parasha

Humility as a Condition for Torah

 Behar – Bechukotai 5780

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

The commandment that is central to this week’s Torah portions Behar and Bechukotai is the mitzvah of shmita.  Every seventh year, farmers in the Land of Israel must let their fields lie fallow and surrender the harvest to society – Jews and non-Jews – and even to animals:

When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord…But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest a Sabbath to the Lord…it shall be a year of rest for the land. And [the produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you, and all of its produce may be eaten [also] by your domestic animals and by the beasts that are in your land.

(Leviticus 25, 2-7)

In a manner which is unusual in the Torah, the parasha begins by noting the place where this commandment is given: Mount Sinai.  The midrash, and later the biblical commentators, asked an obvious question: “What special connection is there between shmita and Mount Sinai? Indeed, all the commandments were given at Mount Sinai!”  This commandment is no different from all others that were also given to Moses at Mount Sinai.  Why, then, is the site where the commandment was given emphasized for this specific commandment?

There have been many answers given to this question.  We will turn to a different midrash that describes an argument between…mountains!

The midrash tells the following story:

“Since the Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to give the Torah to Israel, Carmel came and Tavor… Mount Tavor said - It would be fitting for the Shekhina to rest upon me, for I am higher than all the other mountains… And Mount Carmel said - It would be fitting for the Shekhina to rest upon me, because I was placed in the middle, and they crossed the sea over me. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: You have already been disqualified before Me because of your haughtiness! You are all disqualified before Me… I desire nothing but Sinai, which is lower than all of you!”

(Midrash Tehillim, ch. 68, 15)

The intention of this midrash is not to tell us imaginary stories about argumentative mountains, but to express an educational message: The Torah cannot be given against a backdrop of haughtiness, but rather only in a place of humility.  Humility and modesty are necessary conditions for a Jewish life based on Torah.

This is similar to the description of Moses in the Torah.  Moses is the only person called “Rabeinu”, our teacher.  This is because he passed on the Torah from G-d to the Jewish nation and taught the laws of the commandments.  We have no doubt that he was a person of the highest level and is therefore referred to as the “father of all prophets”.  But when the Torah describes him, it focusses on only one of his characteristics: “Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.”  Why is this trait described? Because this is the trait that allowed him to be “Rabeinu” and give the Torah to the Jewish people.

This explains the emphasis regarding Mount Sinai in reference to the mitzvah of shmita.  The farmer is told that during this shmita year, he must let his fields lay fallow.  This is a particularly difficult demand because of his financial concerns, his emotional connection with the land, and the collateral damage this demand could cause.  But then he is asked to do something even more difficult: to surrender the harvest and let anyone who wants to take from it.  He is asked to surrender his sense of ownership, his feelings of preferring himself over others, in order to give equal rights to the harvest to any person, animal, or beast.

Doing this requires a person to have a specific emotional quality: humility.  There is no way to fulfill the mitzvah of shmita if one approaches it with an attitude of “I deserve this” or of arrogance.  The humility symbolized by Mount Sinai is a necessary condition for fulfilling the commandment of shmita.

 

All Torah weekly sections