh and blood?... Place Your glory
upon the heavens!
Said G‑d to Moses: Answer them.
Said [Moses]: Master of the Universe! This Torah
that You are giving to me, what is written in it? I
am the L‑rd Your G‑d, who has taken you out from
the land of Egypt. Have you descended to Egypt?
asked Moses of the angels. Have you been enslaved to
Pharaoh? So why should the Torah be yours? What else does
it say? You shall have no alien gods. Do you dwell
amongst idol‑worshipping nations? ... Remember
the Shabbat day. Do you work? ... Do not swear
falsely. Do you do business? ... Honor your father
and your mother. Do you have parents? Do not kill,
Do not commit adultery, Do not steal.
Is there jealousy among you? Do you have an evil inclination?
As the commentaries
explain, the angels had a legal claim on the Torah--the
neighbors prerogative stipulated by the law of bar
mitzra. For the Torah is G-ds esoteric treasure:
before it was given to us at Sinai it was a wholly spiritual
manifesto, written of yore before Him in black fire
upon white fire, relating exclusively to the spiritual
infrastructure of creation. Thus we are told that at Sinai
G-d spoke to us from the heavens,
and that Moses ascended to heaven, entering into a spiritual state of being, in order to receive the Torah. We, argued the
angels, are the Torahs natural neighbors; it should
be offered to us before it is translated into a doctrine for
physical life for some distant earthly customer.
As the Talmud relates, G-d told Moses to respond to the angels
Indeed, on what grounds might Moses have defended the legality
of the contract between G-d and Israel? Why should not the
law of bar mitzra apply to the Torah? The commentaries
offer the following answers:
1) The law of bar mitzra applies only to a sale, not
to a gift--the owner is obviously free to make a gift of his
field to whomever he desires.
Since G-d granted us the Torah, the angels claim
has no basis.
2) The law of bar mitzra applies only to real estate,
not to transportable objects. The Torah, which is a portable entity (as evidenced by the fact
that it was transported to earth), is thus exempt
from this law.
3) If a person wishes to sell his field to a family member,
he is permitted to do so without first offering it to his
neighbor.  The people of Israel are G-ds children and His close relatives. Thus, the law of bar mitzra is not applicable
to Israels purchase of the Torah.
4) A sale to a partner is likewise exempt from the bar
mitzra requirement. The Talmud states that any
judge who judges law with an utter exactitude of truth, becomes
a partner with G-d in creation. Moses, being such a juror of
Torah law, is thus considered G-d's partner, and may purchase
property from Him over the objections of the property's supernal
neighbors. (Keeping the Shabbat also deems one a partner
with G-d in creation. Since the Jewish people had been given the mitzvah of Shabbat
several weeks before Sinai,
they, too, are G-ds partners, and thus free
to purchase the Torah.)
5) The Torah refers to Moses as a man of G-d,
half mortal, half supernal.
So he was no less a neighbor to the spiritual
Torah than his celestial competitors. (Again, the same could
be said of the people of Israel, whose souls are carved
from beneath the Supernal Throne of G-d.)
However, each of these defenses has its difficulties. Regarding
the first defense, while it is true that the Torah is called
a gift from Above (as in Numbers 21:18), it is
also called an inheritance (Deuteronomy 33:4),
and a purchase (Proverbs 4:2; Midrash Rabbah,
Shemot 33:1). As we have elaborated on another occasion, these three metaphors describe three distinct elements in Torah
and the manner of its possession by the people
of Israel. Thus, the angels claim to the Torah stands,
at least in regard to the purchase aspect of Torah.
As for the second defense, the reason why the law of bar
mitzra does not apply to a portable object is that a portable
object has no defined place, and thus no true neighbors: anyone
can acquire it anywhere and transport it to his property.
In our case, however, the Torahs defining place
is the very issue at hand. The angels were insisting that
it should remain in heaven and spiritual in essence,
while Moses purchase would mean its removal to earth
and the redefinition of its primary function as a doctrine
for physical life. Indeed, after we received it at Sinai,
the Torah is expressly not in heaven, and completely
under terrestrial jurisdiction.
The Torahs sale to Israel meant that the
angels would no longer have access to the Torah--at least
not as something of their own environment (in the same way
that the Torahs remaining in heaven would
have meant that we could relate to it only on the esoteric
level, not as a sanctifier of physical life).
It follows, then, that as regards the law of bar mitzra,
the Torah is indeed supernal real estate, and
ought to be subject to the neighbors prerogative claimed
by the angels.
