The Torah introduces the laws of shemitah, emphasizing that they were revealed to Mosheh at Sinai. Rashi quotes the Sifra to the effect that the laws of shemitah serve as a paradigm for all the laws of the Torah. Just as shemitah was completely formulated in all its details at Sinai, so, too, were all the other mitzvot with all their particulars given at Sinai.
But why was shemitah singled out for this purpose? Granted that the Torah wanted to make a point, we are still concerned with the particular selection, the specific mitzvah chosen to serve as the archetype. In the spirit of the Maharal’s dictum: "Devarim gedolim einam bemikreh," "great things do not happen by accident," we may reformulate Rashi’s famous question as simply "mah inyan shemitah," "what is special about shemitah"?
The experience of Sinai was first and foremost one of the commitment of na’aseh venishma, predicated on the people’s willingness to accept the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom. According to the Ramban, this is the very meaning of the first of the Ten Commandments – kablu malchuti, "accept My kingship."
In other words, the level of Torah commitment is measured not merely in its observance, as meticulous as that may be, but also in the motivation behind that observance. One may choose to observe for many reasons which satisfy one’s own needs, desires, and comforts in life. But this is not kabalat ol malchut shamayim, accepting the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom. Though it may be glatt kosher, it may also be nothing more than Reconstructionist Orthodoxy.
In an agricultural society subsisting from year to year on its annual produce, the laws of shemitah are certainly problematic. Far from a vacation from work, they are a test of allegiance to royal decree, to an imperial order of the greatest difficulty. It is this characteristic of shemitah that makes it the paradigmatic representation of all the manifold commandments promulgated at Sinai. It is the question of what the mitzvot really mean to a person.
In this spirit, one might formulate a question: Immigrants to Western countries often saw the abandonment of Shabbat as a condition for basic survival. Yet, there were those who stood firm and fully observed the Shabbat. It is to those few that we owe the renaissance of Orthodoxy in the Diaspora.
Is not the mitzvah of living in Israel and all its concomitant mitzvot, the contemporary equivalent of our forebears’ Shabbat? Is it perhaps our modern inyan shemitah as we stand before the eternity of Sinai?
This is a weekly column contributed by Aloh Naaleh an organization devoted to motivating Jews to make Aliya.
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