When the Oxen Shmitu -- Released Themselves

Early in the year of the 11th plague, one of my grandchildren -- Elior Waskow --asked me to take part with him in chevrusa for weekly Torah study. The invitation itself gave me great joy and the process became both a learning and a joy for me. One of the texts we studied was the haftorah for Parashat Shmini  (II Samuel 6: 1 to 7: 17) in which King David arranges for the Ark of the Covenant to be brought to Jerusalem, his new capital city. He is clearly hoping that its prestige will add to his own as king.

In the process, as a team of oxen drags a wagon bearing the Ark, the oxen in most translations are said to “stumble.” Fearing that the Ark itself would fall to the ground, one of the attendants tries to hold it steady. He is struck dead on the spot. Practically all commentators view this story as a reinforcement of the belief that too close contact with the Ultimately Holy – or contact not ritually mediated in a proper way --  will bring God’s ultimate erasure from the life of this world.--either as a punishment or as a transcendent reward, the commentators disagree.

As we read this passage, Elior Interrupted. “Granddad! Here is your favorite word in the whole Tanakh!”

 “What?!” said I.

 “Shmita! Here, it says ‘Shmitu HaBakar. The oxen released.’ (II Samuel 6: 6) They didn’t stumble, they released. Like the seventh year of releasing Earth from overwork to make a Shabbat Shabbaton, like the year of releasing debtors from their debt.”

“Wow!” I said.  “The oxen tried to release themselves from this burden. Maybe not just the physical burden of dragging the Ark, but the spiritual burden of transporting it to magnify King David’s power. God, YHWH, the Interbreathing Spirit of all life, was skeptical about the dangerous power of kings.  Maybe the oxen got it, and tried to release themselves, to make a shmita for themselves. And one of the attendants tried to stop them, force them to keep working for King David’s glory. Maybe that is why he died.  Maybe this story comes to teach us: The animals also are entitled to shmita! That changes the whole meaning of the story!  Elior, thank you!”


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