Finally, all five explanations beg the question: where is
there mention of any of this in Moses response? If the
basis of the angels argument to G-d, Place Your
glory upon the heavens! is the law of bar mitzra,
then Moses must explain why this clause is not applicable
in this case. Yet nowhere in Moses words do we find
a sign of any of these five defenses. Indeed, as far as the
third, fourth and fifth defenses are concerned, Moses seems
to be saying the very opposite. The gist of Moses response
is that, unlike the angels, the Jewish people are physical
beings inhabiting a profane and even heretical world--a world
marked by jealousy, dishonesty and idolatry--and thus they
have need of and rights to the Torah. Instead of refuting
the angels claim by speaking of Israels innate
spirituality (defense no. 5) or their relationship or partnership
with G-d (3 and 4), Moses seems to be confirming it by emphasizing
Israels distance from their divine origins and
the spirituality of the heavens.
Our sages teach that the purpose of the creation of
all worlds, supernal and ephemeral, is that G-d desired
a dwelling in the lowly realms.
G-d desired to create a lowly realm--a world that
is virtually devoid of all manifest expression of His truth--and
that this lowly realm should be made into a home for Him,
a dwelling that serves and facilitates His presence.
Thus, the world was created for the sake of the Torah
and the sake of Israel:
the people of Israel are the builders of this home for G-d,
and the Torah is the instrument of its construction. The people
of Israel inhabit the physical universe--the lowly realm
where G-d desired to dwell. The Torah instructs the Jew how
to transform material things such as animal hides, palm fronds
and silver coins into holy and G-dly things such as a pair
of tefillin, a lulav, and charity. With the
Torah as his blueprint and empowerer, the Jew transforms a
mundane world into an environment that is receptive and subservient
to the divine reality.
Why is the sanctification of the physical world referred
to as the making of a dwelling for G-d? Because
the home is the human model that most accurately expresses
the significance of what we achieve through our fulfillment
of the Torahs blueprint for life. There are many environments
and structures that house or contain a person and serve his
needs in the course of his day and life. A person might spend
many toilsome hours in a field, tilling its soil to derive
sustenance from the earth; others mark time in offices, factories
and laboratories to earn a livelihood. Man also constructs
buildings to serve his educational, health, legal, and entertainment
needs, and vehicles to move him across land, sea and air.
What all these containers have in common is that
they each house a specific aspect of the person, as opposed
to the person himself. They shelter and facilitate the farmer,
the businessman, the student, the patient, the art critic
and the vacationer, rather than the man. All these are places
where a person fulfills a certain role or procures a certain
need; only at home is he himself. Echoing the Talmudic adage,
A man without a homestead is not a man,
Chassidic teaching interprets the concept of a dwelling
as a place that houses a persons very essence.
This is what is meant when we say that G-d desired
a dwelling in the lowly realms. G-d has many venues
for the expression of His reality--He created many spiritual
worlds or realms, each of which conveys another
face of His infinitely-faceted truth. But only the lowly
realm of our physical world can be His home, the environment
that houses His essence.
For the wisdom of the sage is not revealed in his scholarly
discourse with his colleagues, but in his ability to explain
the loftiest of concepts to the simplest of minds. The benevolence
of the philanthropist is seen not in his generosity to his
family and friends, but in his kindness toward the most undeserving
of recipients. The power of the torch is expressed not by
the light it sheds upon its immediate surroundings, but by
illumination of the most distant point its light can reach.
By the same token, the infinity and all-pervasiveness of the
divine truth is expressed not in the spirituality of the heavens,
but in the sanctification of material earth. When the physical
world--whose workings are harsh and evil and the wicked
prevail there for it is dominated by forces that seem
indifferent and even opposed to the divine will--is
made to express the divine truth, it becomes a dwelling
for G-d. When the lowliest and most profane of G-ds
creations is made to serve Him, there has been constructed
a true home for Him, an edifice that houses His very essence.
Therein lies the ultimate refutation of the angels
claim on the Torah. The law of bar mitzra states that
If the outside buyer wishes to build homes on the land
and the neighbor wishes to seed it, the outside buyer retains
the land, since the civilization of the land takes precedence,
and the law of bar mitzra is not applied in this case.
Thus Moses said to the angels: Do you have an evil inclination?
Do you deal with the mundanities of the marketplace? Do you
dwell in a pagan world? So to what end should you be given
the Torah? To cultivate another lush garden of spiritual delights?
But G-d wants a home. Only we, who daily grapple with the
deceit, the strife and the profanity that marks the lowliest
stratum of G-ds creation, can construct with the Torah
a dwelling for Him, a place to house His quintessential self.
Based on address by the Rebbe, Shavuot 5718 (1958)
After his release from imprisonment in Petersburg, Rabbi
Schneur Zalman of Liadi passed through the city of Vitebsk,
where he was received by the city elders and community leaders.
