By Rabbi Alexander Coleman
The parsha of Behar (VaYikrah 25:1) begins with the laws of Shemitta (Sabbatical year) but introduces the them with a reference to their being given at Mount Sinai. Why out of all the mitzvos, would the Torah remind us that it was given at Mount Sinai? A famous question. Rashi, based upon Rebbe Akiva (Zevachim 115b), explains that the Torah is alluding to the fact that just as all the generalities and details of the laws of Shemitta were given at Sinai, so too were the generalities and details of all the mitzvos given at Sinai too.
This explanation, however, only accords with Rebbe Akiva, for R’ Yishmael in that Gemara says that while the generalities of the mitzvos were communicated at Mount Sinai, the details were given in the Ohel Moed (tent of Meeting). Accordingly, the question returns; why does the Torah reference Mount Sinai regarding Shemitta specifically?
The commentary Beer Yosef quotes a Midrash at the beginning of Vayikra that can answer the question according to Rebbe Yishmael.
The Midrash describes the incredible level of self-control a farmer needed to have when observing Shemitta, and how he was considered among those of who King David described in Psalms (103:20) as “Giborei Koach” – mighty ones of strength. To observe a mitzvah, the Midrash says, for one day, a week, or even a month that may be possible, but to maintain it for a whole year, that’s true might. Yet that’s what the observers of Shemitta did, and not only that, but they paid their taxes too and, as the Midrash says, they did it with silent acquiescence, not uttering a complaint or gripe. That’s true strength!
Inner strength like this is called self-control and self-discipline and is an asset of immense proportions. In Pirke Avos (4:1) it says that a true gibor is someone who has dominion over himself, not succumbing to his baser impulses and remaining silent to the immediate reactions and impulses of desire and distraction. The Rabbeinu Yona explains that the Mishna actually speaks of two levels: (1) a level of a gibor who remains silent but may still harbor a desire within, and then (2) a moshel – one who dominates the emotion to the point of it disappearing.
Quite a level, but how can a person realistically achieve this? We all want greater self-control, but what’s the key?
Now, it goes without saying that a major ingredient is bitachon, trust. The more trust a person has that everything is ordained and controlled by G-d, the easier it is to remain silent and not react. But there’s another ingredient too…
The above Midrash goes on to expound the next phrase of the above verse in Psalms, “osei devaro – those who carry out [G-d’s] word” and says that it alludes to the famous line the Jewish People uttered at Mount Sinai, “naaseh v’nishma” – “we will do, and then we will listen”. In other words, who are the mighty people of self-control and ones who have the strength to practice Shemitta, it’s people who say “naaseh v’nishma”. For what is the essence of this expression? It is none other than that very same attribute of self-control, to be able to push aside the immediate reaction of “first tell me why I need to do this, and then I’ll do it”, or “when it’s convenient or comfortable for me, then I’ll do it”. It’s the attitude that “my immediate wishes and desires are first and foremost, not compliance.”
The Midrash is teaching us that self-discipline lies within the genes of the Jewish People from Mount Sinai from the eternal words of naaseh v’nishma. This, therefore, is the second explanation for the juxtaposition of and reference to Mount Sinai in introducing the laws of Shemitta. The Torah is reminding is that the strength to observe this law is one that we have within ourselves, bequeathed to us from our ancestors at Mount Sinai, those who uttered the ineffable words, “we are prepared and ready to perform your mitzvos, no matter what”!
What Shemitta is for years, Shabbos is for weeks, and in the same way that “silence” and self-control was needed in the observance of Shemitta, and they possessed it within from naaseh v’nishma, so to silence and self-control is needed with the observance of Shabbos, and that too we have within. We just need to believe it.
Curiously, the above Midrash about Shemitta is not actually found in this week’s parsha. It’s at the beginning of Vayikra. More curiously, the Midrash at the beginning of Behar, which talks about Shemitta skips the subject entirely and right away discusses verse 14 that speaks about onaah, the prohibition against fraud and financial wrong. A corollary of that prohibition is onaas devarim, injury and insult with words. The Midrash quotes the famous verse in Proverbs, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” and goes on to describe three metaphors and examples of how powerful the tongue and speech is. It’s like a spoon used for eating and nourishment, yet like a sword used for bloodshed. It has the power to stimulate a fire to rise out of a hot coal, yet the power to extinguish it by spitting upon it, and finally it has the power to render a food acceptable to eat by declaring the separation of tithes, yet the power to sin by eating it without that separation.
(Parenthetically, the Shem M’Shmuel explains that the common denominator between all these metaphors and the power of speech is that in the same way that speech is comprised of a physical and a spiritual dimension - the physical sound, and the spiritual content - so to too in each of these analogies. A spoon is symbolic of life and the sword death, the glowing coals contain a spirit of energy - the fire, yet a physical coarse mass, and similarly the food contains both mundane and holy within – the un-tithed and the tithed for the Kohen. It is within the power of speech and it’s dual identity to separate the holy from the mundane.)
Returning to the discussion, the question is why does this Midrash skip the laws of Shemitta and goes straight to the subject of verbal abuse?
The answer is that it doesn’t skip it entirely. How does the Midrash open up its lesson about speech? By quoting the first verse of the parsha, that Hashem spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai. This is unusual, for the verse under analysis for the drosha is verse 14. What further message is being conveyed by also quoting the first verse?
The answer is the same as above. Self-control in speech and human interaction is also one of the most difficult things to exercise. We are constantly being challenged by people and their behaviors and the impulse to fire off of the mouth. It is perhaps the area that needs the most work and effort. But again, how do I control my speech? How do I control myself when someone annoys me? How do I control myself when I see or hear of inappropriate actions, and I want to talk about it with others? How do I stop myself from spreading juicy gossip? The list goes on. It’s so difficult!
The Midrash - in the name of Hashem – therefore says: remember that you were at Mount Sinai, and you said “naaseh v’nishma”. Those words were seared into your soul, as an internal reservoir of strength and self-discipline to be able to restrain your reactions, to be able to be silent in the face of insults and to close your mouth from saying things that are hurtful and wrong.
When we ponder what we have received and what we possess within, we will discover strengths and abilities beyond our wildest imaginations.You can do it!