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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Parshas Behar 1986

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

In this week’s parsha, we learn about the mitzvah (commandment) of the “shmita” year. “When ye come into the land which I give unto you, then shall ye keep a sabbath unto the L-rd. Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the L-rd; thou shalt neither sow thy field nor prune thy vineyard. That which groweth of itself of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, and the grapes of thy undressed vine thou shalt not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. And the sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you...” (Lev. 25: 1-6, J.P.S. trans., Soncino.)

A few verses later, the Torah anticipates an obvious objection that a farmer may have: “And if ye shall say: `What shall we eat in the seventh year? Behold, we may not sow, nor gather in our increase’; then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years.” (Lev. 25: 20-21.)

An interesting point is this: although we could raise similar objections, or questions, with many mitzvos, this is the only time in the Torah (as far as I know) that such an objection is explicitly stated, and answered. We could then ask: why here, with this mitzvah? In fact, one might suppose that after (at most) the first shmita, when a miracle would be performed for all to see, in the form of increased crops to tide us over that shmita year, no-one would have to ask this question any more! Yet it is a fact that this question is asked, year after year, continually, right up to the present time in Israel. Moshavim that keep the shmita, such as Komemiut, are seen to survive, miraculously, and even prosper, and this is reported regularly in the Israeli press, including the secular press, but people continue to raise “practical” objections to observing the shmita.

In fact there is a commentary by Rashi in next week’s parsha (Bechukkothai), to the effect that even during the period of the First Temple, lasting 430 years, the shmita and jubilee years were never completely observed, and this is the reason for the 70 years of exile between the First and Second Temples, since that is the total number of shmita and jubilee years violated during the First Temple period. Yet the farmers during this period must have had ample opportunity to observe the continuing miracle of shmita!

We might suppose that if a miracle were to work in front of our eyes, we would all keep the mitzvos ever after. But nothing like that happens! The only way that we become, or continue to be, observant, is by internalizing the experience of a miracle, that is, by having faith. Otherwise, we can experience a miracle repeatedly, without its affecting our attitude or behavior!

Another example of this phenomenon occurred when the Egyptians pursued the Israelites into the Red Sea. One might have supposed that, confronted with the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Egyptians would have inferred the existence and power of G-d, and the special favor the Israelites enjoyed with Him, and paused in their tracks. But they simply took advantage of this miracle, without appreciating its significance, and so rushed to their doom.

I once confessed to my Rebbe, Rabbi Scheinberg (shlita), that I was tempted to close down the Torah Center (an adult educational center in Buffalo), because I was so short of funds. “How often have you had this problem with funds?” he asked me. “Every month,” I answered. “Every month you have this problem,” he replied, “and you get out of it each month, and yet you don’t recognize a continuing miracle when you see it!”

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