Behar-Behukotai: The commandment of shmita

"Six years you shall sow your field... But in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land".

Cotton Field 521 (photo credit: Yeshoshua Halevi)
Cotton Field 521
(photo credit: Yeshoshua Halevi)
The Torah portion that we read this Shabbat, Behar-Behukotai, begins with the commandment to cease working the land every seventh year, the year of shmita.
“When you come into the land, then shall the land keep a Sabbath unto the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard. But in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath unto the Lord; you shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard.
“It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. And the Sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you: for you, and for your servant and for your maid, and for your hired servant and for the settler by your side that sojourn with you; and for your cattle, and for the beasts that are in your land, shall all the increase thereof be for food.”
(Leviticus 25: 2-7) For six years, the farmer worked his fields – plowing, seeding, reaping, pruning and harvesting. And then, after six years of hard work – a strike! The entire farm is paralyzed for a full year, 354 days (a lunar year); a general work stoppage.
Why? For what purpose? Who benefits? For six years, man lives in a never-ending race for his livelihood and sustenance, money and status.
He seeds his fields and enjoys nice profits from his harvest. For six years, the state is ruled by the laws of supply and demand, fluctuations of rates and prices. And of course, all this is sprinkled with a little cheating which might benefit business but damages the soul.
And then an amazing change occurs. In the midst of all the bustle of life, the huge machine which pulls man into the realm of chasing money stops. Not for two days or for a week. For one full year – no work.
For a whole year, man stands in front of his property as a guest and not an owner. Now, during this year, the harvest of the fields are not yours, dear farmer, but “for you, for your servant and for your maid, and for your hired servant and for the settler... and for your cattle, and for the beasts.”
For this year, dear farmer, you are equal to the servant, the settler, the cattle and the beast. For this year, the land belongs to everyone. To teach you, that also for the six years during which you worked the land, you were not its owner, but in charge of treating it righteously and honestly, giving of your land’s harvest to the weak and needy, to the fringes of society, and even to cattle and beasts.
A story is told about two Jews who were fighting over a piece of land. One claimed that the land was his while the other claimed it was his. The issue reached the courts, but even there a decision was not reached. With no choice left, they turned to the rabbi of the city to arbitrate between them.
The rabbi heard their claims and agreed that the decision was indeed a difficult one. He turned to them and said, “I would like to see the piece of land under dispute. Please accompany me.”
The two left along with the rabbi outside of town to examine the disputed land. When they arrived, the rabbi suddenly leaned down and put his ear to the ground, and listened...
The two people claiming ownership of the land watched this odd scene and could not hide their surprise. The rabbi smiled at them and said, “I heard your claims and saw that indeed, the decision on this issue is difficult for me. I decided to hear what the land itself had to say – what it thought and to whom it belonged.”
The two men stared at the rabbi in confusion mixed with pity, but the rabbi continued, “And what do you think the land answered? It claims that it belongs to neither of you. On the contrary, the two of you belong to it! Why must they fight and argue, said the land, since today or tomorrow they will both come to me...
The two men understood the rabbi’s obvious hint and in complete embarrassment, they looked down to the ground and immediately agreed to compromise.
The lesson we learn from the commandment of shmita is still relevant today when most people no longer work in agriculture. So long as man walks the earth and feels a sense of ownership over it, he must be reminded: The property you own was given to you not so that you will reap personal profits from it, but so that you will treat it justly, honestly and with compassion; so that you always remember the poor and the weak and assist them with your money.The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.