The story is told of a venerable chassid of a generation ago who once had business in the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world. After taking the elevator up over 100 floors to the Observation Deck and looking down at the microscopic people and cars below, he was asked, “Nu? What do you say to that, rabbi? Rather impressive, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is indeed very impressive,” he agreed, “But it taught me something even more important.”

“And what is that?”

“It taught me that if we lift ourselves up just a little higher, we can see how small the world really is.”

“On the mountain” is the name of this week’s Torah portion, Behar. The opening lines tell us that “on the mountain of Sinai” G‑d gave us the laws of Shemitah, the Sabbatical year. “Six years you may sow your field … prune your vineyard, and gather the produce, but the seventh year it shall be a Sabbatical to G‑d. There shall be no planting, sowing, or reaping.”1

But what is the connection between the Sabbatical year and Mount Sinai?

The Sabbatical year for the farmer is similar to Shabbat for all of us. We work for six days and then rest on the seventh. In the same way that Shabbat is a much needed day for us to rest after a hard week’s work, the soil too needs to rest and lie fallow for a while. Then, it will regenerate and come back stronger in the future.

But Shabbat is not only a day of physical rest and relaxation. It is a day when we can devote ourselves to the spiritual pursuits we may not have time or headspace for during the hectic work week. Similarly, the Sabbatical year affords us the opportunity to switch off for a longer period so that we, too, can become less immersed in the physical world and devote ourselves to loftier pursuits.

In a pastoral letter to the Jewish community in the lead up to Rosh Hashanah, 5725 (1965), the Rebbe writes that taking time out to focus on the spiritual and the sacred helps ensure that we don’t become completely engulfed by materialism.

Lending refinement to our physical activities can help us realign body and soul. When the body is only interested in satisfying its material cravings and the soul is on a different wavelength altogether, the human being is out of sync—there is inner conflict and tension. Shabbat and the Sabbatical year afford us the opportunity to realign our outer physicality and inner spirituality and, thereby, rediscover a sense of harmony and wholesomeness within ourselves.

When body and soul are in proper alignment, we become healthier human beings. Denying one in favor of the other may be gratifying in the short term, but will inevitably cause long-term turmoil and discontent. Life must be lived holistically, with body and soul in synchrony.

This is where the mountain comes in.

A mountain is an elevation of land. The plains, which are level, suddenly move upward. The mountain is simply the earth rising and elevating. But what a powerful lesson it offers! We really can raise ourselves higher. We can lift ourselves above the mundane. We can rise above the earthly and the material, far above the madding crowd, the noise and tumult. Earthy materialism can be elevated. It is possible.

The mountain reflects the conviction that we are not earthbound forever. We are not compelled to become immersed in materialism, to sink into decadence. We can raise ourselves up. How encouraging!

I remember back in my yeshivah days in Montreal, Canada, sitting at a farbrengen with our respected teacher and mentor, the late Rabbi Zeev “Volf” Greenglass. He waxed eloquent - and amusingly - on the difference between human beings and animals. While the Torah cautions us to be kind to animals, we still believe that human beings are the centerpiece of creation, responsible for fulfilling G‑d’s vision for the world.

He contrasted the cow in the field who stands horizontally, and thus only looks downward, with humans who stand vertically and can more easily look upward. The cow spends all day looking at the grass below. That’s all she knows. As humans, however, we can look upwards and aspire higher. And when we do, we realize how small the world below us really is, and aspire higher still.