By Rav David Silverberg
Parashat Behar begins with the mitzva of shemita – refraining from agricultural work every seventh year – and the opening verse famously indicates that God presented this law to Moshe atop Mount Sinai (“Va-yedaber Hashem el Moshe be-har Sinai…). Rashi, citing Chazal, comments that in truth, all the Torah’s commands were conveyed at Mount Sinai. Accordingly, many writers and darshanim throughout the ages have suggested possible reasons for the particular connection implied here between the mitzva of shemitta and the fact that God’s laws were presented at Mount Sinai.
The Klausenberger Rebbe (Shefa Chayim, vol. 15) cited in this context the Gemara’s well-known comment in Masekhet Shabbat (89a) associating the name “Sinai” with the word sin’a(hatred, or hostility). The mountain was named “Sinai,” the Gemara writes, “she-mi’sham yatza sin’a le-umot ha-olam” – “because from there hostility emerged to the nations of the world.” Meaning, the other nations’ hostility to Am Yisrael began at Mount Sinai, with our acceptance of the Torah. The Gemara here points to the fact that Am Yisrael accepted the Torah, and its special status that came with it, knowing full well that this would set our nation apart from the rest of the world, and thus be an ongoing source of tension and resentment throughout our history. This was the sacrifice we were prepared to make in order to commit ourselves to the Torah and form a special relationship with the Almighty.
On this basis, the Klausenberger Rebbe suggested a possible explanation for why Mount Sinai is mentioned in the context of the mitzva of shemitta. This mitzva reflects a different kind of sacrifice which we must be prepared to make for the sake of mitzvot, namely, financial sacrifice. Just as we accepted the Torah despite the “sin’a,” the hostility to which we would frequently be exposed as a result of our unique practices and customs, we likewise recognize the need to sacrifice our material standards for the sake of fulfilling God’s commands. We are reminded that Torah observance poses numerous different challenges and entails numerous different sacrifices, but that we must be fully prepared to confront these challenges and make these sacrifices in order to enjoy the great benefits of forging a unique, eternal relationship with our Creator.
As noted [above], many creative explanations have been given for why the Torah mentioned in the opening verse of Parashat Behar that the mitzva of shemitta was conveyed to Moshe at Mount Sinai. Chazal, as Rashi cites, clarify that this was true of all of God’s commands, yet the Torah mentioned this specifically in the context of shemitta, and writers and darshanim throughout the ages have sought to uncover the deeper layers of meaning underlying the reference to Mount Sinai in this context.
Rav Yosef Salant, in Be’er Yosef, suggests that an unfathomably difficult mitzva such as shemitta could have only been issued to Benei Yisrael at the time of Matan Torah at Mount Sinai. Chazal speak of the extraordinary spiritual heights to which the nation was elevated at that event, to the point where the adverse spiritual effects of the sin of Adam and Chava were reversed. The gap between knowing what’s right and doing what’s right was all but closed; the innate human resistance to authority was all but quelled. Only under such circumstances, Rav Salant writes, could God have expected Benei Yisrael to embrace the obligation of shemitta, which requires farmers to abandon their fields, their source of livelihood, for an entire year, and allow anyone who wishes – person or animal – to partake of their produce. The law of shemitta poses an enormous challenge and test of faith, a test which Benei Yisrael could be expected to pass only upon rising to the spiritual level which they achieved at the time of Ma’amad Har Sinai.
This insight presents us with a crucial educational message, reminding us of the need for realistic expectations of children, students and others whom we seek to teach and guide. Not every framework is suitable for every instruction or word of criticism. Context is a vital part of eliciting the desired response or change. Sometimes, the behavioral change we seek is simply too difficult at the moment when we want it, and we need to wait until “Ma’amad Har Sinai,” the proper time and framework, or until the child grows and matures a bit more, to effect the desired change. Different people are receptive to guidance and criticism at different times and under different circumstances, and we therefore need to carefully choose an appropriate time and context in which we can reasonably expect a favorable response.
Originally appears on VBM