Approximately 20 years ago, Rav Mordechai Willig, a Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshivah University, wrote an article for the YU Commentator in which he described his own personal experience of the very first time Jews were allowed back to the Kotel, following the Six Day War:
Shavuot 5727, about 5:00 in the morning in Heichal Shlomo, Yerushalayim. All of the Kerem B’Yavneh Talmidim who were not in the army had spent the night learning Torah in the traditional Mishmar. Exactly one week before, the Old City came under Jewish control for the first time in nearly 1900 years. At dawn, after a frantic effort to clear mines and other obstacles, the Kotel HaMa’aravi was opened to the Jewish public for the first time in 19 years.
After a Mishmar, Shacharit KeVatikin, and Kriat HaTorah, we stepped into Rechov King George. To our amazement, the street was completely filled at 5 A.M. We walked past the old border, into what was no-man’s-land. Police barricades were used for crowd control, allowing only so many people at a time to enter the narrow safe zone.
Just two months earlier, the Yeshiva’s Tiyul guide, Zev Vilnai, had described all the gates of the city to us from afar. We never dreamt we would be entering through them so soon.
As we approached Sha’ar Yafo, the crowd began to dance. As soon as a police barricade was removed, we danced to the sounds of Nigunim until we reached the next barricade and had to pause.
The central theme of Parashat BeHar is the Mitzvah with which it begins, the Mitzvah of Shemitah. Hashem tells Klal Yisrael that once every seven years all agricultural production is to stop— no one may work his own land. In addition, any produce that may grow in one’s land is ownerless, and all loans are forgiven. Various Meforashim offer explanations for this peculiar Mitzvah.
Rav Yitzchak Arama, in his commentary Akeidat Yitzchak, compares the Shemitah year to Shabbat. Shabbat provides a break once every seven days to remind us that no matter how much effort we put in, Hashem is the true source of our success. Similarly, we are told to take a break once every seven years to remind us that the land is not ours—it is Hashem’s creation. Thus, the Torah refers to Shemitah over and over as a Shabbat HaAretz, a Sabbath for the land. Our observance of the Shemitah year is our declaration of faith that any material wealth or success we may achieve only comes by way of Hashem.
In the introduction to his Sefer, Shabbat Ha’Aretz, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohein Kook also focuses on the comparison between Shabbat and Shemitah but from a different perspective. He explains that the Halachot of Shabbat are designed to free a person from involvement in mundane, day-to-day tasks and concerns of life in order to allow him to reflect on his higher, spiritual purpose as an individual. In a similar vein, Shemitah, with its removal of material competition, provides the ideal atmosphere for Klal Yisrael as a nation to focus on its higher spiritual purpose. Without the ability to work towards making a living, Klal Yisrael is free to pursue its communal spiritual goals.
The Keli Yakar offers a unique approach to the Mitzvah of Shemitah. In life, we separate ourselves from each other for a myriad of reasons, and socioeconomic factors play a central role in that segregation. There is a wall that separates those who come from different economic strata, but when the Shemitah year arrives, those barriers are removed. My land becomes your land. My produce becomes your produce. All loans are forgiven. For one year, everyone shares the same financial standing. The demolition of social and economic barriers is even more profound during Yovel, the next Mitzvah found in the Parashah. Yovel is the ultimate Shemitah, which comes at the end of seven cycles of seven years. In addition to the regular laws of the Shemitah year, all slaves, even those who had decided to remain with their masters, are released. During Shemitah and Yovel, everyone is equally free—both physically and financially. Allowing everyone to live as equals promotes a peace that would be otherwise impossible. For one year, everyone is in equal standing in his or her pursuit of financial gain, and, as a result, jealousy and resentment fall by the wayside. We reflect on whether we are using the material wealth that Hashem gives us to promote Shalom, peace, and Achdut, unity, among Bnei Yisrael. The Jewish economic system does not operate like this perpetually; rather, Hashem asks that once every seven years we pause, strip away so many of the significant factors that lead to disunity, and hope that the effects will linger into the future as well.
As Bnei Yisrael were later commanded, at the end of the Shemitah year, there is a mitzvah of Hakheil. Every man, woman and child is commanded to gather with the rest of the Jewish people in Yerushalayim, where the king would read the Torah. There is a profound connection between the theme of unity promoted by Shemitah and the circumstances of Hakheil. There is a fascinating Midrash found in BeReishit Rabbah (56:10) regarding how the city of Yerushalayim received its name. During Akeidat Yitzchak, when Avraham was standing at Har HaMoriah, the future site of the Beit HaMikdash, he named the place, “Hashem Yir’eh” “God will be seen.” Malkitzedek, identified as Sheim, the son of Noach, was the King of a city he referred to as Shaleim. The only problem, as the Midrash points out, is that both of these locations are the same. Hashem, therefore, was presented with a dilemma. If he were to call it like Avraham did, Hashem Yireh, He would insult the honor of Malkitzedek. On the other hand, if He called it Shaleim, the honor of Avraham would be offended. Therefore, he compromised and named it Yerushaleim in order to offend neither. Tehillim (122:3) says about Yerushalayim, “Yerushalayim HaBenuyah KeIr SheChubrah Lah Yachdav, “Yerushalayim that is built as a compact city brings people close together.” The Talmud Yerushalmi says in Massechet Chagigah (79b) that Yerushalayim is an, “Ir SheHi Oseh Kol Yisrael Chaveirim,” “A city that makes all of Israel friends.” It is clear that the purpose of Yerushalayim is to unite us as a nation—both through its name and its role. As such, it makes perfect sense that we have a year designed to promote unity, and to conclude it, we unite in a city built around unity.
Rav Willig concludes his article as he describes the ascent to the Kotel itself.
The scene was unforgettable. Jews of all persuasions danced shoulder to shoulder into the Old City. On one side of me was a man in a Streimel and white stockings. On the other was a non-observant Jew with a camera. Incredibly, all barriers disappeared. I saw with my own eyes the fulfillment of Chazal’s words on the Pasuk we were singing: “SheNa’asu Chaveirim Zeh LaZeh.” Through Yerushalayim, they became friends with each other.
Every tribe of Israel was represented in force [as] [s]ome 250,000 Jews came on that day of Shavuot.
We Davened Mussaf…In the shadow of the Har HaBayit. We poured out our hearts. For the first time in our lives and the lives of most people there, we were as close as one may come to the site of the Beit HaMikdash. We hoped and prayed for its imminent rebuilding – B’nei Baitecha KeVatchilah.
As we learn the laws of Shemitah this Shabbat and find ourselves only days after Yom Ha’atzmaut and a few weeks from Yom Yerushalayim, let us remind ourselves that the goal of the Mitzvah of Shemitah and the city of Yerushalayim is one and the same—to break down barriers and allow us to become Chaveirim Zeh LaZeh.