The Parsha—Behar—deals with, among other Mitzvot, the rules of Shemita, the sabbatical year, during which the land must lie uncultivated and unworked by the people; and the rules of Yovel, the Jubilee Year. The Shemita was observed every seventh year, and during that year, the ownership of the land was, in a sense, suspended—anyone could eat what grew in the field; even animals could enter the field and eat, though the ownership of the field remained in effect and resumed the following year. As for the Yovel, that was a year that occurred after seven Shemita cycles, so that the fiftieth year was sanctified and, again, the fields were not farmed. Here, the ownership was radically effected in that the land reverted to the original owners (or their heirs) as determined all the way at the beginning of the Israelite settlement in the Land of Israel. Yovel had other aspects that made it a kind of “reset” of the Land of Israel: debts were forgiven, for example, and slaves were freed.
These institutions were practiced during the period when the entire Jewish People lived in the Land of Israel, but the Talmud (Erechin 32) tells us that only then was the Yovel in effect. Once the Jews began to be exiled, as they were 150 years before the Destruction of the First Temple, when Sennacharib exiled the two and half tribes living east of the Jordan, then Yovel—its economic and legal practices, at any rate—ceased to be observed. Shemita, on the other hand, remained in effect and was observed even after the First Temple was destroyed and the Jews were driven out of Israel in 422 BCE. (According to some rabbis, however, Shemita became a rabbinic decree, aimed at insuring that the institution would not be forgotten, but was no longer a Biblical Mitzvah as it had been before.) Yovel, the Sages tells us, will be reinstated only when the Jewish people are brought back to Israel en masse during the Messianic Age. Shemita, however, is in effect even today.
The Torah addresses the question that was very likely on everyone’s mind—“what will we eat on the seventh year” (Vayikra 25:20) and how will we survive if we suspend farming for a year?—by assuring Israel (25:21-23) that the harvest of the sixth year will be so abundant that they will be able to live on it well into the following year when the new harvest is ready.
Two questions arise from the difference between Shemita and Yovel: First, why did the institution of Shemita continue through all the historical ups and downs of the Land of Israel, while Yovel was suspended? Second, if the Jews living in Israel were worried about what they will eat during the year of Shemita, they would be even more concerned about how they will survive the year of Yovel, when the land will lie fallow and be uncultivated for two years. Rashi assures us that the surplus of the year before the two sabbatical years of Shemita and Yovel will be even larger—large enough to ensure the survival of the land’s inhabitants, but shouldn’t such an assurance have been made explicitly in the Torah? Why doesn’t it?
To understand this, we need to take a closer look at the ideas that lie at the core and the foundations of Shemita and of Yovel. Clearly, in both institutions, we are learning to live with faith in Hashem, dedicating ourselves to Him as our primary task in life, and we are letting the land become replenished by resting it, though one year would certainly have been enough rest. In the days of the week, a single day—Shabbos—is enough for us to experience this setting aside of time for service to the Almighty and to sanctify our lives. But in years, a single “year of rest”—Shemita—doesn’t seem to suffice. We need an additional year, Yovel, and it must come right after the land (and, one would think, we ourselves) have rested. What new, additional purpose is served by this additional year, by Yovel?
Looking Deeper at the World
When we look at the world, we see that there are two ways of looking at it—two very different ways of seeing and interpreting the facts and happenings around us. In one of those ways, the world seems to be operating according to “rules of nature,” an order imposed on the physical world. We think, for example, that we survive by the sustenance that we draw out of the earth by planting and harvesting, and that we depend on our own talents, our own initiative to earn a livelihood. The business ventures that we embark on succeed or don’t succeed because of our abilities and the effectiveness of what we come up with in the way of creative ideas, plans and management. And before our actions bear fruits, there are many other people in a chain that leads up to us who likewise are providing what is needed for people to live—the farmer planting the seed and cultivating the crop; the manufacturer processing the food and making it edible and getting it to us; the grocer putting it on the shelves in the super market. And there’s a similar chain leading from us: the people who depend on what we produce; the people who care for our affairs and the doctors who treat our ailments. At each step in the process, each link in the chain, there are people who believe—or at least acting as if they believe—that how well we live, how we survive and enjoy the good things in life, is the product and result of what we and others like us accomplish and succeed in doing through our own talents and abilities.
