This weeks’ Torah portion, Behar (English for ‘on the mount’), begins with the commandment of Shemitta – sabbatical year, whose essence is: “Six years shall you sow your field, and six years shall you prune your vineyard and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Shabbat shabbaton…” (Leviticus 25:3-4)
The idea of a rest day, once a week, is accepted in many civilizations around the world in the 21st century – for us it is Saturday-Shabbat, for others Sunday or Friday etc.
What is the reason for this idea, for this commandment of resting once every seven years for a full year? Yes, it is true the commandment only speaks of those who make their living working the land, but I believe a broader message can be learned here. Many reasons have been proposed for Shemitta.
Maimonides, the Rambam, explains what he feels stands behind this biblical commandment: “Compassion and favor towards all people…” (Guide to the Perplexed, part 3 chapter 39).
So, for Maimonides this is a moral command that enables us to see the other people in the world beyond ourselves, our families, our community and our nation. Another explanation could be that this is a way for each and every one of us to understand that the land which produces fruit for us year after year does not really belong to us.
These two different ideas are what I believe we should focus on in the next few months towards the upcoming Shemitta year beginning on Rosh Hashana (Tishre 5775 – September 25th 2014).
I live in the Arava region in Israel where I serve many people and communities that make a living by working the land in agriculture. We do not need to be farmers in order to focus for a year on the same idea we focus on every Shabbat: that we are guests here on earth.
Our parasha presents Shemitta as a commandment between man and God, referring to it as “Shabbat” – “The land shall observe a Shabbat unto God” (Leviticus 25:2). This is very similar to our weekly Shabbat as it appears in the Ten Commandments: “Six days you shall work and perform all your labor; but the seventh day is a Shabbat unto the Lord your God…” (Shemot 20:8-9)
The mitzvah of Shemitta is followed by that of Yovel, the Jubilee year, which includes two special laws: the restoration of land to its owners and the return of indentured slaves to their families: “You shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom in the land for all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, and you shall return, each person to his estate… and the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with Me.” (Leviticus 25:23)
Yes, of course we do not own slaves and some of us do not own land, but Shabbat and Shemitta and Yovel are all part of a process we can go through in our spiritual journey. The year of Shemitta emphasizes that we do not have ownership over the land; the land belongs to God, and all of us are guests; we never have full ownership. Our parasha seems to combine two aspects: the religious aspect of mitzvot between humans and God, and the social impact of mitzvot between humans and one another.
Anat Gov, Israeli playwright and scriptwriter, who died Dec. 2012 of cancer, described in her last interview (just days before her death) her understanding of the idea of Shemitta. She said that while some spiritual masters support and encourage the idea of detachment every hour of every day of every week, all year long, our tradition tells us it is natural and very human to accumulate stuff, possessions, as long as once in a while, once a week, or every seven years, we are able to let go and detach.
We are only a few days after celebrating Israel’s independence and we are in the midst of counting the omer and the days between the end of being slaves and receiving the Torah. Every member of Am Yisrael was once a slave in Egypt. Since we are familiar with the situation of slavery, we have a moral obligation to let our servants go free in the seventh year. In this modern age, who are our slaves? Who or what are we slaves too? What should we let go of?
About the Author: Rabbi Benjie Gruber was raised in Beersheva, after his family made aliya from Chicago. He attended the Netiv Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and later combined military service in the Israeli Defense Forces with advanced college level courses at the Hesder Yeshiva in Yerucham, of which he was a founding member. Under the auspices of the Jewish Agency, Benjie taught Jewish Studies in the former Soviet Union. Thereafter he spent 2 years in Portland, Oregon, teaching Judaism to all ages and denominations. While studying at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, Benjie earned an M.A. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Benjy is the 8th generation of rabbis in his family. Benjie is in Canada working as Sabbatical Rabbi at Temple Har Zion in Toronto and as scholar in residence for ARZA Canada, speaking of Israel and Reform Judaism in Israel, all across Canada.