“The seventh year approaches…”
These words are mentioned in the Torah in order to ensure that one does not withhold lending money to someone in need due to a worry that the debt will soon have to be forgiven.
The Shemitta year, even more than Shabbat every week, is about faith in Gd. The observance of Shemitta is so central to Judaism that it is introduced in this week’s Torah reading, immediately following the Ten Commandments at Sinai.
Every commandment in the Torah has to be studied from several angles. There is the act itself, and all the complicated rules and regulations that are part and parcel of keeping the commandment properly. There is the personal-spiritual side of the fulfillment, how this specific deed affects an individual’s character to make him more Gdly. And there is the meaning WITHIN the fulfillment of the mitzvah – the societal goal that this particular deed achieves in this physical world -which has to be appreciated in order to make any critical decisions, such as how to prioritize in case of a clash between different commandments. The social “purpose” that a mitzvah accomplishes is important also when a mitzvah truly cannot be kept, such that we substitute prayer for the sacrifices in the Temple
We are reminded of the societal importance of mitzvot in the rebukes that in the books of the Prophets, when Gd clearly states, “I don’t need your prayers, you who step on the rights of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers.”
Shemitta, stopping or cutting back on one’s work and letting the fruit grow by themselves is about remembering that it is all from Gd. That is the personal-spiritual side. When we open our gardens to others, and don’t pull up all the weeds, we are acknowledging that if Gd wants us to have what to eat, then even if we don’t do much, we will still have what to eat. This is not how Gd wants us to live all the time, but once in while, once every 7 years to be exact, Gd says , “I’ll foot the bill.”
Often, we get caught up in the personal-spiritual meaning of the mitzvah, and also in the almost-obsessive details of how to carry out the mitzvah properly, that we forget that the “goal” of the mitzvah is of primary importance. This means that the mitzvah must be carried out to the best of one’s ability, in order to accomplish a specific goal, and not only in order to be a more spiritual, kind, considerate person.
In the case of Shemitta, the faith element gets emphasized in lectures, and the “obsessive details” get the stage when it comes to calm, respectful discussions at the rabbinate and in local shops when each resident asks the shopkeepers to provide fruit and vegetables according to their personal rabbinic decision.
But we cannot forget that Shemitta is not just about whose produce we may or may not eat. It is also about sharing food – balancing the capitalist economy with a small serving of communism – and about giving people a new shot at financial stability by removing the creditor from the back door.
The rabbis acknowledged that people are people, and instituted the Prozbul, which is a document that allows a lender to expect repayment even after the Shemittta year. Without that, people simply stopped lending money when they could not realistically expect it back before the end of the Shemitta year. But life has changed in modern times, and economically, the change on the whole is for the better.
A group of idealists started an organization called Teva Ivri, for the purpose of connecting the People of Israel to the Land of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel itself. They aim to strengthen our identity as Jewish famers, agriculturalists and consumers, by helping us learn and commit to live according to the Torah mandate to preserve and take responsibility for the physical world. Some members of Teva Ivri, led by Einat Cramer began the Shemitta Yisraelit Initiative, with representatives of businesses and organizations who shared their ideas and dreams of what Shemitta should be in the Modern State of Israel
In the case of Shemitta, the acts themselves of shemitta, or rather the inactions of cutting down the work being done and not chasing debtors, accomplish important social goals. Pacing the workload gives people a chance to reconnect with themselves their families, friends and Gd. Letting go of loans provides the disadvantaged with an opportunity to get back on their feet. The partnership of Shemitta Yisraelit with banks, employers and companies from all walks of life and government offices, in order to enable these goals to be accomplished in a society that is no longer mainly agricultural. She hopes that people in all jobs will be able to slow down their pace for a year, to enjoy the real fruit of their labours. And it is her intention that people who are in the cycle of poverty will have the year to erase their old habits, to get help from organizations in reworking their personal finances, and when the following year of hard work begins, to rebuild themselves.
At this point, there are seven government ministries working with her on instituting regulations that will enable people to take it easier next year. Employers, even in the high-pressure high tech world, are interested in finding ways to allow workers to cut back, and a least one bank is looking for ways to help people get past old debts.
This process of renewing an old mitzvah is in keeping with the Talmud’s description of the Redemption – slowly, slowly, like the sunrise. There are areas of Torah life which were neglected, forgotten or just impossible in 2,000 years of exile. The return to them, not just as individuals, but as a society and as a nation, is as illuminating as the sun coming up over the horizon.
To learn the Torah sources that are the foundation of the Shemitta Yisraelit initiative, look here: http://midreshet.org.il/PageView.aspx?id=2761&back=http%3a%2f%2fmidreshet.org.il%2fsearch.aspx%3fseries%3d17
To read more about Teva Ivri , look here : http://www.tevaivri.org.il/
To read more about the Shemitta Yisraelit initiative, look here: http://www.tevaivri.org.il/page-Awareness