Mountains Beyond Mountain

This week’s Torah portion, Behar , starts,

God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Or in other words, why is this Mitzvah getting top billing at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai?  I think there is yet another even simpler question that can be asked. What is the significance of this happening at a mountain.

This question reminds me of a classic story of the mythic town of Chelm. There we read:

Once upon a time, in the little village of Chelm, the people decided that they needed a new cemetery.  The population of the city had expanded, people had begun to build larger homes, and the need to find a new location for the townspeople’s eternal resting place.  They looked, and looked, and could not find a suitable location.  They called a meeting of the wise people of the town and for seven days, debated the issue.

At the end of the seven days, the people reached a conclusion: they would move them out and that was on the southern side of the city and utilize the space created by moving the mountain as the new cemetery. This of course, raised a new question for the people: how does one move a mountain?  They debated the issue for another seven days.  Finally, the wise man of Chelm came up with an idea. “we will all rise, all men of the town as one – united in spirit and body – and together we will move the mountain.” The townspeople quickly accepted this “wise” advice. Quickly, all able bodied men – young and old, rushed to the mountain on the southern side of the city.

A crowd quickly gathered and surrounded the mountain.  The men pushed and shoved and leaned and tried as hard as they could, but they could not move the mountain. 10 minutes went by, allowing the participants to catch their breath before they strenuously tried again.  Again, they pushed and strained and shoved but could not move the mountain.  At this point, the menfolk of Chelm were drenched in sweat and beginning to get uncomfortable.  The men removed their shirts, depositing them on the side, in preparation for their next try. As all the men struggled, a group of petty thieves watched the men in earnest.  They quickly came with small carts and as the men of Chelm  strained to move the mountain, the thieves stole all the shirts and quickly disappeared from the town.

After an hour of straining, one of the wise men discovered that his shirt was missing.  Soon, all the men discovered that their shirts were missing.  They began to wonder what was going on.  The wise man of Chelm surmised the answer. “We must have been successful” he told them. “We must have moved the mountain so far that we cannot even see the place where we left our shirts.” Upon hearing the explanation, the people began to applaud, cheer and even break out into dance over their success.( As retold by Rabbi Shabsi HaKohein Yudelovitch)

They were foolish to think that losing their jackets were a sign of their success, but they were not foolish in looking for a metric for success.  Where in Chelm they were looking for room for their cemetery in Behar through the institution of shmittah we are looking to create room for the underprivileged and economically marginalized parts of our society. But still I ask, why is this message delivered at a mountain?

When I think about the unending issue of addressing the needs of the poor I think about the heroic effort of Dr Paul Farmer in bringing health care to rural Haiti. In is the award-winning book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Tracy Kidder he described Farmer as “the man who would cure the world”. There he writes:

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow their example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.( Mountains Beyond Mountains)

The book’s title comes from a Haitian proverb, which is usually translated as: “Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” According to Farmer, a better translation is: “Beyond mountains there are mountains.” The phrase expresses something fundamental about the spirit and the scale and the difficulty of Farmer’s work. The Haitian proverb, by the way, is also a pretty accurate description of the topography of a lot of Haiti.

To return to Rashi’s  question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” What we learn from Farmer in terms of health care is the same as in terms of access to food and other issues of poverty, beyond this mountain there are more mountains. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, ” It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” ( Avot 2:16) Shmitah is an approach to dealing with poverty. The revelation of need in society is an opportunity to enact Torah in this world and therefore its own revelation like that at Mount Sinai. This is similar to Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Levi when he said “ Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horev (Sinai)” ( Avot 6:2) This is to say that beyond this mountain ( Sinai) there are more mountains.

 

 

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