The Messages of Shemita–Thoughts on Parshat Behar

This week’s Torah portion describes the laws of Shemita (the Sabbatical year), as the verses state, “And the Lord 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 Lord You may sow your field for six years…But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard.” (Vayikra 25:1-4) Although the mitzvah of Shemita occurs once in seven years and is seemingly applicable only in an agricultural society, in fact the mitzvah and the various halachot associated with Shemita are a fundamental part of Jewish life. Shemita is so integral that in next week’s portion, Parshat Bechukotai, the verses describe the consequence of the nation’s failure to abide by Shemitah and other mitzvot in the Land of Israel: Exile. The verses write, “And you, I will scatter among the nations … and your land will be desolate … Then the land will be appeased for all its sabbaticals during all the years of its desolation…All the years of its desolation it will rest, whatever it did not rest during your sabbaticals when you dwelled upon it.” (Vayikra 26:33-35) Similarly, the Rabbis in the Talmud write, “For the sin of neglecting shemita and yovel — exile comes upon the world.” (Shabbat 33a) What is the deeper meaning of the obligation of Shemita? Why is the failure to practice it so severe that it leads to exile from the Land of Israel?

Maimonides describes the two practical implementations of the mitzvah of Shemita as follows: “It is a positive commandment to rest from performing agricultural work or work with trees in the Sabbatical year…When a person performs any labor upon the land or with trees during this year, he nullifies the observance of this positive commandment and violates a negative commandment…”(Laws of Shemita 1:1) In addition to the prohibition of actively cultivating the land, the second dimension of this mitzvah is that a person must also relinquish and nullify his ownership of the produce which grows in his fields, thereby allowing all to freely partake of the bounty which grows in his fields during the Shemita year (ibid. 4:24).

In the work Sefer HaChinuch, a commentary and elucidation of the 613 Commandments, there are several explanations cited as to the reason and rationale for these two main acts associated with Shemita. The first is that with the command to relinquish one’s field and produce to others once every seven years, there will be instilled within the nation a broader concern for the needs of one’s fellow man – in all spheres. Secondly, the relinquishing of the field will serve as a potent reminder of the fact that all that the land produces is not only through man’s effort, but is brought to fruition through God’s Hand as governed by His laws of nature. Finally, through the act of resting during the seventh year and not cultivating his land and livelihood, man is exhibiting full faith and trust in God to provide for his needs (Mitzvah Number 84). In his lecture series “Philosophy of Halacha”, Rabbi Chaim Navon quotes the Tumim who further supports the Sefer HaChinuch’s points. He writes, “Through [the Sabbatical year] the Jew will understand that our days on the earth are like a shadow, and that we are as strangers like all of our forefathers, as tenants, and the earth and the fullness thereof are the Lord’s. And he will understand that human perfection does not consist of amassing possessions … And this is the Sabbatical year, a year of God’s favor, during which man will cast his idols of silver, and say no more to the work of our hands – the world and all that belongs to us – You are our gods, for money will then be considered as naught, and riches will be of no benefit on the day of wrath.” (Tumim, Hoshen Mishpat, 67, no. 1, With this in mind, according to the Sefer HaChinuch and the Tumim, the Shemita year is not simply a year of rest from toil; rather the mitzvah is designed to re-instil and reinforce fundamental concepts of Jewish living — faith and trust in God, respect and care for others, and the understanding that there is more to life than the pursuit of wealth and riches.

Now that we have established the lessons of the mitzvah of Shemitah, we are still left with our last remaining question: Why does the failure to observe Shemita — and to intake these messages — result in the harsh punishment of exile from the Land of Israel?

In his work Gold from the Land of Israel, Rabbi Chanan Morrison cites an enlightening explanation from the teachings of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook which discusses the national mission of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel as it relates to this question. He writes: “There is, however, a unique reason for the Jewish people to live in the Land of Israel. They need to dwell together in the Land so that there will be a nation in the world upon whom God’s honor rests; a nation for whom divine providence is revealed in its history and circumstances; a nation that will be a source for all peoples to absorb knowledge of God and His ways. Their goal is to demonstrate that divine morality can fill an entire nation — a morality that enlightens not only the private lives of individuals, but also guides the public paths of nations… The nation must recognize its special mission as God’s people living in His land.”(Gold from the Land of Israel, pg. 218) The purpose of the Jewish homeland is not simply to serve as a haven from the waves of Anti-Semitism which sweep the globe, nor is it just a means through which we hope to stem the rising tide of intermarriage. Though these are noble and necessary, there is a loftier goal– to demonstrate that divine morality can fill an entire nation. That is why the messages of Shemita are so fundamental to Jewish life. Faith and trust in God, respect and care for others, and the understanding that there is more to life then the accumulation of wealth and riches are not just lauded character traits, but they are essential ideas and principles which must be internalized in order to enable the Jewish people to reach the spiritual heights demanded of the nation of Israel.

Conversely, when Shemita is not fulfilled –when the nation is devoid of the values that Shemita is meant to impart– the natural consequence is exile. Rav Kook explains that the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel is oftentimes a direct outcome of our failure to actualize this true potential as the nation of God; throughout our history, exile came upon us when we mistakenly wished to be a people like all others.“At that point, the Jewish people required exile. They needed to wander among the nations, stripped of all national assets. During this exile, they discovered that they are different and distinct from all other peoples. They realized that the essence of their nationhood contains a special quality; and that special quality is God’s Name that is associated with them.” (ibid. pg. 219). Paradoxically, it is in our exile and dispersion that the Jewish people have the ability to re-discover our distinct national mission and identity.

In our times, with the return of the Jewish people to their land and the re-establishment of the State of Israel, we again have the opportunity to fulfil our national task of serving as a light unto the nations. It is once again our mission to “demonstrate that divine morality can fill an entire nation.” In a little over four months’ time we will be entering a new Shemita year, may we merit the strength to live up to these lofty goals and through our actions expand the awareness of God’s presence in the world.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator. He is a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves where he serves as a battalion Rabbi, and is the author of the book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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