Tell us, Rebbe, he was asked, when will
the tribulations of Israel end? When will the redeemer finally
Rabbi Schneur Zalman lowered his eyes to the ground and said
softly: But how can he come? The Moshiach that everyone
wants will never come, and the true Moshiach, no one wants
from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. Talmud, Bava Metzia 108a; Mishneh Torah, Laws
Regarding Neighbors, chs. 12-14; Shulchan Aruch, part
The Talmud cites this law as a classical case of "one
profits, while the other suffers no loss" (the buyer
profits in that he can cultivate both properties as a single
contiguous field, saving him the added expense of cultivating
two fields in two separate places; the seller suffers no
real loss, since he gets his price, nor does the prospective
non-neighboring buyer, who can purchase a field of equal
quality and value somewhere else). Thus, the court enforces
the principle "you shall do what is just and good"
(Deuteronomy 6:18--i.e., it is forbidden to act maliciously,
even if it is within your legal rights).
. Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 30:4.
. Talmud, Shabbat 89a.
. Shetei Yadot, p. Terumah; Sheirit Yaakov,
p. Bamidbar; Chida (Pnei Dovid and Rosh Dovid, p.
Yitro; Chasdei Avot, 3:14); Beer Yitzchak, p. Yitro
(2); Maarchei Lev, Mattan Torah (12); Brit Avot, p. Yitro;
Sefat Emet, p. Yitro; Nachal Yitzchsak, Pesach Shaar I &
II; et al.
. Rashi, Deuteronomy 33:2.
. Exodus 20:19; Deuteronomy 4:31.
. Talmud, ibid., and numerous other.
. "And he (Moses) was there (atop Mount Sinai)
with G-d for forty days and forty nights; bread he did not
eat, nor water did he drink"--Exodus 34:28.
. This also explains why Moses could not simply reply
to the angels: "Open up the Torah and have a look:
virtually every section is prefaced with the words, Command
the children of Israel, Speak to the children
of Israel, etc." For the law of bar mitzra
gives the neighbor the right to purchase the field even
after the buyer has already taken possession of it.
. According to Rashi on Bava Metzia, ibid., the
law of bar mitzra pertains primarily to the prospective
purchaser, forbidding him to purchase a field desired by
its neighbor and obligating him to resell it to the neighbor
should he actually purchase it (see Likkutei Sichot, vol.
XIX, pp. 55-57). This explains why G-d directed the angels
claim to Moses, who, as the purchaser, was the alleged violator
of the bar mitzra law.
. See sources cited in note 4 above.
. Talmud, Bava Metzia 108b; Mishneh Torah, ibid.,
13:1; Shulchan Aruch, ibid., 54.
. Mishneh Torah, ibid., 13:4; Shulchan Aruch, ibid.,
. Rif, cited in Shitah Mekubetzet on Talmud, ibid.;
Bahag, cited by Beit Yosef on Tur, part IV, 175; Shach on
Shulchan Aruch, ibid., sub-section 30.
. Mishneh Torah, ibid., 12:5; Shulchan Aruch, ibid.,
. Talmud, Shabbat 10a, as per Exodus 18:13.
. Indeed, the verse from which the Talmud derives
this is speaking about Moses.
. Talmud, ibid., 119b.
. During their encampment in Marah, as per Talmud,
Sanhedrin 56b. See also Exodus 16:29-30.
. Deuteronomy 33:1; Psalms 90:1; Midrash Rabbah,
. See Property Rights in Beyond
the Letter of the Law (VHH, 1995).
. Deuteronomy 30:12. In Bava Metzia 49b, the Talmud
gives the following account of a halachic dispute
between Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues:
Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but they
. Finally, he said to them: If
the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!
There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: What
do you want of Rabbi Eliezer--the law is as he says.
Whereupon Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: The
Torah is not in heaven!... (We take no notice of heavenly
voices, since You, G-d, have already, at Sinai, written
in the Torah to follow the majority.)
Rabbi Nathan met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: What
did G-d do at that moment? [Elijah] replied: He
smiled and said: You have triumphed over Me, My children,
you have triumphed.
. The law of bar mitzra applies only
when comparable fields are available at other locations,
and the issue is only who should be subjected to the trouble
of purchasing elsewhere (see note 1 above). This is consistent
with the debate between Moses and the angels as to whether
the Torah might be sold to earth: in either
case, both the angels and the people of Israel would still
be able to study the Torah, but only one of them would enjoy
the Torah as something that is of their element.
. Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16; Tanya, ch. 36.
. Rashi, Genesis 1:1.
. Yevamot 63a, as per Tosfot.
. Ohr HaTorah, Balak 997; Yom Tov Shel Rosh
Hashanah 5666, p. 3; et al.
. Tanya, ch. 6; ibid., ch. 36.
. Mishneh Torah, ibid., 14:1; Talmud, Bava Metzia
108b; Shulchan Aruch, ibid., 26.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XVIII, 28-34.