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Rabbi Freedman

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Many ask the question, which is the hardest mitzvah to observe?  For most of us, one imagines, Kashrut (the Dietary Laws) or Shabbat would be near the top of the list, or perhaps Leshon Hara (not speaking ill of others) or Kibbud Av va-Em (showing the necessary respect and honour towards one’s parents).  But in my opinion there is one law found in this week’s parashah of Behar that supersedes all of these in levels of difficulty, the mitzvah of Shemita.  
Shnat Ha-Shemita is literally The Year of Release when, in the seventh year of a seven year cycle, the land remains uncultivated.
The Torah commands the following: 
The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a Sabbath to the Lord.  For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops.  But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of rest, a Shabbat to the Lord. 
Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.  Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines.  The land is to have a year of rest. 
Whatever the land yields during the seventh year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land.  Whatever the land produces (of itself) may be eaten. (Leviticus 25:1-7)
So why does this law exist?  
Let me offer a variety of explanations.  The Rambam, for example offers two very different reasons for the Law of Shemita.  Firstly, that Shemita is a manifestation of the Torah’s concern for the welfare of the poor.  In the seventh year, the farmer relinquishes ownership of his land, thereby allowing the destitute to freely partake of his crops.  Alternatively, the Rambam suggests that letting the land lie fallow is agriculturally beneficial, for it results in the land rejuvenating itself.  Thus, to the Rambam, there is a pragmatic aspect to Shemita—the land itself benefits—but there is also a moral/ethical aspect as the needy benefit as well.
The medieval author of Sefer Hachinuch, Reb Aharon of Barcelona, offers several reasons: by observing Shemita, one de-emphasizes his attachment to materialism, enabling one to eradicate within himself the negative character traits of stinginess, possessiveness and selfishness.  The farmer comes to realize that God is the ultimate Master of the Universe, and that he himself is not even the master of his own land.  Furthermore, when one observes the laws of Shemita, it helps cultivate bitachon, trust in God.
Rav Kook, Chief Rabbi of Palestine (1921-1935) saw Shemita as an antidote to the ills of modern society.  He contended that just as an individual needs Shabbat to remove himself from mundane pursuits once in seven days, so too does the nation require a set time once in seven years to renew itself spiritually.  In fact, many farmers today use the Shemita year for what it was originally intended—they return to the Beit Midrash.  Rav Kook saw the Shemita year as a time when the Divine light can shine in all its glory, when society as a whole can experience a spiritual rejuvenation.  Indeed, Shemita and its lessons are no less germane today than they were 2,000 years ago.
According Rav Tzvi Hersh Weinreb Shemita has many purposes, some of which are pragmatic, others profound.  Perhaps the purpose of this mitzvah, he suggests, differs at various times in history, so that each generation requires Shemita for reasons specific to their age.  
Shemita helps the earth renew and nourish itself, and amends the unfair distribution of wealth.  It cultivates a spirit of generosity and prevents an attitude of self-sufficiency and arrogance, both of which are antithetical to spirituality.  It encourages trust in God and brings one closer to Him.  Finally, it provides a counterbalance to the struggles and anxieties that pervade modern economic societies.
Shemita is not just a set of arbitrary laws and demands.  It provides an opportunity for the improvement of society and the improvement of oneself.
Of course, Shemita is just one of many rules that apply within the agricultural sector.  In his book, With All Your Possessions, Meir Tamari makes the following observations.  The poor have the right to participate in the Jewish farmer’s harvest.  At harvest time the farmer has to leave a corner (peah) of his field that the poor can collect (Leviticus 19:9).  In addition, sheaves, or individual fruits, left (leket) or forgotten (shikh’chah) in the fields automatically becomes available to the poor and the owner may not return to gather them (Leviticus 19:10 and Deuteronomy 24:19-21).
Further, the Torah demands a percentage of the produce be given freely to the Kohanim, the Levites and the poor at various times.  Rabbinic legislation translated all these precepts into practical everyday behaviour by clearly delineating the obligations and rights of both the field owners and the other ‘interested’ parties.  Judaism insists, here as always, on the symmetry of rights and obligations.
But truthfully for centuries, as urban Jews these laws have not affected us greatly.  For much of the Middle Ages Jews were not permitted to own land, and most certainly could not become farmers – consequently this law, and others related to agriculture, were never our major concern.  One should also note that because the commandment applies only in Israel, it became largely theoretical once the Jews were exiled by the Romans after the Bar Kochba revolt in 136 C.E.  So even where there existed Jewish farmers in other parts of the world there was no religious imperative to let the land rest.
But nowadays as we read Parashat Behar each year it reminds us that with the birth of the State of Israel everything has changed.  Suddenly ideas that were relevant thousands of years ago, are once again of importance to our people.
Allow me to explain.
Many people consider that Theodor Herzl was the founding father of the modern State of Israel.  In many respects this is true, Herzl was a giant in the Jewish world, a prince and statesman, a hero and a visionary.  There is no doubt that Herzl, through his hopes and dreams as well as his tireless work and incredible determination, inspired the Jewish world to consider that a return to its ancient homeland was possible and that the establishment of a Jewish state could be more than just a dream.
