Shmitah and Yovel: Working with God to Perfect our World
Parshat Behar introduces the concepts of Shmitah (letting the land lay fallow one year in seven) and the Yovel (returning property to its original owners). The broad theme is that both nature and things do not really belong to us but rather to God. This concept helps us to remember that our mission in life is not to acquire but to work in partnership with God to perfect our world. Although the economic structure that these laws envision may not be in force or practical today, the broader concepts remain important. It is fitting that this year, as we read this parsha (in America), I am hiking across Northern Israel in support of the Ramah Tikvah programs.
“Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord.” This may make agricultural sense, but the deeper lesson is that we are stewards of our land; we are not only using the land for ourselves. When we remember that, we receive the double blessing of the long-term benefit of letting the land refresh and giving our offspring a sustained natural world.
In regard to the “Yovel,” the Torah states: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” Our tradition understands that wealth and the pursuit of wealth are beneficial. However, by remembering that ultimately the wealth we acquire is a means and not an end, we can impact our communities in big ways. The Torah uses strong language in saying we are “strangers resident.” It means that we are not permanent. It is a way to remind us of our mortality and of the phrase, “you can’t take it with you.” Also, because we were once landless slaves, we always need to keep faith with those who are poor. The “Yovel” reminds us of our relationship to God and this world.
Judaism is a practical religion. We are encouraged to be successful and strive for material success. However, as in all things, we are commanded to do this in a holy way – in a way that enhances God’s presence in the world. Both “Shmitah” and “Yovel” are ideas that still resonate today.