The primary laws discussed in this week’s parsha of Behar are the laws concerning shemittah (the Sabbatical Year) which occurs every seventh year and yovel (the Jubilee Year) which occurs every 50th year in the Land of Israel. In a nutshell, shemittah refers to the requirement to let one’s farmland lie uncultivated every seventh year.
A yovel occurs the year after seven cycles of seven years, or every 50 years. In addition to the requirement to rest the land, all slaves were set free in a yovel year and all land was returned to its original owner. This means that land in Israel can never be permanently bought, only leased, and its price is dependant on the number of years remaining until the next yovel.
Let’s say that you are neither an Israeli farmer nor a holder of Hebrew slaves. Of what relevance are the laws in Behar to your life as a Jew? To answer that, we have to take a closer look at shemittah and the principle behind the requirement to refrain from working the land every seventh year.
One traditional approach is that shemittah is a concrete way to enforce the lesson that we must trust in God. How so? If you were a farmer in Israel and were told about the laws of shemittah, wouldn’t you think, “That’s very nice to give the Land a rest, but what is my family going to eat in the seventh year? And what are we going to eat in the eighth year, while we’re waiting for the new harvest?”
God answers, "I will direct my blessing to you in the sixth year, and the Land will produce enough crops three years.” (Vayikra 25:21)
In effect, God is saying, “Trust me. I’ll give you enough extra food from the harvest of the sixth year to sustain you until you can eat from your new harvest again.” Stop and think about this for a moment. God says, “I know you think it’s an immutable law of nature that one year’s harvest equals sustenance for one year. I’m going to demonstrate the folly of that way of thinking. I will make one year’s harvest sustain you for three years.”
How does this speak to us today? There’s a popular English motto that teaches the exact opposite lesson of shemittah. In America, when we say, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me,” we mean that our efforts are the key to making things happen. The hypothetical farmer in Israel who believes in this motto would say, “My family has food because I plant and nurture and harvest our land each year.” The requirement of shemittah forces the hypothetical farmer, and us by extension, to recognize the inaccuracy of that perspective.
In a brilliant bit of pedagogy, through the laws of shemittah, God demonstrates that the world does not function through our efforts alone. We are required to cease our active planting, nurturing and harvesting and see that, even without our efforts, we still have food to eat. God, not human effort alone, makes the world function. Shemittah forces us to recognize that our efforts are necessary, but not sufficient, for six out of seven years and entirely unnecessary the seventh year. In the seventh year, we’re forced to acknowledge that God can run the world quite successfully without our efforts, thank you very much.
Other lessons, derived from the requirement to cease working in the fields every seventh year, speak clearly to our 21st century lives. Work is not your only purpose in life. Don’t be a slave to your work. There’s more to you than your job. Take time off from work to develop other parts of yourself.
These are also the exact messages of Shabbat. You have one day out of seven to devote exclusively to the purpose of developing your Jewish self. Don’t squander it! There’ll be plenty of fields to plant tomorrow.