parsha of the week

Shemittah: a G-d-given guarantee


Parashat Behar tells us that “G-d said to Moshe at Mt. Sinai, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them that when you come to the land that I am giving you, the land will rest a Sabbath for G-d.’”

Rashi famously asks, “What is the connection between Sinai and the Sabbatical year [that they are mentioned together]?”

The Kli Yakar notes the parallel between the 49 days leading up to Matan Torah and the 49 years that lead up to the Yovel, or Jubilee, year. As Mount Sinai was built up in stature and became off-limits to work on the day of Revelation, a day on which freedom from Egypt and shelter under the wings of G-d was finalized, G-d told Moshe how the same holiness would exist for the land.

The air of Israel is like Sinai: it brings wisdom to its inhabitants. In its own way, it needs to have built in its foundation a parallel to Sinai: 49+1, the shofar, proclamation of the oneness of G-d and freedom under His wing.

Jumping on this foundation, Kli Yakar quotes others in asking the question: why is one of the punishments for not keeping the shemittah (Sabbatical year) exile from the land? The argument is often made that shemittah is good for the land. Let it be that not observing it results in a consequence of nothing growing. Exile just means the land lies fallow altogether!

Kli Yakar explains that shemittah is a means for establishing the roots of trust in G-d. G-d was concerned that people would come to the land, and all the work they put into it would result in their feeling that “my strength and fortitude is what made all of this happen,” thus forgetting G-d. 

In simple terms, Kli Yakar notes that the seven-year cycle in Israel is different from farmers elsewhere giving their land a rest for a new growing season. The promise G-d gives is that if the land rests in the seventh year, the food which grows in the sixth year will last for the sixth, seventh, and eighth years. Whether it will continue to grow or will simply have an unprecedented shelf life is a debate. But no matter how one looks at it, those three years of sustenance are simply miraculous.

“Through all of these wonders you see in the land, you will come to know that the land is Mine. And through this your eyes will be raised towards G-d, as we see from the manna, which fell daily, so the people would see that their sustenance came from G-d.”

I don’t think it advisable for people to live this way always — to expect their daily bread to come straight from G-d. People must make effort, work, and do their part to make sure their daily bread can be placed on the table.

However, there is something enamoring in the idea that six years of toil is rewarded with a G-d-given guarantee of food for the year I do not work, and for the year following, when work resumes but we cannot rely on the previous year’s work. Only G-d’s guarantee that everything will be all right sustains me.

Those who lived through such promises surely felt G-d’s presence much more closely. Were we to only merit to feel G-d’s presence in that way, how holy a nation we would truly be.