The Connection Between the Shmita and Mount Sinai

Concerning the verse, “Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying…” (Vayikra 25:1), Rashi asks: “What does the subject of the Shmita have to do with Mount Sinai? Were not all the mitzvot stated from Sinai? However just as with the Shmita, its general principles and finer details being all stated from Sinai, likewise all of them were stated – their general principles and their finer details – from Sinai.”

This does not seem to answer his question. Why does the Torah say this here, precisely in the passage dealing with the Shmita, rather than in some other passage, from where we could have also learned that the details of the mitzvot were given from Sinai?

I would like to explain this by first citing the Midrash: “Tabor and Carmel, which came from the ends of the world, boastfully proclaimed: ‘We are high and the Holy One, blessed be He, will give the Torah on us’ ” (Bamidbar Rabba 13:3). However He gave the Torah on Mount Sinai, for it humbled itself by saying: “I am low.” When the Children of Israel saw that the Holy One, blessed be He, did not give the Torah upon the mountains which had boasted, they made the following inference: If a mountain, which is nothing but a collection of earth, humbled itself before the Holy One, blessed be He, then how much more should we, who have received the order to be humble, conduct ourselves with humility! They immediately humbled themselves before G-d, as it is written: “They stood at the bottom of the mountain” (Shemot 19:17). In other words, they acted with even more humility than the mountain.

Because they acted in this way, they became worthy of receiving the Torah, for words of Torah only endure with one who is humble (Taanith 7a). Since they acted with humility, they became deeply united to one another, as it is written: “Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain” (Shemot 19:2), from which our Sages derive that they were like a single person with a single heart (Mechilta). There was a lack of unity prior to Sinai, but when they arrived at Sinai they learned humility and unity from the mountain. Since the underlying reason for division among the Children of Israel was the pride which they felt in regards to one another, when they found themselves all equal, they were again united.

We also find the subject of unity in the passage on the Shmita. There we read, “For six years you may sow your field…but the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land” (Vayikra 25:3-4). The Torah obligates anyone who owns a field to leave it open to everyone during the seventh year. From here, the Torah teaches us humility and baseless love, for during the seventh year whoever owns a field opens it to every Jew, whether he loves him or not, and everyone has the right to do whatever he wants with it, and nobody can prevent him. Hence it is regarding this mitzvah that the Torah tells us that all the details of any mitzvah were given from Sinai. Since we learn something that concerns the entire Torah from this passage – namely that the details of every mitzvah were given from Sinai – it follows that the entire Torah depends on this passage in all its fundamental principles. Not only that, but the entire Torah rests upon the principle of unity and mutual love. This is what Hillel told a non-Jew who wanted to convert, a man who asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while he stood upon one foot. Hillel converted him and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn it” (Shabbat 31a).

Twelve Thousand Pairs

Who is greater for us than Rabbi Akiva, who taught: “You shall love your fellow as yourself [Vayikra 19:18] is a great principle of the Torah” (Torat Kohanim, Kedoshim 4:12)? It is said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples, and they all died around the same time because they failed to show respect for one another (Yebamot 62b). This seems difficult to understand, for if they failed to show respect for one another, how could they be called Rabbi Akiva’s disciples? After all, they failed to listen to the teaching of the teacher, namely that “you shall love your fellow as yourself” is a great principle of the Torah. We also need to understand why it is said that he had 12,000 pairs of disciples, rather than 24,000 disciples! It seems that the disciples of Rabbi Akiva did not properly interpret his teaching, for they thought that when the Torah said, “You shall love your fellow as yourself,” it was referring to a single individual, not to “all your fellows” in the plural. Hence they each showed respect to only one other disciple, not to all the rest, such that the Sages designated them as “12,000 pairs of disciples.” Each of them became friends with only one other disciple, showing respect to him alone. Thus two disciples formed a pair, and because there was a lack of unity among them all, they suffered a grave punishment and all died in a short period of time between Pesach and Shavuot. This is because when unity is lacking, every misfortune can occur.

Let us think about the greatness of unity. The Mishnah in Bikkurim describes the ceremony surrounding the bringing of bikkurim [firstfruit] to the Temple as follows: “All the cities that constituted the ma'amad [representatives] gathered in the city of the ma'amad, and they spent the night in its open place without entering any of the houses…. The flute was played before them until they reached the Temple mount…. The rich brought their bikkurim in baskets overlaid with silver or gold, while the poor used wicker baskets of peeled willow-branches” (Bikkurim 3:2-8).

The Torah wanted to put the rich and the poor on an equal footing – the rich who brought their offerings in vessels of gold and silver, and the poor who brought their meager offerings in wicker baskets of peeled willow-branches. Hence everyone slept in the streets of the city without returning home, for when they stood before the King of kings, everyone was equal before Him. Hence it is said that G-d “did not respect princes, and a prince was not recognized before a poor man, for they are all the work of His hands” (Job 34:19).

The flute was played before them, and the word chalil (“flute”) evokes the word chalal (“hollow”). Whoever came to Jerusalem to bring bikkurim had to feel like the most empty of all, and that no one was greater than the other. Everyone was equal, and the offering of each person was a pleasing odor to G-d because they brought it out of love for Him. As the Mishnah says, “It is the same whether a man offers much or little, so long as he directs his heart to Heaven” (Menachot 110a).


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