Parshat Behar- Shemita and Organic Religious Identity

By Rabbi David Silverstein

Every seven years the people of Israel experience a collective sabbatical known as “shemita.” Practically, this institution has lost much of its meaning since it is of minimal consequence outside of the land of Israel. Even within Israel proper, many observant Jews rely on a legal mechanism known as the “heter mechirah” to avoid the shemita restrictions. On a broader level, finding meaning in the contemporary observance of the mitzvah of shemita speaks to the larger challenge of relating to agriculturally based religious institutions in a world where farming as a profession is far from the norm.

The significance of agriculture in the biblical worldview is attested to by the Meshech Chochma in his commentary on Parshat Emor (s.v. ki tavou). The Meshech Chochma argues that the Torah constructed a halachic model where the Jewish farmer would be constantly confronted by his Jewish identity in the context of his workday. Agricultural halachic constructs were carefully situated at specific moments in the farming cycle in order to remind us of our dependency on God and prevent excessive engagement in the material.

The Meshech Chochma’s description highlights the organic nature of religious identity practiced in biblical times. There was no need for the Jew in antiquity to look outside of his routine to find religious meaning and cultural distinction. He lived in a world where rain was the source of his livelihood and his halachic approach to farming distinguished him from his local gentile neighbors. He had no need to seek inspiration by attending a daf yomi class during his lunch break or going to a “yarchei kalah” during his vacation. Dependence on God was an undeniable reality of his life and by extension, a prominent source of his faith.

By contrast, the contemporary faith experience is much more removed from the intimacy of the biblical paradigm. Modern Jews often struggle to find religious meaning outside the context of formal religious settings such as synagogues or study halls. Similarly, Yeshiva students regularly worry about integrating their religious commitments in a world less friendly to the life of the spirit. Parshat Behar provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the mitzvah of shemita and attempt to recapture some of the values and ideas that defined the biblical religious worldview.

On a theological level, shemita allows us to reengage traditional Jewish concepts such as “emunah” and more importantly, “bitachon (trust in God).” As the Shem MiShmuel observes, shemita provides a mechanism for demonstrating our dependence on God. He notes that normal rules of agriculture allow a person to rest during the sixth year since the field has already become sufficiently nourished by the work of the previous five years. For the Jew however, the exact opposite is the case.  The sixth year becomes the most crucial, providing crops for subsequent years as well. This model forces as Jew to reflect on the nature of his belief. Will he go against the cultural grain and place his economic future in the hands of God? While the exact parameters of the requirement for a Jew to place his trust in God are somewhat vague, the philosophical category of “bitachon” is almost completely lost in modern Torah discourse. Reflecting on the mitzvah of shemita allows us to reengage this forgotten aspect of our tradition.

Shemita also allows us to reflect upon the truncated nature of contemporary halacha in a world of Jewish exile. While modern Torah discourse flourishes in the world of ritual law, the Torah’s voice on social issues is rarely heard. Shemita by contrast, is representative of a halachic genre where the details of laws speak to larger questions of religion and the public sphere.  As Rav Shmuel Katz notes, shemita reminds us of the challenges of inequality within society. Shemita allows us to experience on year where everyone is equal. Social barriers break down as a community experiences a taste of the redemption. The sense that the ethic of shemita should motivate our lives is eloquently expressed by Rabbi Dr. David Hartman when he states that “we need to see the significance of the sabbatical year as an insistence that Sabbath consciousness should not be restricted to notions of intimacy in the life of Jews in their homes, but also should give direction to economic growth in society.”

Lastly, shemita allows us to grapple with questions regarding our ultimate purpose. David Brooks (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/05/opinion/david-brooks-what-is-your-purpose.html?emc=edit_th_20150505&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=40479111&_r=0 notes that in the 21st century, people “are less articulate about the inner life” and by extension “there are fewer places in public where people are talking about the things that matter most.” Shemita not only raises these questions it provides a clearly articulated vision about what life is about. As the Sefat Emet argues, shemita provides us with the opportunity to take time off from worldly concerns (שעבוד הטבע) and engage exclusively on our relationship with God (זוכים להיות עבדי ה’). In the biblical conception of identity as manifested by the laws of shemita, life is fundamentally about developing an intimate relationship with God and by extension living a life of devotional reflections on divine values. Independent of whether or not one accepts the biblical view, just the act of engaging the ideals of shemita places questions of purpose at the center of our communal conversation.

Regardless of one’s relationship with the more practical elements of shemita observance, Parshat Behar allows us to reflect on shemita as a paradigmatic example of a Jewish model of observance that is natural, organic, and broad both in its content as well as its impact. With this in mind, we can appreciate Rashi’s comment that just like shemita and all its details were given at Sinai, so too mitzvoth in general have their details as well as their larger visions rooted in the divine moment of the Sinaitic revelation.