In this week’s Torah portion we read about the mitzvah of shmitah — the sabbatical year. Every seventh year the Torah instructs the farmer in Israel to let his land rest.
There is however an oddity in the language employed in the passage preceding the injunction. The Torah says: “Six years you shall sow your field…” which seems to imply that sowing the land is also an imperative. Could sowing the field be part and parcel of the mitzvah of shmitah? Why isn’t this left to the farmer’s personal discretion?
The answer lies in our understanding of the core idea underpinning the mitzvah of shmitah.
The farmer spends a lifetime engaged in agricultural pursuits. Day in, day out, he toils in the field, his back scorched by the sun and his calloused hands caked with dirt. Seemingly, his survival is completely dependent on the natural dictates of his environment. He is a creature of the earth. When the sabbatical year arrives, however everything changes. The farmer lays down his tools, shutters his enterprise and turns his eyes to Heaven. The mandated hiatus empowers him to transcend his earthiness as he is edged into a new reality, a transcendent life of faith. Now, he is a creature of heaven.
A modern day equivalent might be the requirement for a country’s ambassador to return home periodically. This is meant to reinforce his emotional attachment to his homeland and shield against the phenomenon in which an ambassador begins to identify with his host country as he walks its corridors and tastes of its culture.
This brings us back to the Torah’s imperative to work the fields. Indeed, working one’s field serves as both preparation for and concurrently the goal itself of the sabbatical year.
It serves as a preparation for shmitah since transcendence without rootedness is illusory. Only following six years of earthly engagement in which the farmer has painstakingly followed the Torah laws governing agricultural work — no mixing of crops, leaving the corners of the fields to the poor, ethical treatment of employees, and the like — has he internalized the proper configuration for living and may now begin to climb the spiritual ladder of transcendence. In this manner, the imperative “six years you shall sow” provides the religious framework and roots for the transcendent faith that follows.
And following the Sabbatical year, “six years you shall sow” takes on a new dimension. As the farmer re-engages his natural surroundings, the transcendent empowerment reaped during the shmitah year now serves to keep his soul alight even as he must submit to the work imperative. But now he is no longer beholden to the earth. He is a creature of heavens engaged in natural life, his every step infused with a higher purpose: to elevate the world around him.
The desire for transcendence is innate to the human condition, stemming as it were from the Divine image in which we are fashioned. While the world offers a plethora of disciplines and distractions to blunt this craving, the truest and most satisfying solution can only be answered from within the condition itself: The Divine image needs Divine connection. The study and practice of the Torah and mitzvot are the incubators for faith and transcendence which in turn invest our natural lives with higher purpose.
As we conclude the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, this Shabbat, may we be strengthened in our attachment to our precious heritage. Chazak, chazak v’nischazek.
And now, onward to Mt. Sinai.