Behar – Why we Keep Shemittah

Vayikra, 1:2: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the Land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for HaShem.

Vayikra, 1:20-21: If you will say: What will we eat in the seventh year – Behold, we will not sow and not gather in our crops!  I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for the three-year period.

Parshat Behar begins with the Command to observe Shemittah (the Sabbatical year) and spends a few verses outlining the laws involved in this Mitzva.  Several verses later, at the end of this section, the Torah anticipates that some people will wonder how they will survive in the seventh year without working the land, and it answers their concerns by telling them that they will be blessed with surplus food in the sixth year. 

The question arises: Why did the Torah need to write in such a lengthy way the back and forth about the peoples’ concerns about Shemittah – it would have seemed to be more concise for the Torah to simply say that there was no need to worry about what the people would eat, because HaShem would provide blessing to the land?

The Darchei Mussar, Rav Yaakov Nyman zt”l, explains that there are two levels with regard to the intent of a person in his Mitzva observance.[1]  

The higher level is to observe the Mitzvot simply because HaShem said so – even in situations where doing so appears very difficult or costly.  The lower level is when a person wants to keep the Mitzvot but has concerns that he will suffer as a result of his observance. Yet he keeps them because he realizes that he will not ultimately lose out if he follows G-d’s will. 

He provides an example with regard to Shabbos observance in America in the early part of the last century.  It was very difficult to find a job that did not demand work on Shabbos – accordingly, countless, otherwise observant Jews, succumbed to the great pressures and worked on Shabbos, even whilst observing all the other Mitzvot.  Rav Nyman recounts a time that he spoke to Jews in America who faced this difficult challenge.  He explained to them that it is true that a person will not ultimately lose out from keeping Shabbos. 

However, this is not the reason that a person should keep Shabbos.  Rather, a person must keep Shabbos because that is what HaShem commands, even in a case of great financial loss.[2]

The same applies to Shemittah – the reason one must observe this difficult Mitzva is because HaShem commanded it – not because the person will ultimately not lose out.  This, Rav Nyman explains, is why the Torah first outlined the Mitzva, and only later, addressed the questions of people with a lower level of bitachon (trust in G-d). 

The Torah deliberately delayed allaying peoples’ fears about Shemitta, in order to teach that the reason to keep Shemittah is not because there is nothing to lose, but because the Torah commands it. Only after that point is made, does It addresses the people who are have less bitachon and need reassurance that they will not suffer by keeping Shemittah, to teach that this form of observance is on a qualitatively lower level.

Rav Nyman’s explanation reminds us of the requirement of Mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) for Mitzva observance.  The difficulties in keeping Shemittah nowadays are far less for the average person.  However, Israeli farmers endure this nisayon (challenge) to an extreme degree to this very day.  Most people are aware of the challenge to have Trust in G-d that they face, but few of us realize just how attached the farmers become to their land and their harvests.  One observer writes: “We invest our hearts and souls in everything we create. 

In many ways, our creations become an extension of our very selves.  We feel pleasure each time we gaze upon our masterful work and pride ourselves on what we have produced. Naturally, then it is painful to damage something we have toiled over. Destroying that is like destroying part of ourselves.”[3]

The following Shemittah story brings this point home:  Doron Twig, a farmer from Moshav Azraya grows eggplants – he is keeping his first Shemittah and has been subject to tremendous challenges. He had not watered his eggplants for months, but they continued to thrive. No less than 35,000 of them grew in his farm.  He knew that he was not allowed to do anything to help them grow and he feared that in a moment of weakness, the test would prove too great.[4]  

In desperation he did something that is the antithesis of everything that he toiled for, for so many years.  “I grabbed gallons of pesticides, which we normally use in small quantities in order to eliminate infestation and aggressively sprayed the entire filed.  I went from patch to patch, murdering one eggplant after another.  Do you understand what this means to me? He cries, the pain evident on his face.”[5]   

It is certain that this farmer will be greatly rewarded for his unbelievable Mesiras nefesh to do something that counters his very essence, simply because it is G-d’s will.  Indeed, there are numerous stories of how farmers who observed Shemittah experienced great miracles in the course of their observance.[6] 

The following story does not involve Shemittah, but it provides an excellent example of Mesirut nefesh, and of the spiritual rewards that it can reap: A young girl who lived in Vienna, had an exceptionally beautiful voice.  When the head of one of the great opera house of Vienna heard about it, he immediately made her an offer to join them as a soloist where she would gain world renown.  The girl came under immense pressure to make this move, but with the encouragement and blessing of her parents and Rav Meir Arik zt”l, she refused the offer.  The refusal was reported in all the local media and generated a great Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of G-d’s name).

After a time, the Chofetz Chaim zt”l came to Vienna, and this girl’s father had an audience with the great Sage. When he heard the family name, he asked if the girl in the story was related – the father answered with great emotion; “Yes, that is my daughter”.  The girl was standing at the front door and asked for a blessing.  The Chofetz Chaim blessed her that she would “have a son who would illuminate the world”.  In time, the mother would tell her son, “Learn well. I sacrificed for you.”  That son grew up to be HaGaon, Rav Shmuel Wosner zt”l.

May we all merit to emulate our great leaders in their Mesirut nefesh, and reap the spiritual rewards.

Notes and Sources

[1] Darchei Mussar, p.170.
[2] The one time where one is allowed (and indeed commanded) to break Shabbos is to save a life (pikuach nefesh) – all the Torah Sages in America ruled that the situation there, despite its great difficulties, was not one of pikuach nefesh.
[3] Mrs Shaindy Pearl, Hamodia, April 23, 2015, Features, Page 6.
[4] Moreover, it is forbidden to eat vegetables that grow by themselves – this is known as Sefichim. (This prohibition does not apply to fruits that grew by themselves).
[5] Hamodia, ibid.
[6] For example, there are stories where a plague or infestation, destroyed numerous fields of non-Shemittah observant farmers, while the lone fields that survived were those of the farmer who kept Shemittah.

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