Let Go, Let God
All of life is about the beautiful balance of releasing control and connecting. Because we are tasked to toil for our bread, we find ourselves stuck in a mindset of thinking that we are in control of our lives, that the more that we dominate our circumstances, the more in control we are. What we find in the lessons of Shemittah (the year of release) is that the rewards come from the release. Yes, we must work the field, so to speak, but without pause, there is no ultimate pleasure. To demonstrate faith to ourselves and our Creator, we have to pause our compulsion to constantly control. What we see most immediately with Shabbat, especially in the era of mini computers in our hands at most moments, is that while we seem to be steering the ship, the ship often steers us. When we shift the dynamics and put away our machines, we can reconnect to our purpose, our Creator and faith itself. It’s like a hard reset to wash away the layers of disconnect, so that we can once again feel unified with our Source.
Just last week, we discussed Shabbat as a day of rest for Hashem and for us and covered the Shalosh Regalim (the High Holy Days), which the Torah also calls Shabbat, days of rest. In this parashah, Behar, we are taught about Shabbat for the land of Israel: for six years we may sow the field, prune the vineyards, and gather crops, but in the seventh year, the land shall have “a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath for Hashem; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard…. A complete rest for the land.” This seventh year is called the Shemittah year, the year when the land is “released”.1
We also learn in this parashah that the Jewish people are commanded, when they go into the land of Israel, to count “seven sabbaths of years, seven years, seven times; and the days of seven sabbaths of years shall be for you forty-nine years.”2 The Torah goes further, instructing us to “sanctify the fiftieth year .. and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants.”3
Reb Natan of Breslov reminds us that after Adam ate from the Tree, the curse of toiling the land came into play. The mitzvah of Shemittah (the year of release, the Sabbatical year) rectifies Adam’s sin by ceasing to toil the land.4 The most beautiful part of Shemittah is that every seven years we are commanded to forgive all debts, to not work the land of Israel by planting or harvesting, and to let all of the produce that grows become hefker (“ownerless”), so that anyone can take and eat from it. This rectifies the sin of Adam, who separated from Hashem by defying His word. By observing Shemittah we show our connection to Hashem and the mitzvot, which acts as a tikkun. Beyond the unification with our Creator is a unification with each other, the notion of all that we have worked for in the land becoming ownerless shows that we all share equally in the benefits, demonstrating that the separations are man-made, and, in fact, we are all truly united.
It’s a time when we transcend all economic and social differences. As we read, “The Sabbath produce of your land shall be yours to eat, for you, for your slave, and for your maidservant; and for your laborer and for your resident who dwell with you. And for your animal and for the beast that is in your land.”5 Just as Shabbat is 1/60th of the next world, so, too, the year of Shemittah, when we stop working the field, gives us a taste of the world beyond our finite one. Where all beings, including animals, and rich and poor alike, have access to the complete harvest.6 It is a time when the figments of our fractured perceptions and differences between each other fall by the wayside and when we share status, all being infused with Godliness of equal standing.
Taking this a step further with yovel (the Jubilee year), in the 50th year, the land of Israel again must lie fallow; it may not be worked. And all land in Israel that was purchased in those fifty years is returned to its original owners, in addition to the cancellation of all debts and the freeing of all slaves. These laws pertain to the land of Israel, as it says, “Take off your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you are standing is holy ground.”7
The Cyclical Nature of Seven
It is no coincidence that we read this parashah at the same time that we’re counting the Sefirat HaOmer— 49 days (seven days for seven weeks) from Pesach, leading to Shavuot, the 50th day, which kabbalistically represents the 50 Gates of Understanding (Binah). The cycle of seven is seen throughout our lives: the two seven-day festivals– Pesach and Sukkot; marriage is celebrated and sanctified via the sheva brachot (seven blessings); shiva, the mourning period of a loved one, is seven days. Seven days is the count of clean days around niddah (women’s menstruation), and, of course, the sanctification and inauguration of the Sanctuary (shiv’at yemei milluim), and the period of purification we undergo in the times of the Beit HaMikdash when we count from tomeh (impurity) to tahor (purity). And related to the time of Sefirat HaOmer, the splitting of the sea took place seven days after the Exodus. And the giving of the Torah happened seven weeks after Exodus. Seven is a cycle and a space where we can rectify the natural, and in that rectification, we are answered with revelations of Divinity.
