Parshas Behar: Lessons From Shemittah

In this first of this week’s double parshios, Parshas Behar, the Torah commands us regarding Shemittah – the seventh Sabbatical year – and Yovel – the fiftieth Jubilee year.  These mitzvos fall under the special category of mitzvos ha’te’luyos ba’Aretzmitzvos that are in effect in the land of Israel, and not outside of it.  As the land of Israel is a Holy Land, under unique and special Divine Providence, more than all the other lands (Ramban to Vayikra 18:24-25), its special status is further elevated through these land-dependent mitzvos.  

And Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai, saying: דַּבֵּר אֶלבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶלהָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ, שַׁבָּת לַהSpeak 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 Hashem; for six years you may sow your field, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce; וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת, שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת, לַה’: שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרָע, וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹרand in the seventh year the land shall have a complete rest, a rest to Hashem, you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard (Vayikra 25:1-4).  

For six years the farmer diligently tends to his soil, seeding, planting, weeding, harvesting and reaping the benefits of his labor.  Working the land, the landowner is viscerally aware that the output of his fields – and his sustenance – depends, on a large part, on the efforts that he invests in his land.  And while he reaps the harvest of his work, his labor further enhances the beauty and output of the Land.

The six years of labor represent הַשָּׁמַיִם שָׁמַיִם לַה’, וְהָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִבְנֵי אָדָם, The heavens are the heavens of Hashem, and the land He gave to the sons of man (Tehilim 115:16).  It is our national responsibility and privilege to work the land, and to enjoy the fruits of that labor.   

“When the settlement of Magdi’el celebrated its establishment, HaRav Avraham Yitzchak ha’Kohen Kook (1865-1935) zt’l participated in the festivities.  The ceremony included the planting of trees, and R’ Kook was given the honor of placing the first sapling in the ground.  The organizers handed R’ Kook a hoe with which to dig the hole, but he threw it aside and began digging with his bare hands… 

“Suddenly, R’ Kook’s entire body seemed to quiver and shake, and his face looked like a burning flame, as he placed the sapling in the ground with awe and trepidation.  

“‘What is all this excitement about?’ he was asked.  ‘Thank G-d people plant hundreds of trees every day in Eretz Yisrael!’  R’ Kook replied, ‘When I held that tender sapling in my hand, I remembered the imperative to emulate G-d and walk in His ways… At the beginning of Creation, the Holy One Blessed be he engaged in planting, as it says: וַיִּטַּע האלקים, גַּן בְּעֵדֶן, and Hashem Elokim planted a garden in Eden (Bereishis 2:8).  Similarly, teach the Sages, when you enter the Land, engage in planting, as it is written: וְכִי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ, וּנְטַעְתֶּם כָּל עֵץ מַאֲכָל, and when you come to the Land, you shall plant all types of food trees (Vayikra 19:32) [Vayikra Rabba 25).  When I was about to put the sapling in the ground,’ Rav Kook explained, ‘I remembered these words and felt as if I was clinging to the Shechinah.  Thus, I was overcome by emotion, fear and trembling’” (An Angel Among Men, p.273-274).  

And while working the land is holy work, and an emulation of G-d’s ways, allowing the land to rest in the seventh (and fiftieth) year is also a Divine command and emulation of His ways.  As He rested on the seventh – וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מִכָּל מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂהand He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made (Bereishis 2:2) – we too must cease working the land in the seventh year and allow it to rest.

The years where the land lies fallow reminds us that though He gave the earth to the sons of men, ultimately, there is only One Owner of all lands: לַההָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ תֵּבֵל, וְיֹשְׁבֵי בָהּ, to Hashem is the earth and its fullness, the world and those who dwell in it (Tehilim 24:1).  

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “The idea behind Shemittah and Yovel is that man does not truly own anything.  The use of the term Shabbos for both the seventh day and the seventh year is not coincidental.  What is the common motif?  To keep Shabbos is to bear witness that G-d is the Creator.  Man professes faith that He is the Creator, not in the homiletical sense but in halachic terms.  A Shabbos violator is considered a mumar lechol ha’Torah, one who has violated the entire Torah, because he denies the authority of G-d over creation.  The same motif applies to Shemittah.  It is a restoration of the authority of G-d and the proclamation of G-d as the Creator and the Maker. 

“The prohibitions of the thirty-nine forbidden categories of work (melachos) involve an extension of one’s authority through productive work.  Shabbos violation includes only meleches machsheves, intentional actions that result in constructive work.  Mekalkel, destructive acts, are permitted, because they do not demonstrate authority. 

Shemittah is referred to as Shabbos because, like Shabbos, it is a time of surrender.  Shabbos, Shemittah, and Yovel all involve the surrender of authority to the true Owner” (Chumash Masores haRav, Vayikra, p.205-207).

Through working the land, and then allowing the land to lie fallow, we emulate G-d in all of our ways.  We acknowledge His dominion and accept His rulership.  We bow our heads in submission to His will and gratefully give thanks for the bounty He blesses us with.

The heavens are G-d’s and the earth He gave to man (Ps.115:16) – “He gave the earth to man so that man should make it heavenly” (Chidushei HaRim, 1799-1866) (Quoted in Great Jewish Wisdom, p.27).

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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