Torah Weekly

For the week ending 17 May 2008 / 12 Iyyar 5768

Parshat Behar

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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The Torah prohibits normal farming of the Land of Israel every seven years. This "Shabbat" for the land is called "shemita".After every seventh shemita, the fiftieth year, yovel (jubilee) is announced with the sound of the shofar on Yom Kippur. This was also a year for the land to lie fallow. G-d promises to provide a bumper crop prior to the shemita and yovel years. During yovel, all land is returned to its original division from the time of Joshua, and all Jewish indentured servants are freed, even if they have not completed their six years of work. A Jewish indentured servant may not be given any demeaning, unnecessary or excessively difficult work, and may not be sold in the public market. The price of his labor must be calculated according to the amount of time remaining until he will automatically become free. The price of land is similarly calculated. Should anyone sell his ancestral land, he has the right to redeem it after two years. If a house in a walled city is sold, the right of redemption is limited to the first year after the sale. The Levites' cities belong to them forever. The Jewish People are forbidden to take advantage of one another by lending or borrowing with interest. Family members should redeem any relative who was sold as an indentured servant as a result of impoverishment.


Partners In Time

“...When you come to the land which I am giving to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for G-d.” (25:2)

When you look at the letterhead of some law firms you might think you’re reading the New York phone book. It seems like everyone is a junior partner.

In a way, we too want to be junior partners — junior partners with G-d. We think: Okay G-d, you run the world. You’re the Boss. I just want a little junior partnership over here to do what I want to do. I just want a little of my own space.

How can you have your own space when "His honor fills the world"? How can you have a junior partnership with the One to whom there is no ‘two’?

The religions of the world are based on the premise that you can be a junior partner with G-d. You can turn up once a week for an hour and that’s that. The rest of your time is your own. A Jew is on duty 24/7, from the cradle to the grave. We are the people that G-d has chosen to serve Him.

But doesn’t that sound terribly forbidding? Am I nothing more than a cipher? A mindless automaton filling instructions? Where is my space? Where is my individuality?

In reality, G-d has given us a junior partnership. But it’s not a partnership so we can slink off and play golf in the afternoons. It’s a partnership in the very creation of time itself.

Nothing can exist in this world without a spark of holiness. Even a bathroom has a spark of holiness. The laws of how one conducts oneself there. Nothing can exist without holiness. Holiness is the air that the world breathes. Just like man cannot exist without air, the world cannot exist without holiness.

When G-d created the world He created it with two kinds of holiness, which are expressed in Shabbat on the one hand, and the Festivals on the other.

The holiness of Shabbat is fixed, immutable. Every seven days, we enter a world called Shabbat. It requires no intervention on our part. Shabbat flows down from the upper worlds without our assistance and beyond our control.

The Festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Succot are another matter. G-d allows man, as Beit Din, to establish the day on which the month begins, and thus the exact times of the Festivals: G-d gave to Beit Din the power to adjust the day on which the months began, and thus determine on which days the Festivals would fall.

In the mitzvah of shemita, (the Sabbatical year for the Land) it says “...When you come to the Land which I am giving to you, the Land shall observe a Shabbat rest for G-d.” The Land is to observe a Shabbat rest for G-d. Exactly the same expression — for G-d — is used in the account of the Creation of Shabbat — “A Shabbat for G-d.”

Just as there are two types of holiness in the days and the months, Shabbat and of the Festivals, so too there are two types of holiness in the years themselves. The seventh year is a Shabbat of the Land. Its holiness is ‘fixed’ like Shabbat.The holiness of Yovel (the Jubilee year) is like the holiness of the Festivals. Its holiness represents a partnership of G-d and man. “For it is Yovel; holy it will be to you.”

If the shofar is not blown at the beginning of the Yovel year, the year is not a Yovel. If the slaves are not set free, the year is not a Yovel. If the fields do not return to their original owners, the year does not have the status of a Yovel and it is permitted to reap and sow like an ordinary year.

The year of shemita is different. Even if Beit Din fails to sanctify the year as a shemita year, nevertheless it is shemita. Its holiness is fixed. It is independent of Man. Even if the years have not been counted and there has been no cessation of sowing and reaping, the fields are considered ownerless and their produce exempt from tithes.

It is for this reason that shemita is called “a Shabbat of rest for G-d”. Shemita, like Shabbat, allows for no junior partnerships.

  • Sources: Torat Kohanim, Rosh Hashana 9, Rambam Hilchot Shmitta and Yovel, Ch. 26, Meshech Chochma in Iturei Torah

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