The Hardest Mitzvah?

Behar By :  Lewis Warshauer Posted On May 15, 2004 / 5764

Which of the mitzvot of the Torah is the most difficult to observe? The prohibition on coveting? Or, perhaps, being forbidden to gossip? Each of those choices represents a never-ending challenge. One is supposed to avoid ever coveting or gossiping. When viewed in terms of frequency, the mitzvah that begins this week’s parashah could be seen as easier to perform. The sabbatical year, or shmittah, falls only once every seven years. Yet it could be the most difficult. During that year, farmers must not plant or harvest. Refraining from planting or harvesting for an entire year seems highly risky. If there is not enough reserve food from prior years, people will starve; surely the Torah does not want people to endanger their lives. Anticipating this concern, the Torah addresses it:

You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep my rules, that you may live upon the land in security; the land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill, and in security you shall live upon it. And should you ask, “What are we to eat in the seventh year, if may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” I will ordain My blessings for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. (Leviticus 25:18-21)

These verses twice mention living on the land in security. However, the notion of being secure seems directly contradicted by the very nature of the shmittah system that the Torah sets up. The people are responsible for observing not just this particular agricultural matter, but all of the mitzvot. It would take a nation of extraordinarily pious people to achieve a secure result. Saadiah Gaon (882-942; Egypt, Babylon) suggests a solution to this problem. He re-reads “that you may live upon the land in security” as “on the land, you are secure in Me.” The people’s goal is not to be secure on the land; it is to be secure in God; that is, depending on God to provide security.

In a sense, much of the discussion above is moot. The laws of shmittah apply only in the land of Israel, and a number of authoritative opinions have declared the system inoperable in the modern State. Yet the lesson remains current. Uncertainty is a constant. Individuals and nations receive no guarantees of security. Most of the residents are not farmers, and so do not even have the ability to refrain from cultivating crops in certain years. What we can do is to cultivate ourselves. We can cultivate a sense of security in God’s presence. An intense cultivation is required, because for most people God’s hand in the world is not manifest. That cultivation consists of, to quote the above passage in the Torah, the observance and keeping of God’s laws and rules. It is a classic mode in Judaism not to wait for a feeling of God’s presence before following God’s ways, but to follow in those ways in order to create that presence.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.