I have learned and taught the verses of shemitah (sabbatical year) many times; many times I have contemplated their meaning. Now, in this season of coronavirus, I understand them differently. I imagine that when people read them this Shabbat in their cautiously reconfigured outdoors synagogues, or within the protective walls of their homes, they might appreciate them differently, too.
“Six years,” we read at the beginning of this week’s double Torah-portion, “you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield: But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord” (Leviticus, 25:3-4).
Once, the real goal of shemitah, as the Torah intended us to keep it, seemed meaningful in only an abstract way. Its goals — to reboot, refresh and re-inspire our rushed, over-worked society, and readjust our perspective and our priorities — seemed lofty and unattainable. It was implausible that our modern world could ever be so collectively suspended as to truly pause, and acknowledge in any meaningful way that we are all in the same boat, over which we have little, if any control.
It was unimaginable that we could just stop, so that the Earth could rest and heal.
But now we have.
Imagine if we could have learned what we have in the past few months — just without the illness and the loss, the loneliness and the isolation. Perhaps shemitah, despite all its modern complications could be such an opportunity.
The Torah tells us that while we may neither plant nor plow in the seventh year, “the land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill, and you shall live upon it in security” (25:19).
Lest we worry that this will not suffice, God promises to bless the crop of the sixth year: “You will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in” (25:20-22).
There are two distinct sources of food which make up for the lack of a harvest: that which grows on its own in the seventh year, and that which has been harvested and stored from the year before.
Each category of sustenance teaches a different shemitah lesson.
The spontaneously fruitful fields tell us of a gift in whose creation we have no part. “We are not really yours but God’s,” they remind us; “our fruits belong to all.” “For now,” they murmur, “you all must share.” For now, the farmer begins to understand, we also share the feeling of uncertainty that is usually the lot of the poor. But what is perhaps somewhat diminished in the form of food for the body multiplies as nourishment for the soul, as the nation learns to appreciate, to be satisfied, and together to stretch individual and collective spirits.
The second shemitah lesson is learned from the harvest of the sixth year. The granaries and barrels filled with that blessed abundance of grain and wine and oil remain the property of the farmer, unlike the fruit of the sabbatical-year fields. While the precarious feeling of being without a harvest is shared by everyone, the farmers have a safety net that is unavailable to the landless poor. The story of these storehouses is ultimately written by the farmers, and the nature of the story depends entirely on them. If the whisperings of the field have been heard, and the lesson of its fruit internalized, the farmers’ brush with vulnerability will provide them with narratives of empathy and generosity: tales of fair distribution rather than stockpiling, of keeping what one needs, while keeping in mind those who cannot glean in the field, or whose sixth year harvest was somewhat less blessed. These are the tales that become legend. The true test of whether the first lesson of equality and recognition of God has been well-learned lies in how it is applied in the second lesson. If the first is dictated by the letter of the law, this second lesson is inspired by its spirit.
Jeremiah, playing in this week’s haftarah with our now-familiar image of the fruitful tree, provides us with a commentary on the power of shemitah and its lessons:
“Blessed is he who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord alone. He shall be like a tree planted by waters, sending forth its roots by a stream: It does not sense the coming of heat, its leaves are ever fresh; it has no care in a year of drought, it does not cease to yield fruit” (Jeremiah 17:7, and see Rashi, Radak; see also: Jeremiah 17:4, 25:12, 29:10; Leviticus 26:34-35; II Chronicles 36:21).
In his re-working of this image, the fruitful tree is not the blessing awarded to a person who recognizes God behind the scenes; it is a metaphor for that very person. Only one who understands that no one can rely on man alone (Jeremiah 17:5-6) can become a person who produces the fruits upon which others can rely (see Radak on v. 5,7).
At the end of this week’s Torah reading, we hear an echo of shemitah’s two-fold sustenance.
“I will grant your rains in their season,” God promises the nation should they follow His way, “so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit… you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land… You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make room for the new” (26:4,5,10).
Although this verse speaks of a regular harvest (ibid., 5), it is described in the language of shemitah. Shemitah becomes a template for blessing, an essential component of Am Yisrael in its ideal, most beautiful form. God’s blessing is not only a reward for those who understand God’s message, it is the also the natural outcome of their deeds. The allusion to shemitah here hints that a trace of the special nature of the seventh year needs to remain even after that year has passed.
And so, as we wind down our current fifth-year furlough with all of its curses and hidden blessings, I look ahead one year’s time, by when, I pray, the worst of our current situation will be far behind us. And as that black cloud lifts and dissipates, I hope we hold on to the silver lining that remains, and together fashion from it a banner to hold up high, as we enter the seventh year.