Parashat Behar-Bechukkotai 5778

Rabbi Yuval Keren – 11 May 2018

 
“Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Shabbat of complete rest” … “You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.” (Leviticus 25)

These two laws of the Torah were revolutionary in ancient times, and I believe that they are still as revolutionary in our days.

The law shemitah requires the land to rest on the seventh year. It has a direct connection with the keeping of the Sabbath as a holy day of rest. We are commanded to follow this divine example and we therefore have six days to live our daily lives, go to work, conduct business and provide for ourselves and our family. Then comes the seventh day of rest. It is not rest from all work, but it should be a break from the mundane and the routine in our lives. It is a day set aside for us to recover, and spend some time with our family, friends, and community. Keeping the Sabbath as a holy day means that for six days we act as servants and one day as masters of our needs, aspirations and desires.

Being servants should not be seen in a negative light. Service motivates the world and good, sincere and attentive service brings benefit to both its provider and receiver.

Yet, we also need time to reap the benefits of our toil, a time when we are no longer in service of our needs. This is what the Sabbath day has to offer us.

We sometimes think of the Sabbath as a day full of restrictions and prohibitions. It is in fact a revolutionary day of liberation where we allow ourselves to break from the routine and engage in the important matters of life.

It is therefore no wonder that we consider the Sabbath to be a taste of heaven, a mini olam ha’ba (the world to come), and a taster of eternal leisure time where all will be provided.

The Shemita, the seventh year of rest, carries the same revolutionary message. For six years we can get Mother Earth to work for us, but for one year the land must rest, recover and recuperate.

The seventh year is a Divine indication that we cannot exploit anyone or anything without giving them the opportunity to ‘catch their breath’. Such exploitation is often the cause of damage to our environment, destruction of forests, devastation of animal habitats, depletion of fish stocks, and hunger and suffering around the world.

This ancient revolutionary solution is not aimed at refraining from making use of the world around us, rather, it aims to let the world to have seasons and times of peace and tranquillity where humans, animals and the land can have the opportunity to recover and return to their former state.

If the idea of the seventh year was innovative in its time, then the concept of the Jubilee is seven times more revolutionary. This year ensures that once every fifty years even people and assets that are tied to old agreements, have the right to be released. Slaves were to be set free on that year. This means that there could not be a situation where one is born a slave and dies a slave without having at least the opportunity to taste freedom.

Fortunately slavery is illegal in our time. Yet the shemita and Jubilee are not observed in our days. Perhaps they were never observed properly. Like many utopic ideals the concept of Shemita and Jubilee only ever serve as a reminder that we do not live by bread alone, and that we must take time out from the mundane everyday activity and engage in the holiness of rest. It serves as a reminder that everything created by God is only ever on-loan with us. At the end of that borrowing period, all that we borrowed during our lifetime must and will return to their rightful Owner. It is also a reminder that it is our responsibility to ensure the protection of the weak in our society. Every person in our world is entitled to a degree of freedom even when circumstances, be them historical, personal, financial or health, forces them to lose their freedom.

It is our social, political, environmental and ethical responsibility to ensure that our world and its inhabitants benefit from a tome of rest, be it day, a week, or a year.

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