Getting Past Ourselves

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Behar
Getting Past Ourselves

This week's Parsha begins by talking about the Mitzvah of the Sabbatical year. One verse reads, "The Land will observe a Sabbath rest for God" (Lv. 25:2). Let us contrast this verse with another in order to glean an insight.

In Parshas Ki-Sisa it says that God said to Moshe, "Now you, speak to the Children of Israel, saying: 'However, you must observe My Sabbaths, etc...' (Ex. 31:13). Why, in this verse, does God stress that it is Moshe specifically that must tell the Jewish people about the Sabbath? Isn't it obvious that Moshe, as the Law Giver, should be the one to inform the Jews about the commandments?

The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah, 1:28) says that when Moshe saw the burdens of the Jewish People in Egypt (Ex. 2:11), he went to Pharaoh and told him that if one does not give his slave one day a week to rest, then the slave will die, and the master will lose everything. Moshe said to Pharaoh that this is what is going to happen with his Jewish slaves.

Pharaoh acquiesced and said to Moshe that he should pick a day for the Jews to rest. Moshe chose Saturday. The Tur (Orach Chaim, Hilchos Shabbos, chap. 281) says that, later on, when Moshe heard that they were commanded to keep Saturdays as their Sabbath, he was happy because he realized that he had chosen the right day for them to rest.

This is the meaning behind Shabbos morning's liturgical passage of the Silent Prayer when it says, "Moshe rejoiced in the GIFT of his PORTION." In other words, Moshe was happy with the GIFT of Shabbos that HaShem had given them, because Shabbos was Moshe's PORTION that he chose for them to rest.

The Kedushas Levi (Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) says that this is why God stressed that it was specifically Moshe that must inform the Jewish People about observing the Sabbath. It is because Moshe already preceded God's command about keeping Shabbos by instructing the Jews to rest on Saturdays when they were slaves. Since Moshe was already connected to and responsible for the Jews keeping Shabbos in Egypt, how apropos it was for Moshe to be the one to officially inform the Jews about the commandment of Shabbos observance.

However, it is precisely because the Jewish People's first introduction to resting on Shabbos was a means of escaping the brutal torture of Egyptian slavery, that God added the word, "Observe MY Sabbaths". The message being that the Jewish People should ultimately keep the Sabbath altruistically, just because God said so, and not for ulterior motives such as taking a break from a rigorous week.

The Berditchever Rebbe continues to explain that this is the meaning behind the commandment, in our portion, regarding the Sabbatical year when it says, "The Land will observe a Sabbath rest FOR GOD." It is because the way of the world is to plow a field for one year, and then leave it fallow for the next year so that it will produce even more the following year (See Baba Basra, chap. 3, "Chezkas HaBatim", pg. 29a).

Therefore, God cautions us to observe the Sabbatical year "FOR GOD", meaning, do it for HaShem just because He said so, and not for some personal benefit or gain that we will profit from.

Perhaps we could suggest that this is the reason why the verse mentions that God commanded us to keep the Sabbatical Year "At Mount Sinai" (Lv. 25:1). Even though it is obvious that He charged us with this Mitzvah at Sinai just like He did with regard to all the other Mitzvos, nevertheless, the verse stresses that this Mitzvah was given at Sinai (See Rashi Lv. 25:1).

Perhaps it is because the Mitzvah of Shmittah (The Sabbatical Year) teaches us to do Mitzvos idealistically, and not for some selfish reciprocation. Therefore, just like Shmittah was given at Sinai, so too were all the other Mitzvos given at Sinai, indicating, that all other commandments should also be performed selflessly.

It is also worth pointing out that it is very fitting to learn about the Mitzvah of Shmittah at this time of year when we count the Omer. There are many similarities between the seven year cycle and the seven weeks of counting. There are also correlations between the fiftieth year, Jubilee, and the fiftieth day, Shavuos (See Kli Yakar, Lv. 25:1 for an elaboration which is beyond the scope of this article).

However, for our purposes, it is most notable to mention that the Omer period is a time when we mourn the deaths of Rebbi Akiva's students (Yevamos, chap. 6, "Haba Al Yevimto", pg. 62b). The Talmud relates that the reason for their sudden deaths was because "Shelo Nahagu Kavod Zeh Lazeh" (They did not act respectfully with one another).

Obviously, this Talmudic passage is difficult to understand because how could such Torah giants lack common decency for each other? Respect is something expected and found by people on a much lower spiritual level. How could it have been missing by such spiritually great people that we mourn for?

Perhaps we could suggest, that the criticism with them was that they did not act respectfully "Zeh Lazeh", (this one for that one) meaning that when they did act with respect with each other, it was not "Lazeh", for "that one", but rather for themselves with ulterior motives. Their primary motivation was to scratch the other person's back because one day I'll need him to scratch mine.

This type of philosophy is self-serving and not the standard by which we are supposed to hold ourselves to (See Avos, chap. 1, "Moshe Kibeil", Mishnah 3, the opinion of Antignos Ish Socho). This is why it is imperative to learn about Shmitta during this time of year, because it helps us focus on doing things for the right reasons.

One method that we could adopt which could help us do without thinking "What's in it for me", would be to pick a Mitzvah that we could do for somebody else without letting him, or anybody else, know about it. In such a situation, there is no expectation for a "kick back". This would fix the mistake of Rebbi Akiva's students and prepare us to properly receive the Torah on Shavuos.

So, may we all be blessed with the ability to get past ourselves, think about others selflessly, and live up to the Torah's expectation, creating a beautiful society to live within.