Torah | A mitzvah for the land good for the heart, too

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Leviticus 25:1-26:2

Jeremiah 32:6-27

Mentioned in the opening of this week’s Torah portion, the mitzvah of shmita, the sabbatical year in which the land lays fallow, has attracted attention from Jewish environmentalists in recent years. We heard and read a lot about this last year, as 5775 on the Hebrew calendar (September 2014 to September 2015) was a shmita year.

But even way back in the 12th century, the well-known Jewish philosopher and legalist Maimonides wrote, “With regard the laws of the Sabbatical year … these are meant to make the earth more fertile and stronger through letting it lie fallow.” (“Guide for the Perplexed,” Part 3, Chapter 39).

Though the environmental strand remains central to this mitzvah, several commentators have highlighted other important aspects pertaining to it.

Writing in the 16th century, Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno focused on the effect our rest from tilling the land can have on us — not just on the land itself. In his commentary on Leviticus 25:2-4, he wrote, “The entire year in which work of the land ceases, must be consecrated to the service of God. … All those who toil the land, should become aroused to seek God in some way, during this year of rest.”

In the 19th century, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer highlighted the potential benefits the mitzvah has on social welfare beyond the welfare of the earth’s soil. He wrote, “The shmita year teaches us further that the rich should not lord over the poor. Accordingly, the Torah ordained that all should be equal during the seventh year, both the rich and the needy having access to the gardens and fields to eat their fill.”

The “Sefer ha-Chinuch,” the classic medieval rabbinic work that systematically enumerates the Torah’s 613 commandments, gives yet another explanation for this mitzvah. The tome teaches that “There is another useful benefit to be gained from it: to attain through it the quality of yielding and relinquishing.”

In other words, the shmita year serves to teach us to let go. While we initially learn to relinquish our land and some of our material possessions, we eventually learn to let go of matters more abstract or internal.

Kobi Oz, a well-known singer-songwriter in Israel, focuses on the psychological dimension, as well. In a song he wrote titled “Zalman Ze Lo Ata,” Oz describes a man who time and time again attempts and fails to define himself through his relationships, from the concrete (family and career) to the abstract (time and space).

Here are some of the lyrics: “Zalman wandered the world confused. He asked himself: ‘Who am I and what for? I am a farmer I have acres of land. And I run it all’ … And then a heavenly voice spoke out: ‘Zalman that’s not you. Look, it’s the shmita year. The field flourishes without your help. You are not your land.’”

In Oz’s song, the mitzvah of letting the land lie fallow challenges us to think about our identity beyond our material possessions or matters that falsely seem to fall under our control.

Hillel Milo, one of Israel’s first venture capitalists, composed a poem on the mitzvah of shmita that also powerfully captures the internal disposition that the shmita year seeks to cultivate. Here is a translation:

“Do not wait a lifetime / In order to release / A starting stance for releasing (shmita): / Hands loosened to the side of the body / Palms open and limp / And they release / Hatred / Jealousy / Tension / Humiliation / War / Insensitivity / Guilt / These are seven releases / Once in a lifetime the soul can rest from releasing.”

Here the mitzvah of relinquishing our control over the land eventually teaches us to let go of feelings that attempt to weigh us down. It is not the land only that needs the release; our inner selves need it too.

The shmita year powerfully works on all these levels, from setting limits on our subjugation of the land to setting us free from erroneous understandings of our lives or our place in the world.

Zalman Shazar, president of Israel in 1963 to 1973, aptly captured this insight: “It is good for a man that he will just once be free of his wealth […] He will [then] listen only to his heart, and be completely still […] And gain understanding for his life, he will [then] know what is and sense what he owes.”

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected].

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected].