| Behar

Many a great and historic event took place on a mountain. Noach’s ark rested on Mount Arrarat allowing for the continuation of humanity. Avraham took Isaac to be sacrificed on Mount Moriah, later to become the place of Solomon’s Temple, known today as Har HaBayit. Moshe blessed the people on Mount Greezeim, and ascended Har Nevo to take a look at the Land to which he would be denied entry. Eliyahu defeated the Ba’al on Har Carmel and the Psalmist looks to the mountains in seeking the help of G-d. And most important of all, Moshe received the Torah on Mount Sinai. Conversely, Joseph was thrown into a pit, leading to exile and the laying the groundwork of the sinaat chinam, needless hatred, that affects us to this day. 

Our first parsha this week, Behar, "On the Mountain", opens with the unique formulation, “And G-d spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai”. This description of G-d’s place of communication begs explanation. Why does the Torah need to point out that G-d spoke to Moshe at Har Sinai? We all know that it was at Sinai that G-d spoke to Moshe. Hence everywhere else the Torah suffices by stating that “G-d spoke to Moshe”. Why the need to mention Sinai here and why specifically by the laws of Shmitta, the Sabbatical year?

For many, a mountain is a great barrier, hard to climb and harder to reach the summit. If one looks at a mountain and looks straight to the top, climbing it seems like an impossible task. With such a view it will be, tempting one to give up. But climb we must.

The way to do so can be seen in the opening verse of the second parsha we will read tomorrow, that of Bechukotai. “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments”. Noting the redundancy of “following My laws” and “observing My commandments”, Rashi explains that the Torah is teaching that, wonderful as it may be, it not quite enough to follow the commandments of the Torah. One must “toil in Torah, tehyu ameilim beTorah”. Mastering Torah requires lots and lots of hard work. We live in a generation of the 30 second sound bite, the 280 character tweet; in a society the seeks instant gratification. One in which we can just ask ChatGPT to do the work for us. Hard work, analysis, reflection, struggle are not popular concepts. A teacher who demands much will have fewer students. Why struggle to figure out a piece of Gemara when one can pick up an ArtScroll (or Koren)? Why work on preparing a devar Torah when one can just get one off the internet? It may be a great devar Torah – even better than the one one can do themselves - but it will have little impact. It is the effort exerted, not the final product, that has the greatest impact.

We study Talmud not to know what to do – for that there is the Shulchan Aruch – but to join the discussion, the debate and the digressions; to ask, argue and adjudicate. It is the process of learning that matters most. The greatest impact of a devar Torah is in the preparation, not in its delivery. We learn the most from our students because we have to prepare to teach them.

Ameilut, hard work is necessary in seeking knowledge but even more so in developing character. I have heard quoted in the name of Rav Yisrael Salanter that it is easier to learn the entire Talmud – all 2,711 double sided pages - than it is to change one character trait. But it is character that matters most.

Climbing a mountain is hard work. But one can only succeed with hard work and with hard work one will succeed. Our rabbis note that Har Sinai was the smallest of all the mountains. Climbing the mountain of Torah is not as hard as it may seem. One can grow to great heights in Torah by taking one small step at a time. When one reaches the top and looks down one may wonder how one managed to reach so high. But the answer is simple. Hard and consistent work.

It is not by chance that the Torah presents this message regarding the laws of Shmitta. These laws almost defy reason. To ask a farmer to let any and all strangers walk into one's field and just take the produce of one’s hard work sounds almost unfair and unreasonable. Furthermore, the farmer must let their fields lie fallow, leading one to wonder what one might eat. It is not an easy ask – one that requires a most generous heart and faith in the Creator to provide for one’s need. It is for good reason that a legal loophole was developed negating pretty much all the laws of Shmitta[1]. We have a way to go yet until we near the summit.

Scaling a mountain takes great effort and the path is never smooth. One must ensure they have the necessary provisions for the journey ahead. But with hard work one will reach great heights. By doing so we bring closer the fulfilment of the words of Yishayahu, “How welcome are the footsteps on the mountain that herald announcing peace, heralding good tidings, announcing salvation, saying to Zion, 'Your God has manifested His kingdom'" (Yishayahu 52:7).

[1] In no way do I mean to cast aspersion on this very important legal loophole, the heter mechira. Without it the Yishuv in Israel may have collapsed. I personally rely on it and think of all the ways of dealing with the challenges of Shmitta, the heter mechira is the best solution. Nonetheless, it is clear that this is far from the ideal; an ideal we are not yet ready for.  Similarly, any attempts to build the Beit Mikdash are totally premature. We have not yet reached the ahavat chinam, (loving all Jews, even if for no good reason), plateau on the mountain.