The Book of Leviticus has opened before us like a complex but beautiful guidebook: We started by dealing with our possessions, then our animals, from sacrifices to the laws of kashrut; then people, from birth through life; then peoplehood in general, with the priest’s Yom Kippur atonement; and now, we’re coming to the laws regarding the land.
We’re also reaching new heights in the peculiarity of our laws. We may have gotten used to most of these mitzvot, but the shmita year must really be one of our craziest: “Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof; And the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath unto God. You shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard” (Leviticus 25:3-4).
And just in case we didn’t get it (Let’s be honest: How could we get this?), the next verse states: “it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.” And in case we still didn’t get it (Wait, are you sure it’s not crop rotation? You really mean a whole year of rest to the land?), the next verse also calls it: the Sabbath of the land.
So did we get it?
On the surface, it’s simple: The shmita year is like Shabbat, but it’s for a whole year. Imagine what would happen if we received such a commandment. We barely make it through one “hands-off” day. How would we deal with a whole year? The children of Israel must have asked that, too, and God said: “And if you shall say: ‘What shall we eat on the seventh year?’ … then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years” (25:20-21).
Why three years? Because we need food for the sixth, seventh and the beginning of eighth year, too. And this just gets “worse” when there is a jubilee (the 50th year in a cycle), when we will need food for four years before we can harvest our own produce off our own land.
Of course, we learned how to work within the system because a restriction and discipline are often just pushes for more creativity. As a result, we learned to grow plants above ground (rather than simply in the soil), and near the land rather than in the land. But is that all it is? A trick or challenge for us?
According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th century, shmita makes three things possible for human beings: to bridge and flow better between the materialistic and spiritual worlds; to highlight our connection to the land of Israel, because the shmita year is binding only in Israel; and to learn the correct approach to social class, richness and poverty in a just society.
Winston Churchill said: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”
The Torah offers us a careful mix of both. Call it “capitalism with a conscience” or “socialistic capitalism.” Either way, we need to recognize that it’s not an either/or.
It’s great that some people can reach for the stars and grab some, but those who can’t still deserve to be treated with dignity. Thus, we have countless laws on how to make sure that the gaps — between rich and poor, land owners, laborers and gatherers, balabtim (heads of households) and widows — don’t grow endlessly, but rather that we provide care for each other. In this way, we can advocate for free economy, and those of us who are capable of increasing their wealth are encouraged to do so.
However, we see to it that greed is curbed and the needy are served and given a place as valued members of society.
The Torah tells us that the land belongs to God (25:23), and we are but temporary tenants on it, so once every seven years, we return what we have to the rightful owner.
Recent history has seen the world break apart into “isms,” trying to make each stand on its own. Some of these theories may have had a good idea at their core, but their isolation from the greater system made them fail with dreadful consequences.
And although we are not in the land of Israel and don’t have to let our land lie fallow, we can still live by some of these values, and especially this week, remind ourselves of the Holy Land’s uniqueness and beauty.
Michal Kohane is a longtime leader and educator in the Jewish community of Northern California.