This year, some of the greatest – though unsung – heroes of the Jewish Nation are religious farmers in Israel.
The current Hebrew year, 5772, is a shemitah year, during which agricultural activity in the Land of Israel must come to a halt. To get a sense of what this means, let us imagine ourselves taking a year off from whatever work it is that we do to earn a livelihood. For an entire year, we don’t do business, or we ignore our professional practice. Remarkably, this is what the Torah demands that farmers in the Land of Israel do every seven years. And today there are heroic farmers in the Land of Israel who faithfully abide by this restriction, and place their trust in the Torah’s eternal promise that Gd will care for those who observe this mitzvah.
Living in the Diaspora, where this law does not apply, we naturally feel disconnected from the concept of shemitah. The reading this month of Parashat Behar – where the Torah presents the laws of shemitah – affords us the opportunity to delve into this fascinating topic, and gain insights and lessons which are no less relevant to us Jews in New York and New Jersey than it is to our brethren across the ocean in Israel.
Several explanations have been advanced for why the Torah would issue such a command. The Rambam suggested that practically speaking, a yearlong cessation of agricultural activity is beneficial for the ground, ensuring its sustained capability to continue producing food. Others explain that the institution of shemitah enables farmers to devote one out of every seven years to Torah study, as they are freed from their responsibilities in the field. Yet another theory is that the law of shemitah – perhaps like no other mitzvah – reinforces our faith in Hashem as our provider, as the one who gives our sustenance. When a farmer sees that he has a sufficient livelihood despite taking a year off from work, he is reminded that his sustenance depends solely on Gd. This faith saves one from the anxiety and fear which so many people experience with regard to their livelihood.
However, I would like to take this opportunity to present a lesser known approach to the mitzvah of shemitah that has been developed, one which can, I believe, motivate us to utilize each day of our lives to its very fullest.
Past, Present, and Future
This approach brings us back to the beginning of human history, to the brief time Adam and Havah spent in Gan Eden.
Before they sinned by partaking of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Havah did not need to exert effort to obtain food. Readymade food products were made available in the garden, requiring no work whatsoever. This changed after Adam and Havah sinned. Adam’s punishment included the curse of “Beze’at apecha tochal lechem – By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread.” No longer would everything be readily accessible. Man would have to exert immense effort to produce food.
In order obtain a simple loaf of bread, one needs to plow, plant, fertilize, water, harvest, winnow, thresh, grind, sift, knead, and bake – just to produce edible food which, before the sin, was accessible without any effort.
In the future, after the final redemption, the world will return to this state of perfection. Once the tikkun (rectification) of Adam’s sin is complete, mankind will again live a blissful existence, free of the pressures, burdens and grueling work which we must go through in our current state in order to survive.
The shemitah year provides us with a reminder – and a glimpse – of this ideal existence which once was, and which will one day be. Once in seven years, we do not have to work the land, and instead, “I shall command My blessing toward you” (Vayikra 25:21) – we receive our sustenance directly from Gd. He sends us His blessing to free us from the grueling labor of producing food. This experience reminds us of the past – Gan Eden – and of the future – the world after our final redemption, when we will receive Gd’s blessing without struggle.
This is why the Torah describes the shemitah year as “shabbat l’Hashem – a Sabbath to Gd” (Vayikra 25:2). The Name of Gd in this verse is the Name of “Havayah” (spelled “yod,” “heh,” “yod” and “heh”), which represents a combination of the words “hayah” (“was”), “hoveh” (“is”), and “yiheyeh” (“will be”). This Name signifies Gd’s eternity, the fact that He always existed, still exists, and will always exist. Shemitah is a “shabbat l’Hashem” because it merges together the past, present and future. It gives us a glimpse of the reality in Gan Eden at the beginning of time, and of the reality that we will experience in the future. We are given a yearlong respite from our complicated, difficult reality of struggle and exertion, and are reminded that the day will yet come when we will return to the blissful existence of Gan Eden.
