Behar-Bechukotai

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… But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest – Leviticus25: 3-6

 At the beginning of this week’s double Torah portion we read about the mitzvah of shemittaShemitta literally means to release or let go, and the mitzvah entails “letting go” of all fields and leaving them to lie fallow, uncultivated and open to the public for a whole year. This “shemitta year” runs on a seven year cycle – six years of working the land, followed by one year lying fallow.

The beginning of this cycle was fourteen years after the Jewish people entered Israel, led by Joshua, in the Hebrew year 2488. The first fourteen years were taken up with conquering and dividing the land. Once that was done the Jewish people began to observe the agricultural laws of the Torah which apply in Israel.

So what does the Torah tell us about shemitta? –

For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce, but in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath to the L-rd; you shall not sow your field, you shall not prune your vineyard – Leviticus 25:3-6.

This was not a rotational system, where some fields lie fallow, and some are ok to use … this was a complete cessation of work on the entire land for a full year. So the obvious question for a farmer is: well how do I survive if I cannot farm my land? And the Torah answers that directly:

And if you should say, “What will we eat in the seventh year? We will not sow, and we will not gather in our produce!” I, [G-d,] will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years. – Leviticus 25

Israel was an agricultural society. The hi-tech industry was three thousand years away. To cease all work on the land for an entire year was a collective act of self-sacrifice and a bold statement of trust in G-d. It was an affirmation by the entire nation that their survival and success depended not on hard work but on Divine blessings.

Although the observance of Shemitta today is a Rabbinic rather than a Biblical obligation, the message that it carries is an important one. The Torah is telling us that we need to constantly focus on the source of our blessings, and to realise that what we have or don’t have is decided in Heaven. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we alone control our finances and income.

This is especially apropos in the current financial climate, as we watch financial institutions and economies of entire countries on a frightening

downward spiral towards ruin. Many factors contributed to the current crisis of course, but perhaps had some of the traders, bank managers and politicians placed a little more faith in G-d, and less in themselves, we would not have reached the nadir we are at today.

In 1950 a group of thirty young men founded a moshav in Israel which they called Komemiyut. Among the founders was Rabbi Binyamin Mendelson, a well-known rabbi who had immigrated to Israel from Poland. Moshav Komemiyut had 4000 acres of land used for various crops, wheat, barley rye etc, but initially they had no water pipes and they had to grow food as best they could in the dry ground. Their drinking water came from a kibbutz 20km away.

The second year they were there was the shemitta year, and they decided they were going to observe the shemitta laws properly, one of the very few places in Israel to do so at the time. Instead of working the fields that year they decided to focus on building infrastructure and they numbered about eighty people by year end.

After the shemitta year they went to buy new, good quality (non-shemitta) seed to plant afresh – but were unable to find. None was available. All they could find was a store of old wormy seed that was lying around in a local kibbutz. This was seed that was so rotten and infested that no-one would dream of planting it, and in fact when out of desperation they asked if they could buy it, the kibbutz gave it to them for nothing – it was totally worthless.

The moshav rabbi was consulted and his advice was to try to plant it: “The same G-d who causes wheat to grow from good seed can cause wheat to grow from bad seed” he said.

Nothing was allowed to be planted until after Rosh Hashana, which meant planting late – two or three months after all the other farmers had already completed their planting. That year the rains were late in coming, and when it finally did rain it was exactly one day after Komemiyut had planted their rotten seed. In a short time their fields were covered with a large healthy yield of wheat – what became known as “the miracle at Komemiyut.”

It was a clear proof that if we place our faith less in Man and more in G-d, then as the verse in this week’s parsha says: “I will command my blessing upon you…”

If we can try to strengthen that faith in ourselves and in those around us, hopefully we will merit once again to observe the mitzvah of Shemitta in the Holy Land and to see the hand of G-d in everything we do.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.
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