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After stating the laws of Sabbatical years (the commandment to let the land lie fallow once every seven years) and the Jubilee year (every fiftieth year, following a cycle of seven Sabbatical years), the Torah suggests a question; “And if you will ask, what will we eat during the Sabbatical year; we didn’t sow or harvest our grain?” (Lev. 25:20). The question is surprising because of its placement; it should be asked immediately after the section on the Sabbatical year, since that is the subject of the question. Why does the Torah go on to describe the Jubilee year, and even mention how to treat a fellow Jew (in verses 14-17), before bringing up the question, “And if you will askŔ

There are commentaries who claim that the question applies not to the Sabbatical year (even though that is the language it uses), but to the Jubilee year, which is why the following verse (Lev. 25:21) answers, “I will send my blessing…and it will yield produce sufficient for three years.” According to these commentaries (Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Abarbanel), the three years referred to are the Sabbatical year, the Jubilee, and the following year. However, we cannot say that Rashi explains the verse this way, since he comments (on Lev. 25:22), “this Scripture refers to all the other Sabbatical years” – and not the Sabbatical year preceding a Jubilee year.

There is another big question here; the Torah seems to imply that we will certainly ask the question; “Where will our food come from during the Sabbatical year?” This is strange, since immediately preceding the question is a promise from G-d that He will supply all of the needs of the Jews during the Sabbatical and Jubilee years; “The land will produce its fruit and you will eat to your satisfaction and live securely upon it” (Lev. 25:19). Given that the Torah makes such a promise, why does it follow up with an assumption that we will doubt Him and ask questions? If the Torah promises that despite letting the land lie fallow for two years, we will have food, why does it imply that there will be doubters?

The trick to understanding Rashi’s commentary is to “dumb it down,” and remember for whom he wrote it. Rashi wrote for the five year old who is learning Torah for the first time. Therefore, Rashi’s goal was to explain the pshat, or simple level of the text. For that reason, we need to look for a simple, straightforward explanation. In our case, the five year old learning for the first time will remember that he already saw a similar question asked in the Torah, using the same language; “And when your son will ask you tomorrow, ‘What is this?” (Ex. 13:14). There, Rashi explains; “This is asked by the foolish son who is unable to detail his question, and therefore simply asks, ‘What is this?’ Rashi continues, ‘Elsewhere, the Torah asks, ‘What are these [different categories of law]Œ and this question is attributed to the wise son. In general, the Torah speaks of four kinds of sons; the simple son, the wicked son, the son who is unable to ask, and the son who asks wisely.”

Usually, we associate the four sons and the questions they ask with Pesach. That is because the Pesach hagada quotes them and applies their questions to the Exodus. While this is halachically accurate, it is based on the second level of Torah interpretation (drosh). Rashi’s explanation though, focuses on the first, textual level of interpretation, known as pshat, as mentioned above. Examining the pshat, we find that only two of the sons’ questions actually apply to Pesach; the wicked son and the son who doesn’t know how to ask. They are found in Exodus (13:5 and 13:8), where Rashi (on verse 12:26) explains that the verse, “And you should perform this serviceŔ applies to the wicked son, who wishes to separate himself from the rest of the Jews, asking, “What is this service for you?” To him, the Torah says that we should answer him that “this is what G-d did for us, since if he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.” And the verse, “You should tell your sonŔ (13:8) refers to the son who is incapable of asking questions himself – for him, you must open up with explanations yourself. The other two sons – the wise and the simple (“foolish”) sons, appear to be asking questions that are not connected to Pesach whatsoever, at least according to the simple textual level.

In the case of the simple son, who knows how to ask, but only in a general way, his question in the Torah follows the explanation of bechor, the first-born who must be redeemed. Therefore, his question seems to apply to the mitzvah of bechor, rather than to Pesach. As for the question of the wise son – “What are these [various categories of law] for you?” - it appears to be a general question, not specifically related to Pesach. In answer, the Torah instructs us to answer with the story of the exodus; however, his question is general, with no specific reference to the exodus.

