Why Shmittah? By Rabbi Mark Smilowitz


What atrocity could we commit that is so heinous that for doing it we deserve exile from our homeland?  What sin is so infuriating to Hashem that His reaction is to drive us away from His presence?  Although Parshat Bechukotai is well known for the Tochacha (rebuke) section, which threatens, in great detail, exile and desolation in exchange for disobedience, little attention is given to the specific behaviors that Hashem would consider to be a breach of His covenant.  We are left to imagine that the crimes that could cause such a catastrophe are in the realm of murder, idolatry, adultery, and other major prohibitions.

However, there is one specific law whose violation is mentioned explicitly in relation to the Tochacha, although at first glance the choice to focus on this law is puzzling.  “Then shall the land make up for its Shabbat years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies…It shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your Shabbat years while you were dwelling upon it” (26:34-35).  Strangely, it seems that the lack of observance of the relatively remote laws of Shemittah (which occurs only once every seven years) can cause the exile.  As the Seforno says, “[The Torah] singles out the laws of Shmittah of the land because failure to keep them causes exile from the land” (Seforno 25:1, explaining why Shmittah's laws are detailed in last week's Parsha).  Why is this particular commandment singled out as the one upon which hinges our right to remain in Israel?

I believe that if we carefully examine the laws of Shmittah, we discover that from its observance emerges perhaps the most fundamental aspect of our relationship with Hashem.  Basically, Shmittah involves three rules.  First, during the seventh year of the cycle, no agricultural work such as planting or plowing may be done.  Second, all produce that grows during the seventh year is considered Hefker (ownerless) and may be taken by rich and poor alike, no matter who owns the farm or planted the seeds from which the produce grew.  Also, no one is allowed to hoard produce in the usual fashion of harvesting.  The third rule is that the seventh year automatically cancels all loans.  Borrowers are released from their obligation to pay back, and lenders are forbidden to press the borrowers for their money.

What do these rules have in common?  One element: trust.  Keeping Shmittah is the ultimate statement of our trust in Hashem's promise to protect us.  We do not work the land, even though such abstinence would normally spell disaster to our economy and be considered national suicide.  As the Torah says, “And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’  I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years” (25:20-21).  Although we are not usually expected to rely on miracles, Shmittah is one of the few places where the Torah commands us to rely on Hashem to sustain us in a close to supernatural manner.  The same idea is true of the other two laws.  Instead of gathering and storing our food, we rely on Hashem's goodwill to provide food on a day-to-day basis.  We also do not rely on others to provide our money; whatever money we have in hand is sufficient, and whatever else is needed will be provided by Hashem, not by our neighbors.  The loans given last month are now gifts, for the lenders are no longer in need of those funds when Hashem is their Provider.

When we were kids, we used to play a game called “trust,” in which one person would close his eyes, keep his feet together and hands at his sides, and fall backward, relying on his friend to catch him before he hit the ground.  Serious injury was at risk, and many people flinched at the last moment and caught themselves, unwilling to put their lives in the hands of another.  During the Shmittah year, we are commanded to play “trust” with Hashem by removing our natural life support system and relying on Hashem to sustain us.  I believe that there is no other commandment that so strongly demonstrates our reliance on Hashem on a national level.

Perhaps this is the reason that of all possible crimes, failure to keep Shmittah is the one most directly responsible for our exile from the land of Israel.  Passionate, hateful, sinister crimes such as murder, idolatry, or adultery can be taken care of by Hashem's Divine justice system of punishing the individuals responsible, or sometimes may be tolerated or forgiven by Him, for there is always hope that we will improve our ways.  But once we begin to question and doubt His promise to sustain and care for us, we undermine our very relationship with Him, and He has no reason to keep us in His land.  As a marriage can often survive fights, hurtful comments or actions, and violations of the marriage contract, but falls apart when the two partners have lost faith in one another, so too our relationship with Hashem can survive the blows of many severe violations, but falls apart the moment we lose our faith in Him.

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