The Torah portion of Behar begins with the mitzvah of Shemitah, the Sabbatical year:

And the L-rd spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the L-rd. You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce, But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath to the L-rd; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard.1

Noting that the words “on Mount Sinai” seem superfluous, Rashi asks, “What particular relevance does the subject of Shemitah have to Mount Sinai? Weren’t all the commandments given from Sinai?” He explains that this choice of wording teaches us that just like Shemitah’s general principles and details were all stated at Sinai, likewise, all of the commandments—even those that are only briefly mentioned in the Torah and whose details were conveyed by our rabbis in the Oral Law—were also stated by G‑d at Mount Sinai.

While indeed an important teaching, it begs the question: why specifically use the mitzvah of Shemitah to teach this lesson? Of all 613 commandments, why is this one the prototypical example?

Among the many explanations given for this is one that also clears up a seeming contradiction:

It appears that G‑d tells us, “When you come to Israel, the land must rest – Shemitah!”

Alright, as soon as we get to the land we will have a year of rest.

But, no! The next verse says, “Plant! For six years, you will sow your field, prune your vineyards, and gather your harvest.”

Wait. Why didn’t You say that first?

So, what comes first: working the land or letting it rest?

Benzion vs. Ivan

The answer to this question is best understood in the context of a beautiful story about the Fourth Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, known as the Rebbe Maharash, whose birthday is often commemorated around the time of year when the portion of Behar is read.

When the Rebbe Maharash’s two sons, Rabbi Shalom DovBer, known as “the Rashab” (who later became the Fifth Rebbe), and his brother Rabbi Zalman Aharon, known as “the Raza” were children, they once engaged in a heated conversation about the difference between one who lives a life of spirituality and one who lives a life of materialism.

Sitting nearby, the Rebbe Maharash overheard the discussion and decided he must instruct these two very special boys, one of whom was destined to grow up to be a Rebbe.

Calling them over, he asked them to summon Benzion, a simple Jew who worked in the Rebbe’s home as a valet of sorts. When Benzion stood before him, the Rebbe Maharash asked, “Benzion, did you eat today?”

“Thank G‑d, I did,” answered Benzion.

“Why do you eat?” asked the Rebbe.

“I eat so that I can live,” came the reply.

“And why do you live?” asked the Rebbe.

“I live to serve G‑d,” said Benzion, letting out a sigh, as if to express that maybe his service of G‑d was not as complete and sublime as it could be.

The Rebbe then called for Ivan, a non-Jewish handyman working in his courtyard.

“Ivan, did you eat today?” asked the Rebbe.

“Yes!” Ivan answered.

“And why do you eat?” asked the Rebbe.

“I need to eat so I can live,” Ivan responded.

“And why do you need to live?” asked the Rebbe.

“Life is all about enjoying a good drink of vodka and a good meal!” came the reply.

The Rebbe Maharash thanked Ivan. The lesson was clear: You can live like Benzion, who eats to live, and lives to serve G‑d, or you can live the life of Ivan, and merely eat so that you can eat (and drink) some more.

The Torah begins the portion of Behar by saying, “When you come into the Holy Land, your first order of business must be the Sabbatical year.”

What does the Sabbatical year look like? It’s a year where the land lies fallow. You don’t plant, you don’t reap, you don’t harvest; your field is open to the poor.

What do farmers do during that year? They spend their time studying Torah. It’s a once-in-seven-year opportunity to devote ourselves to G‑d, to have a spiritual year. It is a taste of the Messianic era.

This is similar to the weekly cycle, working six days and resting on Shabbat.

The question is: do we work six days so that we can rest on Shabbat? Or do we rest on Shabbat so that we can work for six days? Is the rest and spiritual bliss of Shabbat the ultimate goal, or is it the productivity of the work week, the act of building G‑d’s world?

A Seventh Spigot

I once heard a beautiful teaching on a related note from a dear friend, Nissim Katzin. He shared this teaching in the name of his illustrious father, Rabbi Shlomo Katzin, of blessed memory, a great rabbi who lived in Jerusalem many years ago.

If you tell a person that whatever he earns comes from G‑d, and that working harder or longer hours will not increase his income, he may argue, “That’s factually incorrect! If I work for 10 hours at $25 an hour, I will earn $250. If I work for another two hours, I will earn another $50. How can you say I’m not making more money?”

In truth, however, he would be wrong. Rabbi Katzin explained this idea using the analogy of the Russian-style samovar, the hot water urn often found in the synagogues of old. This urn had multiple spigots around it, allowing several people to use it at once.

Imagine one day that a fellow comes along and discovers that the urn is empty. “You know,” he says, “our urn has only six spigots. If we had added a seventh spigot, we would still have hot water!”

This guy would undoubtedly be called a fool.

The same is true of the Divine blessing of earning a living. G‑d determines how much we’ll make each week. We can take our livelihood through six spigots—six days of the week—and have a seventh, which is a day of spiritual bliss, or we can choose to take it through seven spigots, and forego the spirituality. Either way, the amount we earn does not change.

Back to our question: what is our focus? Work so we can rest, or rest so we can work?

The answer, of course, is that the focus, the primary objective, must be the Sabbatical year, the spirituality, devoting ourselves to higher and more sublime matters.

How do we get to that seventh, sublime year? By working for the six preceding ones.

Divine Priorities

I recall a pivotal teaching that I had the privilege of hearing from the Rebbe. It was during a time when the topic of feminism and the emphasis on being a “career woman” were prevalent and heated, often at the expense of women who were homemakers and cared for their children, as they were looked down upon.

The Rebbe’s message was clear: valuing one’s career over raising a family is an erroneous misconception. In fact, the opposite is true. Why do we work? Why do we pursue careers? The purpose is so that we can marry and establish a family, to create a sacred life with a spouse, children, and grandchildren. That, fundamentally, is the essence of life: raising the next generation.

We work to support our families. Sometimes, both partners must work due to circumstances, not because work is paramount, but because family is. The moment we prioritize our careers over our families, however, we lose sight of everything meaningful.

My sister, Mrs. Chani Friedman, is married to the well-known Rabbi Manis Friedman, a famous author and speaker, whose lectures span the globe. Together, they are blessed with fourteen children, thank G‑d.

Addressing a group of quite militant feminists many years ago, Rabbi Friedman was challenged by someone in the audience who demanded that before he began his lecture, he must confess that his wife was merely a homemaker. “Actually,” Rabbi Friedman gently corrected her, “my wife runs a home for unwanted children. Fourteen of them, to be precise.” Deeply apologetic, the challenger expressed admiration for the rabbi’s wife.

“It’s true, the children are our children,” Rabbi Friedman continued, “but we asked around, and no one else wants them!”

When entering the Land of Israel, is it about pursuing a career or nurturing your family? Is it about being a farmer or about living a spiritually elevated life?

In the words of the Rebbe Maharash, are you eating merely to eat more? Or are you eating so you can serve G‑d?

That is why the laws of Shemitah, the Sabbatical year, are chosen to impart the lesson that all of G‑d’s commandments originate from Mount Sinai. From Shemitah we learn the proper prioritization of everything truly significant in our everyday lives.

Yes, we are farmers. Yes, we have careers. Yes, we have to work hard. Yet it’s all about the greater purpose; it’s about serving G‑d. It’s about building a family and making G‑d’s world a better and more G‑dly place.

May we merit to reach the ultimate Sabbatical year—the seventh millennium—the Ultimate Redemption, with the arrival of our righteous Moshiach, may it be speedily in our days. Amen.