Thus, the five year old learning the Torah text for the first time is likely to conclude that there is a special law applying to telling the story of Pesach; that one must make a special effort to reach the wicked son and the son who doesn’t know how to ask. They were the sons that the Torah specifically included in the instructions regarding Pesach. On the textual level, it appears that the Torah did not include the wise son and the simple son in the command to tell the Pesach story. And that makes sense, because the wicked and the one who doesn’t know how to ask are the two sons that are likely to be left out when we tell the Exodus story, unless we make special efforts to include them. The wicked son would exclude himself, and the son who does not know how to ask would not participate, unless we extended ourselves to include them. However, the simple (“foolish”) son and the wise son would in any case ask questions, and therefore the Torah does not instruct us to make a special effort to include them in the mitzvah of telling the story of the exodus.

But, now that the five-year old reads the question of the simple son in the Torah, regarding the mitzvah of bechor (first-born), he realizes that there are also questions to be asked regarding other mitzvot (not just Pesach). In addition, he realizes that the Torah relates to the questions of a simple son as well as to those of a wicked son or one who doesn’t know how to ask. The intelligent five-year then reasons further; if the simple son has questions, then a wise son will certainly have questions, and they will be more detailed and numerous than the simple son’s questions. This is what leads Rashi to explain that the simple textual level of the Torah requires that we relate to four different kinds of son; the wicked, the one who does not know how to ask, the simple and the wise son. And this is not only in relation to Pesach, but to other mitzvoth as well.

From all of the above, we understand that everywhere the Torah mentions a question about a mitzvah, we must “decipher” which son is doing the “asking.” In general, the Torah speaks to four sons, but in each case, it may be a different son who is doing the asking. It is not necessary that the question be from one who is lacking faith or from one who wants no part of the ceremony; it may be a clarification or request for more details and information. In our particular case, wherein the Torah says, “And if you will ask, what will we eat...”, the fact that the question follows an explanation of the laws of Sabbatical and Jubilee years means that it is a wise son who is doing the asking. The general outlines of the law are present, and here the wise son seeks clarification and details, and this is the purpose of his question. A wicked son would have asked his question at the very beginning of the explication of laws, since his purpose is to exclude and excuse himself from performing the mitzvah. But since the question follows the explication, we know it comes from the wise son.

More specifically, his question is as follows; he has read the promises of G-d to the Jewish people, that if they follow His commandments, they will live well-supplied and “secure upon the land.” However, he wishes to know “how” – he wants to know the details how it will come about that after a year or more of no planting and harvesting, the Jews will have plenty. To that, the Torah answers that the earth will give forth a tremendous amount of produce during the sixth year – enough to feed the Jews for the next three years. After all, the Torah could have meant that food will be automatically supplied from the heavens, like the manna in the desert. But, no, here the Torah answers the wise son that the necessary amount of food will be produced naturally, but in a super natural manner, by growing a lot of food during the sixth year.

The Torah is everlasting, so the questions that appear in the Torah are also everlasting. The question, “We didn’t sow or harvest, so what will we eat,” is a question that is asked in every generation and every year. It reflects the general condition of a Jew; that we have a G-dly soul that instills faith, as well as an animal soul that constantly germinates doubts. It is natural for the animal soul to have questions, but to him we must be prepared to answer that there are things that transcend nature, that even if it is unnatural to find food when we didn’t plant of cultivate, nevertheless G-d can provide miraculously. In fact, in our case, the question didn’t come from the animal soul, but from the “wise son,” the intelligent person who simply wants to understand. And to him as well, the answer is that G-d runs the universe, and if we do His will and follow His commandments of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, then He responds with “I command my blessings” and provides for us in a manner that totally transcends nature.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 27, pp. 183-190 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the old city of Jlm