FRIDAY, May 11th
This Shabbat we will read about the laws of Shemitah and Yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee year, which state, among other things, that every seven years the land must be allowed to rest and debts must be released. In the fiftieth year (after seven “weeks” of years), land which has been sold is returned to its original owners, and slaves are set free. By providing for debt remission, the release of slaves and the return to ancestral lands, It would seem these laws are a check against rising inequality. Recognizing that once a person suffers misfortune and falls on hard times, it can be hard to escape the cycle of poverty and subjugation, the Torah provides us with a once-every-fifty-years reset button, when those who have sunk to the bottom of the social pecking order are returned to freedom and to their ancestral lands. However, if the only purpose of Shemitah and Yovel is to serve as a tool for promoting freedom and equality, it is difficult to understand why we should be prohibited from farming during the Shemitah year.
The great Jewish philosopher and champion of rationalism, the Rambam suggests the reason for letting the land lie fallow is a purely practical one—the land needs a periodic rest in order to restore the health of the soil. This makes sense but seems to bear little connection to the other aspects of Shemitah. The anonymous author of Sefer HaChinukh, the classic medieval enumeration of the mitzvot, suggests a more theological reason for letting the land lie fallow. He says God gives us this mitzvah to remind us, among other things, that the land belongs not to us, but to Him.
This idea is reflected in God’s declaration “וְהָאָ֗רֶץ לֹ֤א תִמָּכֵר֙ לִצְמִתֻ֔ת כִּי־לִ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ – The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine” (Vayikra 25:23). Interestingly, we find a parallel statement regarding the obligation to redeem slaves from captivity. There, God says “כִּֽי־לִ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ עֲבָדִ֔ים עֲבָדַ֣י הֵ֔ם – For it is to Me that the Children of Israel are slaves: they are My slaves.” (v. 55)
Both the human being and the land belong to God. Therefore, just as we are not free to enslave another human being, so, too, God places restrictions on how we use the land. Today, this idea is deeply countercultural. While Modern Western society has rejected slavery, it does so not out of a recognition of God’s sovereignty, but out of a respect for the rights of the individual human being. Moreover, land is treated as a commodity like any other, to be bought and sold and transformed or laid to waste as the owner sees fit. To place any restrictions on how we can use our land is regarded as an offense against the same value of individual liberty that leads us to reject slavery.
As Jews, we do respect the rights of ownership. We human “owners” are actually merely caretakers and tenants, who will one day be held to account for how well we have stewarded His property. This has profound consequences not only for how we treat our land, but in how we regard any wealth or property, which all ultimately derives from God. As the verse says “To God belongs the world and its fullness, the earth and all it’s inhabitants. This truth has profound consequences for how we regard wealth, we may possess. I invite you to come to KI this Shabbat, when I will B”H explore this idea further in my drasha.
Rabbi Garth Silberstein