In this week’s portion, some of the
laws relating to the land of Israel are given over to the Jewish people.
The concept of shmitta is the same as Shabbos. Shabbos is a cessation of physical activity on the seventh day, as a sign that gives testimony to the fact that G-d created the world. Leaving the land fallow for a year shows the same thing. It is an extremely difficult thing for a farmer working the land to leave it alone for a year and put his complete trust in G-d (Incidentally, shmitta is today kept by thousands of farmers in the land of Israel).
There is another commandment in addition to shmitta. This commandment is called Yovel: “You shall count for yourself seven cycles of sabbatical years, seven years seven times...You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (Lev. 25:8-10).
Yovel entailed leaving the land fallow two years in a row, the forty ninth and fiftieth. In addition, all Hebrew slaves would go free, and all land returned to its original owners, i.e., the original receivers of the land at the time of its division when the Jewish people first came into Israel (when people would buy land, they would essentially be renting for however many years remained until yovel).
What was the significance of yovel being in the fiftieth year? The number seven stands for spirituality within the physical world, which is manifest through Shabbos when we sanctify the physical, and through shmitta when we recognize the spiritual Hand of G-d in our physical labor.
The count to yovel is seven sevens, and after the seventh seven there is another Shabbos. This Shabbos for the land is after the seventh level, the beginning of the eighth seven — the number fifty. The number fifty represents something higher than nature (similar to the number eight).
The nature of the world dictates that land which a person has purchased is his until he gets rid of it. The laws of yovel teach us that ultimately all land belongs to G-d. Furthermore, it is two years in a row we must leave the land fallow (the forty ninth and fiftieth), truly a lesson in trust in G-d. Thus our observance of this commandment shows that we are truly above nature, as no people would “naturally” leave their land fallow for two years.
We are now counting the forty nine days between Pesach and the receiving of the Torah (Shavuos). And on the fiftieth day itself is when we relive the receiving of the Torah.
The Torah is given on the fiftieth day to show that the Torah demands of us that we live our entire life above nature. We do not act on our instincts but give thought to every aspect of our life: eating, relationships, and our livelihoods, and apply the Torah to it. It is not a “religion” but a way of life.
It is due to the fact that we live our life above nature that we have been able to survive longer than any other nation (such as the nations of old, Babylon, Assyria, Mesopotamia, etc…).
This year when we relive the receiving of the Torah, we should endeavor to see the beauty of keeping the Torah, and how it enables us to live above and beyond the natural order of the world.
Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.