Parashat Behar- Sometimes, Less is More
Rashi’s opening remarks to Parashat Behar are among the famous words in his Torah commentary: “Ma Inyan Shemita Esel Har Sinai” – “What does Shemita have to with Mount Sinai?” Rashi’s question is why, when the Torah presents the Misva of Shemita – the “sabbatical” year – it emphasizes that God issued this command to Moshe at Mount Sinai. All Misvot of the Torah were taught to Moshe at Mount Sinai, and there thus seems no need for the Torah to inform us that God presented these laws of the seventh year at Sinai.
The Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909) suggests answering this question by noting the symbolic significance of Mount Sinai as the chosen site of Matan Torah. There are many tall, majestic mountains in Eretz Yisrael and its surrounding regions. Mount Hermon, in Northern Israel, is the tallest mountain in the country and nowadays is home to a popular ski resort in the winter. Mount Carmel, near the port city of Haifa, is another spectacular mountain. Mount Sinai, by contrast, as the Rabbis teach us, is unimpressive. It is not particularly tall or especially beautiful. In choosing a site for the momentous, once-in-history occasion of Matan Torah, for the most significant event in human history, God snubbed the majestic, verdant mountain ranges of Israel and preferred a small, humble, unassuming peak in the arid Sinai Peninsula.
The selection of Mount Sinai, the Ben Ish Hai observed, indicates that sometimes, “less is more.” Very often, it is the small, outwardly unimpressive person who achieves great success. A struggling, humble business can somehow emerge as a booming enterprise. Little things can sometimes produce big results.
And this is one of the crucial messages of the Shemita laws. God instructs Beneh Yisrael – who, in ancient times, lived in a primarily agrarian society – to abstain from all agricultural work for an entire year, every seven years. Moreover, any produce that grew in the field was to be left ownerless, free for anyone who wished to take it. This would be comparable to a storeowner suspending all operations for an entire year, during which time the door is left open for anyone who wishes to help himself to merchandise.
How would the people survive? What would the farmer eat in the year after the Shemita year, when all his produce is gone and he must begin his entire agricultural operation anew?
God assures Beneh Yisrael that they would be provided for. He promises that if they faithfully observe the Shemita laws, He would bless the produce of the sixth year, such that it would last them until the new crops planted after Shemita were ready.
This does not necessarily mean that the ground would produce more during the sixth year. Rather, it means that the food that is produced would last longer. Wealth is not only about quantity; it also entails quality. Sometimes a person makes a lot of money, but it does not last. To take a simple example, two friends walk into a pizza store, and each buys a piece of pizza. The first eats his pizza and feels satisfied; he will not need any more food until dinner that evening. The second, however, still feels hungry, and needs to buy another two slices. We have all had experiences where we see large sums of money consumed very quickly, and other times when a small sum manages to last us for a while. The reward for Shemita is that the limited supply of produce would last for a long time, that the nation will seem to have less, but in reality, it will have more.
This explains the connection to Mount Sinai. Just as a small mountain can rise to the greatest stature, similarly, a small amount of assets can sometimes serve its owner even better than a large fortune.
The Misva of Shemita reminds us that we must have faith in God’s ability to provide for us. It teaches that we do not have to constantly fret over our money, always working to earn more. We must trust that God can send His blessing in whatever small amounts we have, and ensure that all our needs are cared for even with limited quantities of “produce.”