It's Not Just Agricultural

Vayidaber H' el Moshe b'har Sinai leimor: God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them.... then follows the rest of parshat Behar, primarily, as we have seen, the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. It is a familiar enough beginning — or almost. But before we even get to what it is Moses is supposed to say to us, Rashi is waving his arms frantically trying to get our attention: God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying....What does Mt. Sinai have to do with the Sabbatical year, Rashi asks. Weren't all the mitzvot given at Sinai? Why does this parsah have to include the phrase b'har Sinai — on Mount Sinai — is there something about shmita, the sabbatical year that is particularly connected to Sinai?

Never mind Rashi's answer. Let's just take a minute to hear the question. What about the laws of Shimta, the Sabbatical year, merits special mention of Sinai? Why dafka do we need to be told that these laws were given on Mt. Sinai? My friend and colleague Jack Moline taught me that there are no coincidences. It is not happenstance that we read this parsha today.

This notation — seemingly unnecessary — that God transmitted these particular laws on Mt. Sinai alerts us to something out of the ordinary. And here is what is out of the ordinary, what I find intriguing:

This is the only place I can find in which Torah acknowledges explicitly how difficult it can be to fulfill the commandments. And notice it's not in the context of kashrut, or loving our neighbor — which I understand can be challenging in some circumstances, or honoring our parents or even changing our dishes for Pesah.

You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security; the land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill and you shall live upon it in security.

And then Torah continues:

And should you ask, "What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?" I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year you will still be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in.

From Mt. Sinai itself comes an acknowledgement: It is frightening to contemplate having to do without. We very well may worry that we will not have enough.

It's not just agricultural — the fear of not having enough is the existential fear that will touch all of our lives at some point.

Maybe you're a 12-year-old boy. You've always done well in school — or well enough — but now you're being asked to work for 6 or 12 months to prepare to read and sing and study and teach in front of what may feel like thousands of onlookers. You might not be sure you have enough of what it takes to conquer your task — enough smarts, enough zitsfleish, enough sense of who you are. What if you don't have enough?

A couple standing under their huppah might have a momentary flicker: Will there be enough? The love and respect we now have in such plentitude — will it last us through the years?

And there are times that any one of us will wonder: Will we have the courage and the strength — physical and strength of will to face illness or loss that surely we will be subject to?

Life will hand us some hurt, some disappointment, some shock, and we may not know for certain that we can recover.

We refer affectionately to Torah by many names and metaphors: — tree of life, water, the ketubah, marriage contract between Israel and God, teaching, instruction. It is rules and guidance and wisdom. But in today's parsha, davka in the parsha we read today, Torah expresses astonishing, unprecedented empathy and compassion: It's as if Torah is looking into our heart and saying I know a lot is asked of you. I know you wonder if you are up to the task. You are worried that you will have to do without and the lean years are upon us right now, and we are not prepared.

But, we read in our parsha, God assures us: it will not be too hard for you. I know your fears and I will provide for you. "I will ordain My blessing for you in the 6th year so that it shall yield a sufficient crop for the years to follow." I will build you up in the years of plenty and it will be enough for you. You may struggle but I will be with you. This is not more than you can withstand.

There are infrastructures that will guide and support us. In our parsha those infrastructures are manifest through strict observance of God's mitzvot. We are to tend to the land and to those who work the land with mercy. We are given specific safeguards to protect the most vulnerable among us from crushing poverty.And it's not just agricultural. In our daily lives in the city it means cultivating our community, seeking the welfare of the least of us, making sure we tend to one another with gentleness, storing up our good feeling and commitment to what we love. Our infrastructure is the community that we have lovingly built. We must tend to it and it will continue to support us.

So to that 12-year old boy I would say — look at this look: how hard and scary it is; but look also how do-able it is; how your community will cheer you on as you struggle and as you triumph.

And to the couple under the huppah I would say — you will have enough. Trust yourselves and treat each other kindly and you will continue to delight in one another; you will not always live in newlywed bliss but you will continue to discover in each other new reasons to love and grow together.

Because in the end, it is our faith that will sustain us. Faith that God's commandments are given to make our lives sweeter, richer, fuller. Faith that we can rise to the demands those commandments place on us. Faith that we can care for ourselves by caring for each other. Faith that God will bless us to prepare us for the lean years, and that God will be with us in the lean years. And faith that the years of plenty will come back.

Rabbi Leslie Gordon