As we covered last week, Sefirat HaOmer is a journey in refining the seven emotional attributes outlined in the ten sefirot: חסד, Chesed (Loving-kindness); גבורה, Gevurah (Justice, Strength, Discipline); תפארת, Tiferet (Beauty, Harmony, Compassion); נצח, Netzach (Endurance, Victory); הוד, Hod (Humility, Empathy); יסוד, Yesod, (Bonding, Foundation); and מלכות, Malchut, (Sovereignty, Leadership). Seven is the DNA, so to speak, of creation, and the seven sefirot permeate the seven days of creation and are the ways in which Hashem orchestrates existence. We see this in ourselves, created in Hashem’s image, as we are composed of the seven attributes that we rectify during the Omer: love, restraint, harmony, ambition, devotion, connection and receptiveness. The Arizal explains that true “freedom” is the release of consciousness from its constricted state, the ability to approach Divine understanding of the world.8 Both Shemittah and Sefirah are opportunities for us to rectify our base nature towards Divine understanding.
Rashi asks why the connection between Shemittah and Har Sinai (Mount Sinai), and as a response, the Chatam Sofer draws a parallel between the year of Shemittah and every day of the annual Sefirat HaOmer period. Each Shemittah consists of seven years and is followed by the 50th year, yovel. The seven weeks of seven days of Sefirat HaOmer prepare us for receiving the Torah when the shofar blasts, just as it does on Yom Kippur of the yovel. And as we read in sefer Shemot: upon an extended blast of the shofar, they may ascend the mountain (בִּמְשֹׁךְ֙ הַיֹּבֵ֔ל הֵ֖מָּה יַעֲל֥וּ בָהָֽר)9 We see the connection between yovel and Har Sinai, as the shofar blasts at Har Sinai were described as yovel. In this parashah, we read that every seventh year was called Shabbat Haaretz (the Sabbath of the Land). This parallels every seven days of Sefirat HaOmer, which contains a Shabbat.10 So, the ultimate redemption comes by way of both the 50th gate of understanding, through Sefirat HaOmer (Seven Shabbatot), of our inner selves leading to Shavuot, and the seven cycles of Shemittah of that which surrounds us and how we elevate nature, leading to the ultimate redemption yovel at Har Sinai.
The Sages say, “Whoever sanctifies himself from below is sanctified from above.” And this recurring pattern in the Torah does just that– six days and years of working in the natural world, a seventh day and year of rest in holiness, and then the multiplication of those seven days or years by another seven. All leading up to the eighth day, the 50th day, and the 50th year, numbers that represent time beyond nature, the time that Hashem intervenes on another level, connection beyond our limitations in this world.
We have a Shabbat in time (seventh day), in space (the High Holidays), and in both space and time (the Shemittah and Yovel), all intended to take all that we put into creation, all the work we do from below, and return it to us in a time of rest and unification with the Divine. The 8th day and 50th day/year go beyond even that and hint towards a time when we won’t be constricted or held down by this world and its toil, instead we’ll be completely unified to purpose, oneness, spirituality. This is referred to as the days of kulo Shabbat (entirely Shabbat). Our Sages referred to it as the Messianic era, when darkness will be fully transformed to light, and we won’t have to toil for our food. As King David sings, “let there be an abundance of grain on earth.”11
Human Nature and the Cycles that Surround
The Akeidat Yitzchak says that Shemittah and yovel are “Windows to open blind eyes, which are immersed in the sights of the (immediate) time.” All land becomes ownerless, so a person doesn’t become enslaved by his own labor and puts his faith back into Hashem as the ultimate provider. He is reminded in this dramatic way to be content with keeping enough of his produce to sustain himself and to not allow himself to be overcome by the desire to accumulate wealth. It’s an incredible way to be mindful of human nature and the cycles that surround it and to meditate on the part of us, our neshamah (soul), that surpasses nature.
