PARASHAT BEHAR: Faith and giving

Why should we let the earth rest on the 7'th year?

A FARMER harvests wheat in a field near Mevo Horon (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A FARMER harvests wheat in a field near Mevo Horon
This week’s Torah portion, Behar, deals with one of the commandments relating to the Land of Israel – shmita, the sabbatical year.
Every seventh year, the farmers in the Land of Israel are to let their fields “rest”: “…the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord.”
The reason for this is clearly stated: “I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be a God to you” (Leviticus 25:38).
The land does not belong to man. Nor does it belong to the nation. The land belongs to God, Who decided in His benevolence to bequeath it to us. In order for us to remember this and not live with a sense of entitlement, God instructs us to abandon ownership of the land every seventh year for one year. During this year, ownership of the land carries no significance. Man internalizes the understanding that his existence is not independent but is conditioned on God’s goodwill.
He processes this understanding during the next six years, until the next shmita year.
What happens to the harvest that grows in the fields during the shmita year? If it were up to us to decide, we would probably base our decision on the assumption that since the land belongs to God and not man, the yield should be given to the Temple or to the kohanim (priests). Based on the Torah, the place that represents God on earth is the Temple, and the people who serve God in the Temple are the kohanim. If the land belongs to God, it seems that the land’s yield should be brought to the Temple.
But that is not what the Torah instructs. The harvest is not brought to the Temple or to those who serve in it: “And [the produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you. And all of its produce may be eaten [also] by your domestic animals and by the beasts that are in your land” (ibid. 25:6-7).
Surprise! The harvest is not sent off to any holy place. It is distributed among people who live in your area, with emphasis on the weak who lack legal rights, and even domestic and wild animals get to enjoy the crops. Why? Maybe it’s easier to ask the opposite question: Why is it that we tend not to give things to others? Why is there this tendency by stronger segments of society to take advantage of those who are weaker? Why is it not more common to see people encourage and support one another? To really answer this, we must delve into the depths of a person’s soul. But we can answer it briefly: Man is a scared, suspicious creature who sees every other creature as threatening and dangerous. There are plenty of people who accumulate more wealth than they could ever use in a lifetime. Why? To feel confident in their own existence and success.
To be able to empower others, we have to feel secure and unafraid; we have to believe that if the other person has assets, that does not diminish my own existence.
This faith is not natural or obvious, and therefore people tend to weaken each other so they can gain a deeper sense of confidence in their own existence.
Now let’s try to focus on the consciousness of a person who has internalized the concept that his existence is a God-given grace. How might he treat others? How would he see someone else’s existence? What would such a person’s attitude be toward animals in his environment? If everything he has, and even life itself, is his by God’s grace, he has no reason to suspect that others will not also benefit from that same grace. If he is thankful to God for the riches he worked hard to attain, why not be happy to share these riches with others? Even wild animals become less threatening and are seen as deserving of grace with a right to exist.
According to Judaism, faith in God is intertwined with an ideological life of grace and justice. A person is commanded to strengthen his faith in God and his sense of gratitude to his Creator. This faith will inevitably lead to the ability to give to others – to every person and to every living creature. 
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.