The central theme of this week’s Torah portion (Behar-Bechukotai – Leviticus 25-27) is that of the Sabbatical year, known as shmita. Every seven years the land of Israel must lay dormant — no agricultural work may be performed on the land.
To this very day, the rules of shmita, forbidding any agricultural work on the Land of Israel, are observed and many Jewish farmers do not plant, prune or even harvest. After seven shmita years -50 years in total – is the Yovel, the Jubilee year.
While today we have a number of solutions to ensure the availability and sale of produce in Israel even during the shmita year, this was not always the case. In ancient times, shmita was shmita. A farmer would put away all his tools and equipment. One might ask: Why did God command this? Would it not be difficult for a farmer to support himself for the entire year and, in fact, for much of the year after, if he could not work his land?
One thing is for sure: the laws of shmita represent self-sacrifice and tremendous faith in God. Observing the laws of shmita testifies that a person realizes that nothing truly belongs to him. Even the land that one “owns” and cultivates actually belongs to God — it is on loan to us to be used according to His will. All our possessions are His — we are merely the watchmen. You think you have a landlord? There is only one tru landlord in this world.
There is a famous story that illustrates this point. The famed sage, Rabbi Yisrael Kagan (1838-1933), known as the Chafetz Chaim, was once visited by a wealthy admirer. When the visitor entered the rabbi’s tiny home he got the shock of his life: The living room was furnished with nothing but an old table and rickety bench. The kitchen was tiny and primitive. There were no modern amenities at all. The man turned to the Chafetz Chaim and asked: “How do you live like this? Where are all your possessions?”
The Chafetz Chaim asked him: “How did you get here?”
“By coach” the visitor replied.
The Chafetz Chaim went outside to see the carriage. After examining it, he commented to his guest: “I don’t see a dining room, kitchen or even a bed inside of this thing!”
“But Rabbi, I am just traveling through your town. Travelers don’t bring their beds and kitchens with them!”
The Chafetz Chaim answered: “I too am traveling…traveling through this world to the World to Come. This lifetime is temporary. Why should I amass amenities and possessions?”
This is the lesson of shmita: Life is temporary. Life is fragile. We are merely passing through this world, stopping here for 80 or 90 years only to do His will. We need not get carried away with luxuries and superfluous amenities.
Even today, as we read the Torah portion this week, the laws of shmita are a timeless lesson. The farmer sits back in obedience to God and does not work his land. Just as the farmerunderstands that the land belongs to God and obeys His command, he also knows that God could provide for him in many other ways. We, too, should remember: Everything is His, this world is only temporary, and even when things look bleak and scary, God is there to provide. He hasn’t let down a single farmer yet!
Shabbat Shalom from the Holy Land of Israel!
Rabbi Ari Enkin
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