Time for the Land, and Us, to Rest

I’ve just returned from being in Israel for a week, and I feel refreshed. I can’t claim to be physically refreshed, as, like most people, I tend to feel the effects of jetlag. But I certainly feel spiritually refreshed, which is how a person feels after spending time in Israel. My step quickens when I am in Eretz Yisrael, as I’m eager to get to places quickly. I see things with eyes especially wide open, as I’m eager to take in all the sites before me at once. My mind and heart are even more open, as I feel that I am enriched by the people I meet and the Torah I learn on the streets of Jerusalem.

I always hope to gain some new insight when I’m in Israel. On this visit, I sensed a focus on the fact that this Jewish year is a Sabbatical, or “Shemita” year in the Land of Israel. One might think that observing the Sabbatical year would be one of those things that only the strictly observant do. Certainly, those who observe Jewish law strictly follow the laws of the Shemita scrupulously, as they do all other Jewish laws, both major and minor. On this visit, I could see that the notion of the Sabbatical has been embraced by a wide cross section of Israelis, including those whom we would consider “secular.” The Shemita year is impacting Israelis in numerous, interesting ways. There are educational initiatives being developed, social service projects being undertaken, and even children’s books being written, all inspired by the fact that 5775 is a Sabbatical year.

The origins of the Sabbatical year are found in the Torah in, among other places, this week’s Torah portion. The parasha, Mishpatim, presents numerous laws governing Israelite society in matters both civil and religious. After two chapters of laws concerning such things as the proper treatment of slaves, women’s rights, business ethics and self-defense, the parasha describes the obligation to allow the land to lay fallow every seven years. These laws remain in force today, and pertain exclusively to the Land of Israel according to its Biblical boundaries. These verses from Parashat Mishpatim describe the obligation to observe the Shemita year:

And six years you shall sow your land, and shall gather in its fruits. But the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie still; that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner you shall deal with your vineyard, and with your olive trees. Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may rest, and the son of your maidservant, and the stranger, may be refreshed. (Exodus 23:10-12)

Why does the Torah instruct us to leave the land undisturbed every seventh year? Here are a few possibilities:

  • To inspire gratitude – Observing Shemita can lead people to see the yield of the land as a precious, finite resource that must be appreciated. Indeed, the original intent behind the Sabbatical year may have been to remind people that we owe thanks to God for being able to harvest crops and put food on our table. Ask a child where a loaf of bread or a vegetable comes from and they’ll likely say the supermarket. The Shemita year urges us to give credit where credit is due.
  • To encourage generosity – The Shemita year meant that there was less food produced, which hopefully led not exclusively to securing one’s own needs for food but to greater generosity and outreach to the poor. In modern times, especially in Israel, the Shemita year is sparking new initiatives to feed the hungry, and it should have the same impact on those of us living in the Diaspora.
  • To increase environmental awareness – What if the land couldn’t produce sufficient food for the world’s population, or produce what we need at all? The Sabbatical year is sparking a necessary, broad focus on caring for the earth around us. Israel, long known for brilliant advances in agricultural technology, is discovering new ways to grow food efficiently and cheaply and, in the process, helping to solve the monumental problem of managing the potential of the earth to sustain all its inhabitants.
  • To suggest personal renewal – Notice that the verses in our parasha link the Sabbatical year to the Sabbath (they are, of course, born of the same concept). By mandating that the land “rest” one year out of seven, the Shemita year urges us to seek personal renewal by resting on the seventh day. Nothing could be more logical or necessary for human beings. When God created the world, the seventh day was a day of rest. If God is all-powerful, why would rest be necessary? The answer must be that God wished to emulate to each of us that personal growth and continued creativity are the result of periodic, regular renewal. God wanted to model for each of us the practice of working for six days and resting on Shabbat. Throughout time, Shabbat has been a magical time devoted to family and communal gatherings, to prayer and reflection and, yes, rest. If you haven’t already adopted a personal practice of taking Shabbat off, use this Shemita year to begin (and be sure to include Oheb Shalom in your day of rest!).

I had the privilege of being in the Land of Israel last week, and I came back inspired. This week’s parasha shows each of us how we can enhance our lives and those of others. That’s “food for thought,” in a manner of speaking, another yield of the Sabbatical year.

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