But there is another way at looking at the world: That clever idea that you thought was responsible for your success—who put it in your head? Hashem! Who was responsible for the chance meeting of the person who appreciated your idea and acted on it? It wasn’t chance at all—it happened as the will of the Almighty. And going back into the chain, what was it that created the food that we are buying from the farmer—not the cleverness of the farmer to plant a seed because he knows that planting a seed results in things growing. It was the Will of G-d that was responsible for it all. The seed doesn’t “just grow” and food doesn’t “just appear”—your business doesn’t “just prosper,” your website doesn’t just appear on the first page of Google because of your talents in “Search Engine Optimization”, and your YouTube video doesn’t “go viral” because you’re a genius. It’s all directed by Hashem, all part of His majestic plan for the world and for each life in it.
It may appear that we are the authors of what happens; this is only an illusion, a game we play—and ruse we play along with. The “laws of nature,” the “forces of the market,” the “chance meetings” and the “lucky breaks”—they are not things that “just happen,” but they are things that are orchestrated, designed and made real by Hashem. And why do we choose this view of the world and not that other, nicely ordered, “scientific” view? Because there are times when those “laws of nature” and those “rules of life” are clearly not working. If we are honest with ourselves, we don’t know why the seed germinates, why food appears out of the ground, why the living cell reaches out for warmth and sustenance, why the plans we cook up in our professions work out. Because sometimes, for no apparent reason—for no reason even deep down no matter how closely we look—the seed doesn’t germinate; food doesn’t come from the ground (sometimes, it comes from above, as it did when Manna fed Israel in the wilderness!); the plans we make don’t work—and the souls in us don’t wake up refreshed and energized. Sometimes, sadly, that soul doesn’t wake up at all, and medical “science” can’t say why.
As King David puts it in the very last verse of Psalms, his concluding statement in Tehillim (150:6): Kol haneshamah tehallel kah, Hallelukah: “Let every soul praise You, Lord, Hallelukah!” And as the Sages interpret the verse, “Le-kol neshima u’neshimah”: “For every single breath” must we thank and praise Hashem. This is a choice we make between these two competing and diametrically opposed views of the world and of life. The “reasonableness” and all the “evidence” (such as it is) that supports that first “rational, scientific” view is itself part of the Divine Design: it makes our choice of the second, G-d-centered view a free choice that we make by a conscious decision. But we make that choice in the dark—as do those who choose the first view, if they are totally honest about it.
But then there are times when we can make that decision “in the light”—when the Presence of the Almighty and His Dominion over the world and the lives we live becomes apparent. This is what happens on Shavu’os, the occasion of our direct meeting with the Almighty at Sinai and our experiencing of the Divine Presence and the Divine Utterance of “Anochi—”: “I am the Lord, Your G-d—”. This occurred (then, after the Exodus from Egypt, and occurs now) after seven weeks of counting and on the fiftieth day. And it occurred in Yovel, the Jubilee Year, after seven cycles of seven years. But it could only occur with all of the Nation of Israel in the Holy Land, and when the miraculous G-dly elements of the First Temple, absent in the Second Temple—that made the presence of Hashem immediate and manifest—existed.
In the year of Yovel, the faith that Israel lives by and the trust the Nation of Israel has in Hashem, is at a higher level than it is on Shemita. That’s why there is no need to assure Israel explicitly that they need not worry about being sustained during Yovel—something they do need to be assured of for Shemita. In the same manner, we seek and aspire to a deeper level of faith that derives from a greater appreciation of the rule and dominion of Hashem over all the goings on in the world—in fact, from an appreciation of the fact that Hashem is manifest and present in the world—through the Torah and through Mitzvot. This is the higher level of our meeting with Hashem that we prepare for by counting the days—fifty days, like the fifty years of the Yovel cycle, and like the “Fifty Gates of Wisdom” through which the Presence of Hashem becomes radiant and apparent—readying ourselves for the Festival of Shavu’os.
By Rabbi Reuven Wolf