Earlier this week, I was in a patient’s room, and this patient had a fascinating guest, who was a meditation teacher. She said that her approach to meditation was the only way to really find yourself was to entirely let go. Something about the way she said it, in the unexpected setting of a stem cell transplant unit, just stuck with me, and ‘letting go’ is the point of this week’s essay on the sabbatical and jubilee years, as related in this week’s Torah reading. The Torah reading begins,
“And God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and tell them that when they arrive in the land I am giving them, they shall let the land rest as a Sabbath for the Lord”.
Rashi, quoting the midrash Sifra, asks why specifically this mitzvah (commandment) of shemitta, the Sabbatical year in which the land is meant to be left fallow, is described as being presented to Moses at Sinai, alone of all the commandments. Rashi’s answer is an often cited teaching- while the general concept of the Sabbatical year was presented earlier, (in Perashat Mishpatim), with a more detailed repetition in this this chapter, both are ‘from Sinai’, the same is true of all the commandments- their general concept and their technical details, were given equally by God on Sinai. Similarly, the Avodat Yisrael uses this same Sifra to teach that all mitzvot must bring one to a state akin to that of being back at Sinai; one should reach as state through the vehicle of mitzvot as though one were once again standing as at the initial revelation of the Torah. In both cases, the teaching is based on the superfluous mention of Sinai here, but the deeper question is still unanswered, that is, why, of all the laws that could have been chosen, is the set of rules dealing with the Sabbatical year, Shemitta, singled out as being linked to Sinai? Is there something unique that we understand in comtemplating the Sabbatical year that merits a special connection to the Revelation at Sinai?
We will argue that there is a lesson contained within the concept of the shemitta year that merits this linkage to Sinai, that shemitta will define in various ways our relation to the world we live in and the people we live amongst. By way of definition, shemitta is the agricultural Sabbatical year, and yovel is the Jubilee year, years in which the land is left fallow, slaves are liberated from servitude, and ancestral homes return to their initial owners. Upon first glance, these shemitta laws seem to orient towards an almost nihilistic disregard for the free market, and all forms of commercial activity. All agricultural work comes to a dead halt, and in the yovel, all real estate transactions are voided.