I love what Judith Shulevitz shared on this topic in New York Times Magazine:
I [often] think of something two rabbis said. Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, best known for his tales of the Golem, pointed out that the story of Creation was written in such a way that each day, each new creation, is seen as a step toward a completion that occurred on the Sabbath. What was Creation’s climactic culmination? The act of stopping. Why should God have considered it so important to stop? Rabbi Elijah of Vilna put it this way: God stopped to show us that what we create becomes meaningful to us only once we stop creating it and start to think about why we did so. The implication is clear. We could let the world wind us up and set us to marching, like mechanical dolls that go and go until they fall over, because they don’t have a mechanism that allows them to pause. But that would make us less than human. We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember.12
The land can keep giving, and we can keep taking, just as we can keep lending and allowing other people to take on debt, even if we see that a person might not be able to pay us back. When that is the case, debts build up across a whole community, the land becomes burdened, without any way to release the tension, fear, greed. R’i Nina Beth Cardin says that “Shemittah is a rehearsal of a new way, a time to practice living in a world of “enoughness,” where each of us is filled and flourishes with enough, where disproportionate inequities would not, and could not, exist. And when Shemittah is over, and we re-enter the other six years, we take a bit of what we learned with us and put it into practice in our everyday life.”13
Shemittah is a Divine imperative, a concept introduced with the words בהר סיני (on Mount Sinai), so we are meant to rest assured that, even though we are pausing from sowing the field, Hashem will provide. As we read:
וְצִוִּ֤יתִי אֶת־בִּרְכָתִי֙ לָכֶ֔ם בַּשָּׁנָ֖ה הַשִּׁשִּׁ֑ית וְעָשָׂת֙ אֶת־הַתְּבוּאָ֔ה לִשְׁלֹ֖שׁ הַשָּׁנִֽים
My blessings for you in the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for the three-year period.14
In this pasuk (verse), Hashem addresses the worry people might have that they won’t have sufficient provisions for the year of the Shemittah and the years after it. Hashem says that He will bless the land and that, miraculously, there will be three years worth of provisions to reap in the sixth year, just before the Shemittah year. Just as there was a double portion of manna on erev Shabbat when the Jews were in the desert, so too there will be extra produce before the Shemittah in the Promised Land, so the people can fully celebrate this moment of holy rest. We need to realize this is Hashem blessing us, it’s not a product of nature, but produced by Divine blessings, it is similar to the blessings of parnasa (livelihood), we can do our part (hishtadlut), but for the blessings to be received it is ultimately in the hands of Hashem.
Historically, the first Shemittah took place after the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple). To this day, farmers in Israel are required to keep Shemittah, and we are currently in one that started on September 7, 2021 and will end on September 25, 2022. Yovel, on the other hand, is not currently observed, because the entire Jewish nation needs to be living in Israel for it to be in effect. Once the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe were exiled, 130 years before the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash, the yovel could no longer be observed.
Nevertheless, the lessons of Shemittah and yovel are timeless. Chinuch teaches that Shemittah is meant to commemorate the renewal of the world by Hashem alone, to teach us to have emunah and bitachon (faith and trust) in Him, on the one hand, and generosity, on the other. We fulfill these mitzvot by releasing our impulse to work the land excessively and control creation. We release ownership and debts to ones in need, shifting our focus and trust in our own work and control and putting faith in the Divine will. It is a profound illustration of our faith that, after all, everything belongs to the Master of it All, Hashem.
Release control & connect.
** Get your copy of my second book, ‘LIGHT OF THE INFINITE: THE SOUND OF ILLUMINATION‘. The book parallels the parshiot (weekly Torah reading) of Vayikra/Leviticus, which we are reading now!! The book is mindfulness, Kabbalah and Chassidut brought down in a way that speaks to our generation and is now available as Prime on Amazon! – – https://amzn.to/3uvdfxw
Notes & Sources
- Vayikra 25:3,4
- Ibid 25:8
- Ibid 25:10
- Likutey Halachot VIII, 9 62b,-63a
- Leviticus 25:6-7
- Chatam Sofer 67, ד״ה וידבר
- Exodus 3:5
- Apples from the Orchard, The Arizal
- Exodus 19:13
- Torat Moshe 102, ד״ה וידבר
- Psalms 72:16
- “Bring Back The Sabbath” by Judith Shulevitz, NYT Magazine, Jan 2, 2003
- Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, The Narrative of Shemittah
- Vayikra 25:21