Dvar Torah---Behar Bechukotai
In this week’s parsha, Behar-Bechukotai, we are introduced to two milestones---the shemittah (Sabbatical year) and Yovel (Jubilee year). The shemittah occurs every seventh year---all agricultural work ceases, debts are forgiven, and food is given to the needy. The yovel is even more momentous---besides giving the land a rest, all slaves are set free, and excess land is redistributed to the needy. Some call this the most radical law in the Torah.
Its ecological and environmental applications are widely celebrated today; locally, Pearlstone Farm holds a Shemittah festival where much of their land rests and their surplus produce is donated. Beyond being a call for celebration, Shemittah also serves as a sobering reminder to respect the earth. Jewish eco-activist Richard Schwartz writes:
“While Judaism teaches about a Sabbatical year in which the land is allowed to lie fallow and recover its fertility and farmers may rest, learn and restore their spiritual values, today, under economic pressure to constantly produce more, farmers plant single crops and use excessive amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizer, thereby reducing soil fertility and badly polluting air and water”.
This significance of time and anniversary, the intricacy and exactitude of cycles of years, calls to mind an Abraham Joshua Heschel quote. He is talking here about Shabbat, but I think the same message of release and harmoniousness applies:
“To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”
Shemittah and yovel certainly have much to do with the material world, which seems to contradict Heschel. Besides focusing on tangibles such as agricultural produce, the laws only go into effect in the land of Israel. However, this very same fact means that for the vast majority of Jewish history these laws have not been put into practice. All the post second-temple period rabbinic minutiae, occupying pages and pages of Talmud, are entirely theoretical because no Jewish agriculture was happening in the land of Israel at the time.
Rather than letting the control of physical space determine the usefulness of a law, the rabbis study everything, and this yearning for a messianic future becomes its own devotion, its own equilibrium amidst diaspora. Studying the rain cycles and exotic produce of the holy land while you’re in a Belarussian yeshiva in the depths of winter was the ultimate lesson in delayed gratification.
But even today, the shemittah and yovel are considered rabbinic laws in Israel, meaning they are not as binding as biblical laws. Some point to the difficulties of calculating the actual year while others say these laws are not applicable until a majority of Jews live in the holy land. The Israeli Rabbinate permits the symbolic sale of land to Gentiles in a similar way that chametz is sold before Pesach. Therefore, we can say that we are still waiting for the actual fulfilment of shemittah and yovel, continuing this unbroken thread of longing and idealization that has been practiced for most of our history.
Currently, as we all stay home and do our part to fight the Coronavirus epidemic, we should also consider the future, how we tell and remember this phase of our lives. We are seeing plenty of injustices right now, and many more will probably come to light years from now. Harmful workplace practices at meat production plants have led to employees, mainly migrant workers, getting sick. Layoffs continue to rise, and we don’t know the long-term consequences.
The laws of shemittah and yovel are idealistic, and we do not yet live in a world where their liberatory ideal can be upheld for all, and it’s unclear historically if they were ever even practiced in biblical times. And yet, our devotion, our ritualized yearly reminder that this is what has been promised to us, keeps us moving towards that possibility. Telling and remembering becomes its own form of justice, of dignity. Keep notes, keep your eyes open, to any injustice you see now, because history tends to get flattened to convenience.
If shemittah and yovel can teach us anything right now, it’s that there is fulfillment in ritual, in anniversary, and that this roteness becomes a source of meaning. We are still waiting for the absolute joy of Yovel, the word itself comes from the transcendent delight in hearing the shofar blast that announces its beginning. But in the meantime, we can use these sacred reminders as our renewable commitments to justice, to doing what’s best for the earth and for each other, not because there’s historical precedent but because it is the right thing to do. The unbroken cycle of Torah reading often allows things that have become overly familiar to us to gain new meaning based on what's happening contemporaneously. Reading about shemittah and yovel during the coronavirus epidemic brought a renewed sense of importance to ancient ritual, and to being aware of yourself in time. Yovel cannot happen without the labor of the years leading up to it. We must sanctify this work as much as we sanctify the reward.