Behar means “at the mountain,” referring to Mount Sinai, the site of the Giving of the Torah. The first verse in this parashah reads, “And God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying….” Now, as we all know, the bulk of the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers was given at Mount Sinai, so why is this fact suddenly emphasized? There is evidently something about the content of this parashah that is more intrinsically bound up with Mount Sinai than the rest of the Torah—but what is it?

As a matter of fact, the opening content of the parashah seems almost antithetical to the people’s exalted spiritual state at Mount Sinai. Let us recall that Mount Sinai was the scene of what was arguably the most intense Divine revelation ever experienced by any nation or individual in history, when the Torah was given. Here, as well, the bulk of the Torah’s laws were explained in detail, as God communicated with Moses over a period of almost a full year. At the foot of the mountain, the Tabernacle was first set up, in which God again revealed His presence to His people in the heavenly fire that consumed the daily sacrifices on an ongoing basis. In short, it was at this exalted mountain that our people attained the most sublime spiritual heights, thereby being freed from the confines of mundane existence and human experience.

In contrast, the commandments and human concerns that open parashat Behar are quite mundane. The injunction to refrain from working the land in the seventh year entailed grappling with very practical, material matters; the Torah itself seems to acknowledge this as it addresses the skeptical question, “If you should wonder, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year?’”1 From there, until the end of the parashah, the subject matter gets progressively further from the spiritual heights we associate with Mount Sinai. We are told that should we not refrain from agricultural pursuits during the seventh year, we will eventually be forced to sell our assets, then our inheritance, then our home, then to borrow on interest. If we do not stop this downward spiral of spiritual descent, we will ultimately have to sell ourselves as slaves to a fellow Jew, then to a gentile, and then as an attendant in the service of idolatry.2 The depths to which a human being can sink in defiance of God’s law stand in sharp contrast to the sublime images evoked by Mount Sinai.

The answer to this conundrum is, of course, that this contrast is intentional, that the striking reference to Mount Sinai that constitutes the beginning and name of this parashah is meant to inspire us and instruct us how to overcome the darkness of a world that encourages and promotes the skeptical notions and degenerate materialism detailed in the rest of the parashah.

On our own, we are indeed incapable of elevating our environment, since we are “stuck” within it, functioning as a part of it. Nature follows the immutable laws of cause and effect, of biological, psychological, and sociological determinism, and every aspect of our lives is subject to these laws. As such, we are prisoners within nature, and, in the sages’ words, “a prisoner cannot free himself from his own imprisonment.”3 Only a force from without can release someone who is locked within.

It is the Torah—our link to God’s transcendent, infinite will—that endows us with the ability to overcome the limitations of nature and the natural mentalities of our environment. The spiritual bond we forge with God through studying the Torah and observing its commandments affords us the transcendent “strength” necessary to break out of the downward cycle of spiritual degeneration. Thus, parashat Behar opens with an allusion to the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Yet, it is not enough to possess this inner strength; we have to be able to channel it into our lives in order to make use of it. In order to channel Divine strength, we have to be selfless, transparent, and devoid of any desire for self-aggrandizement. This ability, too, we draw from the fact that God gave the Torah on Mount Sinai.


By naming this parashah with the single word Behar (“at the mountain”) rather than with the full phrase Behar Sinai (“at Mount Sinai”), Jewish tradition has chosen to emphasize the fact that the Torah was given on a mountain, rather than emphasize what mountain it was given on.

Yet, we are told in the Midrash that God chose to give the Torah on Mount Sinai because it was the lowest—i.e., humblest—mountain.4 But if God meant to teach us humility, logic would insist that He give the Torah in a valley, or at most on level ground. What is the paradox implied in the lowest of mountains?

Although the importance of humility and self-abnegation before God’s will cannot be overemphasized, integral to serving God is also a certain measure of pride.5 A totally selfless person will feel powerless when he encounters the challenges, doubts, cynicism, and mockery of a world that obscures Godliness. After all, what credibility does he have to stand up against these and oppose them? Hence, we must all be “mountains”; we must master the art of asserting ourselves as the representatives of God on earth. This lesson is so fundamental, so important, that the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, opens with it, as if to imply that our fulfillment of all the laws that follow depends upon internalizing the awareness that we must never be ashamed in the face of scoffers, but boldly assert our commitment to God’s laws at all times.

Still, personal pride—assuming the credit for our accomplishments—has no place in Judaism. The constant awareness and consciousness of God that Judaism requires us to maintain does not allow us any aggrandizement of personal dignity or self-importance. The pride we are to feel is God’s pride: the recognition that we are charged with His mission. This is the source of our dignity and the impudence we must manifest in order to affront the cherished notions of the natural order. In fact, it is precisely true self-abnegation that enables us to exhibit true self-assertion: when we have lost all sense of ego, we are no longer aware of ourselves, including our self-abnegation; our consciousness of self has been supplanted by our consciousness of God. We are no longer “us”; we are God acting through us. Thus, the parashah is named Behar and not Behar Sinai, reflecting the fact that total humility annihilates even the consciousness of our own humility (Sinai), leaving only Divine self-assertion (Behar).

Thus, the mountain of choice for the Giving of the Torah was the most modest one, Mount Sinai—a mountain, indeed, but a mountain of absolute humility.6