Towards the end of the Tochachah, the extended rebuke that constitutes the majority of Parshat Bechukotai, the Torah traces Bnei Yisrael’s eventual exile to the neglect of the Shemitah and Yovel years. The Pasuk states, “Az Tirtzeh HaAretz Et Shabtoteha Kol Yemei Hashamah…Eit Asher Lo Shavtah BeShabtoteichem BeShivtechem Aleha,” “Then the land will be appeased for its Shabbat-years [i.e. Shemitah and Yovel] during all the days of desolation…that which it did not rest during the Shabbat-years when you dwelled upon it” (26:34-35). As the Gemara in Shabbat (33a) expresses, the Torah is clearly indicating that the abandonment of Shemitah and Yovel is a direct cause of exile from Eretz Yisrael.
The “appeasement” mentioned in this Pasuk is somewhat vague, and open to a fair amount of interpretation. Ibn Ezra believes that it is the land itself that is appeased in some sense, as the exile allows it “rest” to make up for its lost “Shabbatot.” Similarly, Kli Yakar comments on a very similar phrase several Pesukim later (26:43) that “the land…assert[s] a claim for the offense it took and for the disregard of its Shemitah years.” Rashi takes a slightly different approach, interpreting the Pasuk’s somewhat odd language to mean that the exile and resultant desolation will appease Hashem, Who will be angry about “its [i.e. the land’s] Shemitah years.” Although each Peirush has a slightly different slant, they all appear to agree that it is somehow the land itself that has been slighted. This seems to be placing the focus on the wrong thing; why would the Torah focus so much on the role of the land in this punishment, when it is Hashem against Whom Bnei Yisrael really sinned? Is their offense really against the land?
The commentary known as Chashavah LeTovah implicitly answers this question in his comments to the aforementioned Gemara. He wonders why the punishment of Galut is so appropriate for abandoning Shemitah in the first place. He points out that the primary purpose of Shemitah is to serve as a reminder that the land is not our own, that we are not the true masters of our property. We are merely servants of Hashem, working land that is effectively rented on condition of good behavior. As long as we continue to recognize this, we are granted continued presence on the land. If, however, we act as though we are the absolute masters of the land, which is the attitude expressed by neglecting the Shemitah and Yovel years, we forfeit our right to keep the land. Middah Keneged Middah (measure for measure), a total loss of mastery occurs in exile, where we are instead subjugated to the human rulers under whose hands we fall.
This explanation leads to one possible answer to our original question. A farmer who does not keep the laws of Shemitah and Yovel marginalizes the role of Hashem in his agricultural success, casting himself as the ultimate controller of his land. As a corrective punishment for this errant attitude, Hashem evicts the farmer from the land to demonstrate that the farmer is, in fact, subservient to the land. It is not, as the farmer would like to think, that he simply works his land and reaps a crop proportionately; rather, Hashem has decreed that he has certain responsibilities towards the land, and if he neglects them, the land will not remain subservient to him. Since he tries to ignore these responsibilities and to dominate the land, the land has a stake in expelling him, and becomes an active participant in Hashem’s rebuke of the farmer.
The message of this cause-and-effect relationship between Shemitah and exile is a powerful one. In our own time, much conflict has erupted in Eretz Yisrael over various political and religious issues. But regardless of one’s opinions on such matters, regardless of how much land Eretz Yisrael cedes, we must always keep in mind Who is really in command. If we treat ourselves as the ultimate masters of our land, this week’s Parsha indicates that none of it, ceded or otherwise, can remain our land for long.