Midreshet Amit


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Parshat Behar

By: Haley Kotch

Ancient Jews lived in an agricultural based society and therefore land played an integral role in their day to day lives. Apart from the fact that the weather greatly affected whether or not the Jews would be sufficiently fed, their social standings revolved around land. Those who possessed a lot of land were considered rich and high in society while those without land were poor and had to rely on the excess produce of landowners.
In this weeks parsha, Parshat Behar, God decrees that every seventh year be a Sabbath year, or year of rest, for the land. This concept of shemitah is that for six years, the Jewish people may work the land and reap the benefits of its produce. However, on the seventh year, all work on the land is to cease and vineyards and fields are to lie unharvested and entirely untouched for an entire year. The question that remains is, what is the significance of the shemitah year?

Rambam approaches the concept of the shemitah in a very practical way. He states that a year of rest is necessary in order to rejuvenate the land and ensure the continuation of food production. This is a very logical approach that rests heavily on the idea that shemitah exists partially as an agricultural aid.

The Ibn Ezra however states that the importance of the shemitah year is not based on agricultural concerns, rather, on the spiritual aspect of the year of rest. He implies that the seventh year is a year of rest for us, the Jewish people. It forces us to take a break from the physical work and spend time furthering our spirituality through the study of torah.

While both commentators take very different approaches regarding the importance of the shemitah year, there is a way to reconcile the apparent disagreement. It is entirely possible to understand that the shemitah year exists to both rejuvenate the land, as well as to rejuvenate the soul—to serve as a reminder for us to stop and acknowledge the Torah. It is simply human nature to always want more and to get lost in the physical and monetary world. Therefore God gives us a year where we are required to let the land grow wild and leave our main source of food and income untended. This year gives us the opportunity to spend and entire year focused solely on furthering and improving our connection to God through Torah study. If in fact the year of rest rejuvenates the land, then God forcing us to rest the land is also in our best interests for it ensures six more ensuing years of renewed production. The fact that the shemitah year both allows us to study torah and rejuvenates the land shows that God is taking care of us from all aspects. He understands the need to work and sow the land and therefore gives us six entire years to do so. However, he also ensures that we do not get led astray by forgetting the importance of learning.

Since we are human, God understands and allows for us to work the land and does not expect us to spend every waking moment learning. However, it also shows that people need to be wary not to get so involved in the physical world that they allow their learning to wither and cease.