The Torah portion of Behar opens1 with the laws of Shemittah , the Sabbatical year. These commandments were to be performed after the Jewish people were settled in Eretz Yisrael and leading a natural lifestyle, as opposed to the miraculous lifestyle they enjoyed in the desert. The portion goes on to describe an unsettling situation that can result from leading a natural existence: because of impoverishment, a Jew can be — Heaven forfend — sold to a member of an idolatrous cult.2

However, the title of the portion, Behar, “on the mountain,” seems to contradict the above. Mt. Sinai implies the most supreme of levels, a place where G‑d gave the Torah to the Jewish people, a place where they were uplifted completely above the mundane.

As its title is characteristic of an entire Torah portion, how can Behar embrace such a lowly state?

The purpose of giving the Torah on Mt. Sinai was not so that Jews would remain totally divorced from the physical world. Rather, they were to enter a “settled land,” living a natural lifestyle, and with the power and might of Torah overwhelm the limitations of nature.

Thus, when Torah commands us to let the land lie fallow during the Sabbatical year, the Jew will do so, notwithstanding the fact that one may not rely on a miracle.3 The Jew is able to do this because he knows that though questions such as “what will we eat”4 may arise, the Torah gives him the strength to overcome the limitations of nature, so that “G‑d commands His blessings in the sixth year.”5 As a result, even before the Sabbatical year has begun, the Jew sees that he has “grain for three years.”6

It is similar when one has a heathen master. The person might think that since his master does all types of forbidden and degrading things, and because according to the Torah he is under obligation to his master, he too must act in such a manner.7 The Torah, however, enjoins him8 from such behavior. The reason is that with regard to matters of Judaism — “Sinai” — no one has dominion over a Jew.

This thought is echoed in the saying of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who states:9 “There are three crowns — the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship; but the crown of a good name surpasses them all.” As explained by many commentators,10 the “crown of a good name” refers to the good name that a person acquires through his good deeds.

At first glance, this comment, emanating as it does from R. Shimon, seems puzzling. R. Shimon, after all, dedicated himself wholly to Torah, “Torah was his occupation,”11 for he deemed the study of Torah to be of supreme importance. How, then, could he possibly say that the crown of a good name is superior to the crown of Torah? He says this because the ultimate purpose of Torah is to inspire good deeds,12 deeds that result in the sanctification of the world. Thus, the result of Torah study, “the crown of a good name,” is that which “surpasses them all.”

But if this is indeed so, how was it that R. Shimon occupied himself to such a degree in Torah study that it prevented him from concentrating more fully on the performance of good deeds?

It is axiomatic that “One who is in a state of imprisonment cannot set himself free.”13 Were Jews to perform good deeds while remaining entirely within the world, they would not be able to lift the world out of its constrictions. They must therefore be able to lift themselves above the world. Only then will they be successful in uplifting the world as well.

This is accomplished within all Jews by those individuals for whom Torah study is almost their sole occupation. R. Shimon’s Torah study was the height of selflessness. He was ready to forego the greatest crown of all in order to serve as an example to other Jews, showing them how they too could transcend the world through Torah study, and thereby cause “Sinai” to descend within the natural world.

Based on Likkutei Sichos , Vol. XVII, pp. 303-307.