The commandment to let the land rest for one year in every seven would appear to be obsolete in the industrial-digital age. Turns out this Torah instruction is more relevant today than ever.
Table for Five: Parashat Behar-Bechukotai
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security. Lev. 25:18
Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Scholar In-Residence JMI/AISH
Financial Security. Military Security. Cyber Security. Emotional Security. We are all obsessed with security! In fact, most of the energy we expend flows from a deep need to feel secure and safe and significant. It is a constant quest.
Instinctively, we all understand that we can’t protect ourselves from the myriad of forces that come our way, but we try to quiet that voice. Some of us quiet it by working compulsively. Some of us by surrounding ourselves with possessions that give us the illusion of security and self-worth. Some of us quiet that voice with food and Facebook.
Our verse enters the arena and offers the best recipe for attaining and maintaining a sense of security and purpose in our lives. Torah tradition and practice are designed to remind us that we each possess the capacity to live deeply fulfilling lives. They arm us against the pernicious perception that our lives are insignificant and that we are powerless to overcome and elevate circumstances that come our way. Torah practice suffocates the insecurities that snowball when we lose faith in ourselves and it reassures us that G-d is the protector of the Jewish people and her universal mission.
The Torah is not merely a lifestyle. It is a security blanket. It’s a fabric of life that guides us, protects us, warms us and empowers us.
In a world so desperate for security, at a time when we are all feeling so vulnerable, the Torah offers the perfect prescription.
Rivkah Slonim, Education Director, the Rohr Chabad Center at Binghamton University
It’s not too long before the next Sabbatical year, Shnat Shmita, which will begin with the year 5782 on the Jewish calendar (Sept. 7, 2021–Sept. 26, 2022). As a nation we have long been counting these cycles of seven; beginning with the year following the destruction of the second Temple (68-69 CE).
As contemporary Jews in the diaspora it is hard to feel viscerally connected to this commandment. Our verse, however, should give us pause. It makes an incredibly strong assertion about the correlation between our nation’s privilege to live in the holy land, and our observance of the Shmita year. In fact, Rashi teaches that the Babylonian exile endured for 70 years paralleling the 70 shmita years that had not been observed by the Jewish people.
Despite many other spiritual trespasses, it is the lack of Shmita observance that is singled out as the defining factor in our expulsion from the land. The Covid19 virus, has underscored that what is not readily apparent, is just as powerful – if not more so– than what is clearly manifest.
The bond with our holy land is transcendent and eternal; the gift of inhabiting it, however, is contingent. The Torah bids us to remember the lesson of Shmita: I God, am the Creator of heaven and earth. I sustain it and vivify it anew every single moment. When you truly understand and live this truth, you will live upon the land in security. The rest, as they say, is commentary.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University
Living faithfully by rules in order to live securely on the land has taken on new meanings during the current pandemic. The rules themselves have become much more restrictive than the ones to which the Torah is referring here, but medical experts tell us that we will not be able to regain any sense of normalcy, let alone live securely on the land, unless we follow those rules.
Following those rules, though, has undermined our ability to interact with others in all kinds of ways that we are now discovering are immensely important to our sense of wellbeing. It has also undermined our economy, leaving many people without jobs and calling into question the very existence of Jewish institutions we have labored long and hard to create.
So several things should be said: (1) Do continue to live by the rules of social distancing for as long as medical experts declare them necessary. The fundamental Jewish value of saving lives (pikkuah nefesh) requires that. (2) Do, if you can, contribute to Jewish communal organizations that now more than ever need your help to continue to exist. (3) The Jewish tradition has long recognized that we have mental and emotional needs as well as physical ones, and that “it is not good for a person to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). So do not “reach out and touch someone,” but do reach out electronically to communicate with others. Finally, (4) make sure to tell your family and friends that you love them.
Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins, N’vay Shalom
This sentence follows God’s commands on how we must treat the land, letting it rest every seventh year, to give it a Shabbat, and then upon the fiftieth year, following seven of these cycles, all peoples shall be free, even those who offered themselves as slaves when indebted to others, and all land shall be returned to its original owners. It reinforces the importance of doing what God demands.
The Hebrew says ‘to do’ the decrees, chukim, but ‘protect’ the ordinances, mishpatim. Why the different verbs? Chukim are laws that don’t seem to have any rationale and yet we are expected ‘to do’ them, while mishpatim are laws that we find easily understandable, so ‘guarding’ them feels appropriate.
Letting the land rest makes perfect sense, so we understand that protecting this law will ensure the land’s longevity and productivity, but letting slaves go free and returning all land to its original owner may have challenged the people, which is why it is more like a ‘chok,’ something that must be done because God commands it.
God knows the people may have been ambivalent about enforcing it. So to live on the land, lavetach, is to hold ‘in trust’ what we are given and to know that no one, nothing, belongs to any of us. It is all God’s.
To live with ‘trust,’ betach, is what we are all challenged with in these times of being told what we must ‘do’ and what we must ‘protect’ so we can dwell more securely.
Rabbi Michael Barclay, Temple Ner Simcha
This line is strikingly powerful especially in times of fear, and an important reminder of the depth of faith that Judaism demands of us at all times. It is a simple and clear statement that our real security is always in the hands of God. The deeper lesson is that the teachings immediately preceding this statement of security are commandments regarding the weekly Sabbath; the yearly Sabbath (Shmita, every 7 years), and the Jubilee (Yovel, every 50th year).
These laws of Sabbath, especially a Shmita or Yovel year, often seem absurd to non-observant Jews. Why should we take 1/7 of our time off and give it to God when we could be working and achieving our goals of financial security? The Torah’s implication is clear: it is not in spite of Shabbat that we gain security; but because of our Sabbath observance.
True security doesn’t come from finances, or in these days of coronavirus from quarantines or face masks. While these tools are needed and helpful, we must always remember that the only true and eternal security comes from God; and observing the Sabbath is the greatest single spiritual shield we can have in this world.
Ahad Ha’Am famously said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews”, and Talmud teaches that the Moshiach will come when every Jew observes two consecutive Shabbats. May we all remember that Shabbat is our prescription for health and well-being, and the real security found in this world and the next.
With thanks to Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Rivkah Slonim, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rabbi/Cantor Eva Robbins, and Rabbi Michael Barclay
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