Behar – The Sinai Equation
The laws of Shemitta, the Sabbatical year, requiring that the land of Israel lie fallow and not be tilled for the duration of each seventh year, are the opening verses of this week’s reading.
Rashi on the first verse cites a Midrash asking, what relationship does Shemitta have to Mt. Sinai? Were other laws taught elsewhere? Our tradition asserts that all laws were relayed at Sinai. Yet the verse specifies that G-d conveyed this to Moses at Mt. Sinai. What particular connection exists between the Shemitta laws and Sinai?
The Midrash explains that this verse comes to teach us that all Mitzvot of the Torah were elucidated at Sinai including all their details and elements, just as Shemitta laws were taught at Sinai with all of its rules and trappings. In other words, Shemitta is singled out not because it is different from the others, rather as an example of the way each Mitzvah was taught.
This happens to be an excellent illustration of one of the 13 methods through which Torah laws are extrapolated, as taught by Rabi Yishmael (and who’s teaching we read daily at the start of Shacharit prayers). “Any [Mitzvah] singled out from all others is not singled out to remove it from the general rule, but it comes to illuminate us regarding all of the rule.” Shemittah is portrayed by the Torah as a Mitzvah commanded at Sinai to reveal to us in general how all Mitzvot were commanded.
There is an important message driven by this Midrash and this concept. All Mitzvot are equal in that they all come from the same source, the same authority. Observing any Mitzvah is therefore a recognition and affirmation of the authority behind it and denying a single Mitzvah is a denial of the authority behind all Mitzvot of the Torah.
When a candidate is accepted for conversion, for example, the process requires an acceptance of, and commitment to, all Mitzvot of the Torah. To accept all but one Mitzvah is not enough and would invalidate the conversion. Similarly, a Jew who rejects even one Mitzvah of the Torah is considered a heretic. To deny or “remove” a single Mitzvah is a denial of the authority behind the Torah and is outside the pale of Jewish belief. All Mitzvot were handed down at Sinai just as the Shemittah laws were handed down at Sinai.
This does not make a non-observant Jew a heretic. Far from it. Non observance of the law does not equal denial of the law or of the authority behind the law. We live in an imperfect world and being human makes us flawed by nature. We never operate at our full capacity but we are all on the spectrum, whether we achieve 10% or 90%.
What is defining of us are the aspirations we have. Where are we going? Which direction. Have I set a goal to eventually move to 11%? Having a goal to advance is far more meaningful than remaining stagnant even at 95%.
Our tradition views humans as greater than angels. Angels may be perfect but they can never improve. The prophets describe angels as one-legged beings. They cannot progress and they cannot change. We have two legs. We are mobile. We can move forward and become bigger than we are now. We have the capacity to improve.