Monday, May 15, 2017

Shmittah And Har Sinai

By Rabbi Joshua (communally known as The Hoffer) Hoffman [z"l]

Parshas Behar begins with the laws of Shmittah, the sabbatical year, when we are commanded not to work our fields in Eretz Yisroel, and to declare their produce ownerless, in recognition that it belongs to God. The Torah tells us that God told these laws to Moshe at Mt. Sinai. Rashi cites the midrash which asks, why are the laws of Shmittah, specifically, connected to Mt. Sinai? The midrash answers that this connection was made in order to teach us that just as the laws of Shmittah were in all their details were given at Sinai, so, too, were all the laws of the Torah given, with all their details, at Sinai. We need to understand, however, why Shmittah is used as the prototype for the rest of the Torah, rather than any other mitzvah. Rav Shimon Schwabb, in his Mayan Beis HaShoeivah, explains that the mitzvah of Shmittah testifies to God's authorship of the Torah, because who else would be able to command an entire nation to leave its land fallow for an entire year, and assure the people that they will not go hungry by doing so? From this mitzvah, we can extrapolate to the rest of the mitzvos of the Torah, that they were all given by God. 

Rav Chaim Shmulevits, in his Sichos Mussar to parshas Behar, cites a midrash which says that the verse in Tehillim (103:20) that calls on the mighty of strength, the angels of God who fulfill His word and hear his word, as referring to those people who fulfill the laws of Shmittah. It requires a great deal of heroism and, indeed, a supernatural motivation, says the midrash, to stand by for an entire year and watch one's field remain barren, and his vineyard unproductive, and do nothing about it. Rav Shmulevits then cites the gemara in Shabbos (88a) which brings the same verse in Tehillim, and says that it refers to the response of the entire nation to God's giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, saying, "we will do and we will hear." When God heard that response, says the gemara, He asked, who revealed this secret to my people, the secret that the heavenly angels employ. Here, too, says Rav Shmulevits, to agree to do God's bidding without first hearing all that it entails an approach to these commands that transcends the natural order of human response, and merited for the people to be referred to as the mighty of spirit and the angels of God. Thus, according to Rav Shmulevitz's juxtaposition of these two midrashim, the willingness of the Jewish nation to observe the Shmittah laws reflects their response at Mt. Sinai, and demonstrates their supernatural reliance on God in accepting upon themselves to observe all of the mitzvos of the Torah. This juxtaposition would then provide us worth another explanation of why it is specifically Shmittah that was chosen as a prototype for all of the mitzvos of the Torah. 

Interestingly, there is a Chassidic interpretation of the gemara in Shabbos which explains the practice of the angels as a reference to the fact that the people answered in the plural, "we will do." The secret of the angels is that when they praise God, they give each other the opportunity to express His praise in his own way. This is referred to each day in the kedusha, when we say, "and one (angel) will call to the other and say, 'Holy, holy, holy'." The Decalogue begins with the verse, "I am the Lord you God." The Chizkuni points out that the word for 'your God' - Elokecha - is written in the singular, because it was addressed to each person according to his level. When the nation said "we will do" in the plural, they were, in effect, saying that they recognized that each of them is at a different station in life and has his own relationship with God. Within that recognition, and providing space for each other to relate to God in his own way, they collectively accepted upon themselves the observance of all the mitzvos that He was about to present them with. On another level, we may add that by responding in the plural, the nation as a whole was accepting the commandments of the Torah, beyond the acceptance of each person as an individual. This national acceptance is reflected in the laws of Shmittah, which entail making the produce of the fields that are left unattended available to all including the poor, and, in addition, the canceling of debts on the seventh year. The consideration thus demonstrated for the other person reflects the consideration shown at Mt. Sinai, when the people responded in the plural, implying that they committed themselves to observe the mitzvos on a collective level as well as on an individual level. 

The Seder Hachinuch (mitzvah 84) mentions several principles lying behind the mitzvah of Shmittah. First, it acknowledges that God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh, and therefore, the land belongs to Him, and He can decree what to do with it. That which observance of Shabbos testifies to in terms of the days of the week, observance of Shmittah testifies to in terms of the years of the Shmittah cycle. Secondly, observance of Shmittah inculcates within its observers a spirit of generosity, and also of reliance and trust in God. As we have seen, the laws of Shmittah, on the one hand, require a supernatural commitment to God's laws, as well as a commitment to help one's fellow Jew. Seeing Shmittah as an acknowledgment of God's creation of the world, we can understand why there is such an emphasis on mutual aid during that year, since, as we are told in Tehillim (89:3), the world is built on chesed, or kindness. 

Rabbi Meir Juzint, zt'l, who served for many years as assistant dean of students at the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, said, homiletically, that the reason for mentioning Mt. Sinai in connection with the Shmittah laws is to advise us that the extra time that we have during the Shmittah year should be spent at Mt. Sinai, by being engaged in Torah learning. We may add to his observation that the gemara in Sotah (14 a) notes that the Torah begins with chesed, with God making clothing for Adam and Eve, and ends with chesed, with God Himself burying Moshe. Thus, by studying Torah in an intense way while observing the laws of Shmittah, we combine an acknowledge God’s creation of the universe along with committing ourselves to infuse that world, as God did in creating it, with the practice of chesed, recommitting ourselves to helping out our fellow Jews.