Yet, decades before Herzl became the leader of the Zionist movement, a Prussian rabbi laid down the first principles of modern Zionist philosophy: his name was Tzvi Hirsch Kallischer (1795-1874).
Kallischer was a student of the great Rabbi Akiva Eiger and he was a strong opponent of Reform Judaism.  Politically though, his thoughts centred on one idea: the resettlement of the land of Israel by Jews from around the world.  Together with the existing Jewish population of Palestine, he foresaw thousands of Jewish immigrants particularly from Eastern Europe supporting themselves by practicing agriculture.
In 1862 he published a book on this subject entitled Derishat Tzion, it was the first Hebrew book to appear in Eastern Europe on the subject of modern Jewish agricultural settlement in Eretz Yisrael.  From these beginnings followed the Hovevei Tsiyon, the Biluim, the initiators of the Kibbutz movement, the founders of the Moshavim, and so many other pioneers, all of whom revived Jewish interest in farming the land.  
For a people who had, generally speaking, been forbidden to own any land in the preceding centuries in Europe and consequently developed skills in commerce and trade, this idea of Kallischer was a revolution.
For the early Zionists, farming meant much more than providing a daily sustenance.  They wanted to reclaim what they saw as a barren country and realize the vision of a “land flowing with milk and honey.”  At the same time, they wanted to spread their agricultural communes along the frontiers of the land in order to set up outposts that would one day be used in defence of the Jewish state.  
They also wanted to differentiate themselves from the Shtetl Jew – the Jew who owned little or no real estate and whose life revolved around petty trade, the Jewish calendar, the synagogue, the Bet Midrash and unfortunately the good will of non-Jews to secure some modicum of safety and security.  
This was entirely unsatisfactory to the early Zionists – for they instinctively knew that true freedom and independence, shelter, safety, security and sanctuary would only come about if Jews in large numbers returned to their own land and tilled their own soil.  
The Book of Nehemiah (4:17) illustrated for them the way it was to be done - with a spade in one hand and a weapon in the other.  This is exactly how the Yishuv was built, how crops were grown and how the members of the Yishuv remained safe.
Israeli farmers have come a long way since the first pioneers began clearing away rock-strewn fields and draining the swampland.  In the years since Israel’s establishment, the country has almost tripled the territory used for farming and production has multiplied 16 times.  About 25% of that output is exported. 
However with these amazing changes, Shemita again became relevant — and problematic.  At a time when Jewish farmers were struggling just to keep their farms viable, a year of zero production would have been a deathblow.
To skirt that problem, rabbis in Israel created something called the “heter mechirah,” or sale permit — similar to the sale of chametz before Pesach.  The permit allowed Jewish farmers to “sell” their land to local non-Jews for a token amount then hire non-Jews to do the forbidden labour.  That way, because it wasn’t “their” land, Jews could keep their farms going without sin. 
Incidentally, Shemita only applies if the crops are grown in the land itself.  Therefore, growing vegetables on tables disconnected from the land steers clear of violating the commandment.
While not all of Israel’s farmers diligently apply Jewish law to their endeavours, many do and that allows religious Jews in Israel and overseas to purchase Israeli produce with kosher certification.  Incidentally the next Shemita year begins this coming Rosh Hashanah.
Nonetheless there are many who wish to see the restoration of Shemita in some up-dated form in modern day Israel.  Einat Kramer is the founder and director of Teva Ivri, a non-profit organization promoting Jewish social-environmental action in Israel.  She is also the coordinator of the Israeli Shemita Initiative, a nationwide coalition that seeks to restore the meaning of the Shemita year as a time of personal reflection, learning, social involvement, and environmental responsibility in Israel. 
In an article she penned for the Times of Israel, she wrote the following: “The Torah relates to Shemita primarily in the context of an agricultural society.  But a contemporary approach understands Shemita as a lens through which to address pressing issues in the realms of education, social equity, culture, industry, and more.”
Quoting two Israeli environmentalists, Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern, she added that in our current privatized, globalized, stratified Israel, Shemita is a vital exhortation.  We have, in our national repertoire, a remedy for the rehabilitation of our disintegrating social solidarity.  In this sense, Shemita is a component of our national vitality.  It is hard not to be deeply impressed by the profundity of the idea that moves cautiously between the desire to preserve private property, and the desire not to see in property the totality of everything.  Shemita is a call to set apart a bubble in time, which slows economic activity down, and which fosters care, compassion and even partnership between all those who share the earth.
Shemita therefore continues to be a very real part of the religious, agricultural, and economic reality in Israel today, and one that is simultaneously both very exciting and quite perplexing.
Today, Shemita challenges us all to consider what our obligations are to the land and its population, both in general terms and with regards to Israel and the Jewish people in particular.
It is truly amazing that something so old can become so new again – but that is the miracle of Judaism where the ancient renews itself in every generation and becomes something contemporary, dynamic and relevant.
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Freedman