May 18-19, í01
If you thought Shabbos was a radical concept, resting from all creative physical labor every seventh day, then you're going to love this one! The first
mitzvah in this week's parsha is called
Shemita. It is a commandment to refrain from working our fields in the Land of Israel every seventh year. Not for a day. Not for a week. For a whole year! (This is the Biblical source for professors taking sabbaticals. It's the only Torah concept academia doesn't care to challenge.) And not only may we not work the land, planting or pruning; we are commanded to open our fields to whomever might want to wander in and eat the fruits that grow by themselves. For the Shemita year, we have no more rights in our own fields than any other Jew. Oh, and did we forget to mention that this year (5761, 2000-2001) is a Shemita year in the Land of Israel, and thousands of Jewish farmers have put down their hoes for a year of spiritual pursuits, striving to fulfill the demanding dictate of G-d recorded in our parsha.
Still with me? This is too much, we think. Get real! What are we supposed to eat for a whole year without a regular supply of crops? M & M's?
The Torah actually tells us that if the Jewish People will keep the mitzvah of Shemita, G-d will make sure that the crops from the previous year last us through this seventh year of Shemita. G-d informs us, "I will command my blessing to you in the sixth year and I will produce a crop sufficient for three years" (Bamidbar 25:21). If
Hashem provides us with savings to last through the Shemita year, then what's the challenge of it?
Most people who have a spectacularly successful year in business don't decide to take it easy the next year, since their financial needs have already been met. They'll usually gear up to work even harder, consumed by dreams of great wealth. More often than not, when we exceed our financial goals we raise our financial goals instead of simply enjoying our previous standard of living with more peace of mind.
According to some commentaries, the crop of the sixth year will not be any larger than previous crops. Rather, it will last longer. G-d will perform a hidden miracle, allowing the Jewish People to be satisfied with less during the Shemita period. But it'll still be up to us to trust in G-d.
Holding back our hands from engaging in the efforts that usually produce our livelihood, because the Torah said so, is a great exercise in building trust in G-d. Though we don't like to admit it, there are many things in our lives that are beyond our control. In fact, beyond the choices we make with our free will, everything is beyond our control. We cannot control how others respond to us. We cannot control how much strength or health or insight we will possess to get the job done. These are gifts from G-d. The Shemita reminds us that even success in earning a living is beyond our absolute control. We decide how great of an effort to make, but the final result of our efforts is beyond our control.
So, when a farmer realizes that he can't control the weather or the rain or insect swarms or mad cow disease, what's left for him to do? Worry? Is worrying about life's uncertainties the Jewish solution?
Though worrying is popular among Jews, at least stereotypically, it is not a Torah recommended response. The Torah advises a different outlook-trust in G-d. G-d loves every Jew and desires what is best for us in the long run to grow as individuals. During the Shemita year especially, we learn to trust in G-d; that He will give us what we need. It's a lengthy lesson. But it takes a while to get some concepts into our heads, especially lofty ones.
Shemita is hard to fathom in other ways. Imagine having to close down your factory for one entire year out of every seven. How could you stay in business? Yet a farmer in Israel is commanded to close down his factory (his farm) during the Shemita year. Why does the Torah demand more of farmers than accountants or shoemakers?
The farmer's factory is special. It's a miracle factory. A farmer's fields produce luscious fruits, yet the farmer doesn't handle the manufacturing. He simply inserts the seed in plowed earth, adds water, waits, and presto! Out pops a bumper crop. Who made those crops grow? Hashem makes them grow (call this "contracting out").
There is a great lesson here. Of all the products we produce, our food is the most essential (though sports car enthusiasts may disagree). And we don't even produce that! Maybe we call it "produce" because it practically produces itself. Every seventh year, G-d commands the Jewish People to stop and recognize that it is really He Who provides our needs. To demonstrate this, G-d tells us: "Take off a year from tilling and see that it is I Who provides!" This is similar to the mitzvah of refraining from creative labor on the Shabbos.
Shabbos and Shemita are also similar in that they both remind us that G-d created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh. The Torah's revolutionary idea that the universe was created and has not simply been lying around forever is crucial to our faith in G-d. This Torah concept of Genesis preceded science's knowledge of the Big Bang by over 3,500 years. The fact that our universe has a beginning implies that it has an end, and therefore a goal and purpose. Shabbos and Shemita are regular reminders to a Jew that we have a goal and purpose.
Opening our fields for everyone to come and take is also an amazing training ground for developing the Torah trait of generosity. One who freely shares his or her bounty with others for an entire year out of every seven is unlikely to act in a completely selfish manner the rest of the time. Our actions profoundly affect our attitudes. Thus, the laws of Shemita are followed in our parsha by laws obligating us to help our fellow Jews in times of need and by the prohibition against lending to other Jews with interest. The lessons of Shemita lead to other acts of kindness.
What did I tell you? You've gotta love this mitzvah! Every commandment in the Torah is loaded with lessons, laden with spiritual energy. Even on the farm there's room to serve G-d. There's room wherever we make it.
(This Parsha Views is based partially on the medieval classic, Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah # 84.)
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