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By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

Why Shemittah1

It is one of the most famous questions posed by Rashi in all of Chumash: What does shemittah have to do with Har Sinai? The oft- repeated answer – that the Torah wished to underscore that the specific details and minutiae of each mitzvah are as sourced in Divine revelation as the general shape of the mitzvah – leaves a nagging question in its wake. Why did the Torah chose shemittah to teach a lesson as important and fundamental as the scope of Sinaitic revelation? Certainly we could think of any number of suitable mitzvos to which this lesson could have been linked. While we struggle to comprehend the depths of the Torah’s intention in this, we may as well ask the more general question about shemittah. Just what makes it so central and pivotal that the dire threat of next week’s tochechah places shemittah front and center as the cause of all that has gone wrong: “Then the land will be appeased for its shabbosos… then the land will rest and it will appease for its shabbosos.”2 The tochechah speaks in general terms about our projected spiritual meltdown. It deals with only one specific transgression – the desecration of shemittah. Why? Why, for that matter, does shemittah join with the three cardinal sins of Yiddishkeit in the passage in Avos, “Galus comes about because of idolatry, forbidden relations, murder, and shemittah.”3 Why does shemittah figure so prominently in the etiology of galus?

The solution will come by way of unraveling a mystery associated with the first Mishnah in Avos, which describes Moshe as receiving the Torah from Sinai. Why Sinai? Isn’t the real point of that Mishnah that Moshe received the entirety of Torah from HKB”H? Can a mountain give the Torah?

We can suggest that Sinai does not mean the mountain per se, but what we colloquially call ma’amad Har Sinai, the experience of standing before Hashem, in the most overwhelming display of His Presence ever. That experience, like no other moment in human history, impressed clear emunah upon our souls. His reality became so clear and immediate that our souls fled our bodies. Emunah at that moment suffused our beings. We apprehended Him not only with mind and heart, but emunah in Him penetrated the appendages of our bodies. The sense of ayn od milvado, there is nothing besides Him, permeated every last nook and cranny of our bodies.

Such was our experience even before He began speaking to us. Our preparation for receiving the Torah hit its stride only with this unique and absolute clarification of emunah. Quite possibly, the Mishnah in Avos means this magic moment when it refers to Moshe receiving the Torah from Sinai. It means that Moshe was coming from a place of utter and complete emunah, and, as our teacher, drew a straight line for us from that moment to all the times we would spend studying Torah. When a Jew studies Torah – or performs any mitzvah, for that matter – he must hail back to that moment as much as possible, approaching his learning (as the Mishnah there says) with fear and trembling, revisiting and drawing upon an emunah so deep that it seizes his body and causes it to tremble.

We might explain Rashi’s “general” and “specific” along these lines. The “general” refers to the overarching sense of emunah that accompanies the entire mitzvah system. Every individual mitzvah – every “specific” instantiation of the mitzvah system – brings along a specific insight and deepening of emunah. The source of all of this is Sinai. We draw from it, and recreate in our own lives the clarity of emunah that was made available to us on that day.

One mitzvah in particular has special potency in reliving that emunah. Each shemittah a Jew turns his back on the source of his livelihood and survival. With no apparent source of sustenance, he prevails upon himself to desist from the activity that ordinarily puts bread on his table. Living through shemittah is living with an emunah that suffuses his body. It represents the epitome of emunah. (Arguably, Shabbos is a key component of living with emunah, representing as it does our conviction in Hashem as Creator. Shabbos, however, is about awareness of the facts of Creation. It pertains to emunah of the mind and heart. Shemittah demands an emunah that occupies our bodies. The Torah hints at this in speaking of Shabbos ha-aretz, with aretz implying the lower, coarser, more earthy part of us. Shemittahemunah-teaching experience of Shabbos, applied to the aretz of our beings, or the penetration of emunah even to our unthinking and unfeeling bodies.

A key pasuk in the parshah of Shemittah yields several approaches that highlight the centrality of emunah and bitachon in its observance. “If you will say, �??What will we eat in the seventh year?’…I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year….”4 Why did the Torah bother to even ask the question? Had the Torah simply provided the Divine guarantee of sustenance through a special blessing of the sixth year, we would have completely understood why such a berachah was necessary.

Actually, says the Noam Elimelech in the name of his brother, we would have gotten it wrong! The real master of emunah and bitachon does not require a special blessing! The channels of Divine influence run clear and strong to such a person, in all his endeavors, throughout his life. When doubt intrudes and spoils that perfect bitachon, the connection to the Divine influence is disturbed. In order to accommodate the less-than-perfect bitachon of the Shemittah observer who has room for the question, Hashem is forced, kivayachol, to establish a special berachah do sustain him. (The easier way to parnasah through complete bitachon was illustrated nicely by the Rozhiner Rebbe through a parable. A poor person heard of an exceedingly generous philanthropist in the next town, who provided for all those who came to him. He traveled there, but mistakenly knocked on the door of the town miser. The poor man asked for food; the miser did not identify himself as such, but promised a meal in return for the poor man’s labor. He worked him hard. When the poor man asked for a meal at the end of the day, the miser sent him next door, to his generous neighbor! The Rozhiner explained that in the end, we are all sustained through the generosity of HKB”H. Some of us make the mistake of knocking on the doors of the wrong apparent providers, and enslaving ourselves to them unnecessarily. This, too, is the central teaching of Shemittah. It is not the land that we work that provides our parnasah. It is Hashem Himself.)

Be’er Mayim Chaim offers an entirely different approach to the pasuk, but also arrives at the same place of deepening our appreciation of emunah and bitachon. The question given voice by the pasuk is not born of weakness or equivocation. The questioner does not doubt for a moment that Hashem will provide for His children and not let them starve as a consequence of their observing His mitzvah. They do not question whether He will provide them with their needs; they ask just how He will bring it about. Understanding full well that the sustenance will come, they inquire as to what wonders and miracles should they expect to see?

Hashem responds by rejecting the premise. He will not perform wonders and miracles. He has no need for them. (We are loathe to depend on miracles, and miraculous intervention comes at the price of reducing our available store of merit.) He has enough leeway in the processes of Nature that he can ordain His berachah without contravening natural law in the slightest. Providentially providing us with what we think is miraculous does not take miracles!

It is likely that Shemittah impacts far more than the years around it. Indeed, it is Shemittah that determines success or failure at all times in the Land of Israel. Shemittah is an attitude and a program. In other places, more development usually leads to increased profitability. In Israel, the reverse is true. Hatzlachah comes from that which we refrain from development in the Shemittah year, assigning our parnasah needs instead to Hashem.

“When you come into the land,…the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for Hashem. For six years you many sow your field…”5 The words are so familiar, we don’t even realize that they are backwards! The six years of sowing proceed the one year of Shemittah. Why does the Torah reverse the logical order? What the Torah means to do is to convey the urgency of Shemittah, and its centrality in living in the Land. When you come into the Land, the first order of business, the platform upon which to build all else is Shemittah and the clarified emunah that it implies and embodies.

1 Based on Nesivos Shalom, 116-119
2 Vayikra 26:34
3 Avos 5:9
4 Vayikra 25:20-21
5 Vayikra 25:2-3

Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and