Our Weekly Shemitah
The seven-year shemitah cycle parallels the weekly observance of Shabbat. Just as farmers in Eretz Yisrael till the land for six years and then desist from agricultural work during the seventh year, we work hard during the six days of the workweek, and then refrain from work on Shabbat. Not surprisingly, the weekly Shabbat, like shemitah, is also described as “shabbat l’Hashem Elokecha – a Sabbath for Hashem your Gd” (Shemot 20:10). Shabbat, too, offers us a glimpse of the past and the future; it is a period when, like in Gan Eden and in the future world, we enjoy Gd’s blessings without having to work as we do during the other days.
One of the mitzvot that apply on Shabbat is the obligation to eat three meals. It has been explained that these meals correspond to three special “Shabbatot.” The first represents the first Shabbat after creation, signifying the pristine conditions of Gan Eden. The second Shabbat meal parallels the day of Matan Torah, which, as the Talmud teaches us, occurred on Shabbat. It is through the Torah that we are given the ability – and assigned the responsibility – to work towards rectifying the world, and bringing mankind back to the idyllic conditions of Gan Eden. And se’udah shelishit, the third Shabbat meal, signifies the future redemption, when the world will again attain perfection.
Thus, while we do not observe shemitah here in the Diaspora, we experience the idea of shemitah, on some level, each and every week. Our weekly period of cessation from work, like the septennial break from agricultural activity in the Land of Israel, reminds us of our aspirations to perfect the world and return to Gan Eden. And we are reminded that this is done through the Torah, by committing ourselves to strictly adhere to its laws and values, through which we move mankind closer to perfection.
Using Every Day
There is a famous proverb, sourced in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3a), which says “Mi shetarah be’erev Shabbat yochal be’Shabbat – One who exerted effort the day before Shabbat shall eat on Shabbat.” The Shabbat prohibitions require us to prepare before Shabbat in order to experience its special joy and delight. If one spends Friday relaxing, or on a trip, without buying and preparing food, he will be left with nothing to eat on Shabbat, because shopping and cooking are forbidden on Shabbat.
But in truth, this proverb was not actually said about Shabbat. It merely enlists Friday and Shabbat as metaphors for our current world and the world to come. All our preparation for the next world must be done now, before the final redemption arrives. Our enjoyment of the “yom shekulo Shabbat,” the eternal Shabbat, depends upon the extent of our preparations now, the period of “Erev Shabbat,” the limited amount of time we are given to build our share in the next world. If we waste our time now, on “Erev Shabbat,” then we will go into the next world like a person going into Shabbat without having purchased or cooked any delicacies. We will enter the eternal “Shabbat” bereft of the spiritual delights which we would otherwise be enjoying.
One of the difficult challenges of our generation is the challenge of using our time productively. We each carry with us some device with endless lures and distractions. Let us ignore for a moment the problematic content which these devices make accessible; the literally unlimited amount of vanity and meaningless media that threatens to consume – and, unfortunately, does consume – so many hours of precious time. Videos, social media, games, and so many other digital features are specifically designed to keep our eyes glued to the screen. The companies who create these applications profit by luring us and making it exceedingly difficult to keep away. The result is nothing short of tragic – hours upon hours of time each day wasted on useless activity – or, we might say, non-activity.
Imagine if the time spent on our devices was used for learning Torah, for strengthening our relationships with our spouses and children, for volunteering for any of the innumerable worthy institutions and organizations that are woefully understaffed, or for speaking or meeting with lonely friends and family members who need companionship and encouragement. Imagine the kind of “delicacies” we can prepare each and every day if we just free up the time wasted on our screens.
I am not saying this is easy. In the digital age, this is an enormous challenge. But it is a challenge we must overcome if we want to live productive, meaningful lives.
Let us treat each and every day like Erev Shabbat, like a short period of time we are given to prepare. Let us be very careful with what we choose to spend our precious time on, and try to utilize every day to the fullest, preparing all we can for the eternal life in the next world.