Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson
from Si’ach Shaul, pp. 350-1

Shemitta and Yovel as the Basis for the Whole Torah


Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli zt"l

Our two parshiyot share a special theme, the laws of shemitta (sabbatical year) and yovel (jubilee). Behar talks about the laws of these two special years, and the section of rebuke in Bechukotai warns that if we do not follow these laws, the land will rest while we are in exile. Yet the Torah says that in general we are punished for "My laws (mishpatay) you despised and My statutes (chukotai) your souls reviled" (Vayikra 26:43). What are these chukim, and how are they related to the mishpatim?
Rashi explains that the Torah stressed that the laws of shemitta, like other laws, were given in details at Sinai. Why is the holy source of the laws communicated specifically in regard to shemitta? Rashi on the beginning of Bechukotai puts a very different stress. The concept of following Hashem’s chukim, he says, refers to toiling in Torah study, not on actively performing the mitzvot. Why?
Sometimes one takes care of his needs as they arise, and sometimes one plans well in advance. One of the differences is that plans for the immediate period need to be very specific, whereas for distant plans one can suffice with a basic outline. Most of the mitzvot that Bnei Yisrael received at Sinai were applicable immediately. However, Hashem knew that several decades would go by before shemitta and yovel would be operative. Why shouldn’t Hashem put the stress on details regarding the immediately operative mitzvot?
The answer is that the resting of the land and the holy jubilee year are central pillars of the Torah. The Torah says not to plant during shemitta. Although the poor were able to share with the rich landowners, our sources indicate that things were harder for the poor during shemitta than during other years (that is why they left some land without sanctity so as to support the poor from that land (Chagiga 3b)), so the needs of the poor were not the reason for shemitta. Rather the Torah’s goal is to cause man to realize that worldly possessions are not of intrinsic or of stable value.
The Torah promises a blessing for those who deserve it: "You will eat your bread in satiation" (Vayikra 26:5), from which the Rabbis learn that one will eat a little, but it will find blessing in one’s intestines. Would people be happy with a special pill that provides all the nutrients one needs, and eat nothing else? What about the enjoyment of eating? That’s why the Torah stresses to be preoccupied with Torah. When engrossed in the words of Torah, one does not find worldly pursuits so compelling. In a Torah world, one can leave competition behind and be happy helping others rather than accumulating wealth. The discipline needed to keep shemitta is related to the power to dedicate oneself to Torah.
Deep involvement in Torah is designed to take one from fighting class struggles over power and resources to struggling to determine the truth in age-old question of halacha or ethics. The latter is certainly more worthwhile.
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