Faith is the Foundation of the Torah and Mitzvot

It is written, “The L-RD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai” (Leviticus 25:1).

The Sages ask, “What does the subject of the Shmita [seventh year] have to do with Mount Sinai? Were not all the commandments given from Sinai? However just as with the Shmita, its general principles and its smallest details all being given from Sinai, likewise all of them were given – their general principles and their smallest details – from Sinai” (Torat Kohanim, Behar 1). This is difficult to understand. Why does the Torah reveal this for the Shmita, rather than for some other mitzvah? To answer this question, let us first cite a statement made by the Ramban (Leviticus 25:2): “The six days of creation represent the days of the world, whereas the seventh day is a Sabbath to the L-RD your G-d, for on it will be the Sabbath to the Great Name…. It is for this reason that Scripture was more stringent regarding the Shmita than with respect to those guilty of violating all other negative commandments…. Whoever denies it does not acknowledge the work of creation and the World to Come.” Hence the Sages said, “Exile comes to the world for idolatry, for sexual immorality, for murder, and for not letting the earth rest during the Shmita” (Pirkei Avoth 5:9). By telling us that the Children of Israel were exiled because they failed to observe the Shmita, it follows that Scripture considers the transgression of the Shmita to be just as serious as the three gravest sins. Rashi wrote, “It is through the transgression of the Shmita that the Israelites are exiled, as the verse says: ‘The land will appease its Sabbaths…. The land will rest and appease its Sabbaths.’ The 70 years of the Babylonian exile corresponded to the 70 Shmita years that Israel did not observe” (Rashi on Leviticus 25:18).

Jeremiah said to the Children of Israel, “Thus says the L-RD, the G-d of Israel: I sealed a covenant with your forefathers on the day that I took them out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves, saying: ‘At the outset of the seventh year, each of you shall send forth his Hebrew brother who will have been sold to you. He shall serve you for six years, and then you shall send him out free from yourself.’ However your forefathers did not listen to Me, nor incline their ear. … Therefore thus says the L-RD: You did not hearken to Me to proclaim freedom, every man for his brother and every man for his fellow. Behold, I proclaim you to be free – the word of the L-RD – for the sword, for pestilence, and for famine, and I shall make you an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth” (Jeremiah 34:13-17). Rashi explains, “Behold, I proclaim you to be free – from Me, that I am not your master to save you, and you shall be free for the sword and for famine.”

This is difficult to understand. Why is Scripture so stringent regarding the mitzvah of the Shmita, to the point that the Children of Israel were exiled because they transgressed it? Why is transgressing the Shmita compared to the three gravest sins – idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder – for which we are to die rather than commit? After all, we are not obligated to die rather than transgress the Shmita! The words of the Ramban also need to be explained, for why is it more serious to deny the seventh year than to deny Hashem? With the exception of idolatry, we find nothing like this anywhere else in the Torah.

We shall try to explain all this according to a teaching of our Sages: “It is Habakkuk who came and based them all on one [principle], as it is said: ‘But the tzaddik shall live by his faith’ [Habakkuk 2:4]” (Makkot 24a). From here we learn that faith in Hashem is the foundation for the entire Torah. A person who possesses faith can accomplish all the mitzvot, for if he believes in Hashem, he will obey all that He commands him to do. The opposite is also true: Whoever does not possess faith cannot fulfill mitzvot. That being the case for mitzvot in general, how much more does it apply to the Shmita in particular! That is, whoever does not have faith in Hashem will not observe it, and whoever has faith in Him will observe it. This is because the power of the Shmita depends on faith, which frees a person from worry until the end of the seventh year, for he has faith that the Holy One, blessed be He, will fulfill His promise to those who observe the Shmita. Thus we read: “If you will say, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year? See, we will not sow or gather in our crops!’ I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it shall yield a crop for three years. You will sow in the eighth year, but you will still eat from the old crop until the ninth year” (Leviticus 25:20-22).

This is why the punishment for neglecting the Shmita is so severe. The Sages say, “Come and see how severe is the dust [i.e., results] of [transgressing] the seventh year” (Kiddushin 20a), and they explain that a man who trades his produce during the Shmita will eventually be forced to sell his moveable property. If he ignores this punishment, he will be forced to sell his fields, followed by his home, and even his own daughter. In the end, he will even have to sell himself to idolatry. A person who fails to respect the Shmita denies Hashem and will eventually become an actual idol worshipper. This is because the Shmita is an essential principle of the Torah, being as important as the three most serious sins, for which we are to die rather than commit.

This is why Mount Sinai is mentioned in connection with the mitzvah of the Shmita. It teaches us that although the entire Torah comes from Sinai, the fact that it is mentioned in connection with the Shmita – which is an essential principle of the Torah – means that all the mitzvot are essential.

One may ask, “Is it only the mitzvah of the Shmita that depends on faith? Don’t all the mitzvot require faith, as King David said: ‘All Your mitzvot are faith’ [Psalms 119:86]?” The answer is that a mitzvah that does not imply a financial loss cannot be compared to a mitzvah that does implies a financial loss, and no mitzvah implies a greater potential for financial loss than does the Shmita. When a person has a field, but neither works nor sows it during the entire year because he is observing the Shmita, this indicates that he has faith in Hashem and trusts in His promises.

A person should not say, “Even if I don’t observe all the mitzvot in practice, I still have faith!” Things do not work this way. Faith can only endure with a person who observes Torah and mitzvot. Hence immediately after Parsha Behar comes Parsha Bechukotai, which begins by stressing the value of learning Torah, as it is written: “If you walk in My decrees” (Leviticus 26:3). Here the Sages explain that the Holy One, blessed be He, yearns for the Children of Israel to study Torah (Torat Kohanim, Bechukotai 1). We are taught that it is impossible to have faith without Torah, and likewise that it is impossible to have Torah without faith, for the two are connected. In this world, a person is like a builder who is constructing a house. How does he go about his task? He first lays a foundation, and afterwards he starts building a house upon it. How does he lay the foundation? He takes sand and earth, adds water to it, and with this mixture he prepares the foundation. If he fails to use these materials for the foundation, any house that he builds will end up collapsing. The same applies to Torah and faith. These are the two materials that form the foundation of man. If a person lacks both of them, he will not have a foundation, meaning that he will be unable to build anything that will last. If he builds something, it will end up collapsing.

This is the lesson that ensues from our parsha. The Torah says “on Mount Sinai” when speaking of the Shmita, thereby teaching us that faith without Torah is impossible, just as Torah without faith is impossible.


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