“Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them: When you enter the Land I am giving you, the Land will observe a Sabbath to the Lord.”
This posuk (verse) presents the mitzva to observe the shemitta year, the seventh year in which Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) is commanded to refrain from working fields.
Why did the posuk mention “When you enter the Land” in connection with shemitta, since it is a mitzva which is dependent upon the Land, it can be fulfilled only within the Land? The words “When you enter the Land” seem superfluous. Why does the Torah stress entering the Land?
We may also question why the Torah states “The Land I am giving you,” since it is perfectly clear that it is God Who gave the Land to His nation.
As well, we must understand why the posuk says “A Sabbath to the Lord.” After all, all mitzvot are done for the sake of Heaven, so why is it necessary to declare that the Land’s resting is for God?
First, we must understand the underlying reason for shemitta and then we will be able to answer our questions.
The Mitzva of Shemitta – to Instill Belief and Faith in God within Am Yisrael
Kli Yakar explains that the underlying reason for shemitta is to instill the traits of belief and faith in God within Am Yisrael. With Am Yisrael’s entry into its Land, there was a danger that with the Israelites working their fields in a natural manner, they may come to believe that it is exclusively their own abilities which allow the Land to prosper and they may abandon their reliance on Divine assistance; the Israelites were at risk of believing that “כוחי ועוצם ידי עשה לי את כל החיל הזה” (“My power and my own ability have gained this wealth for me”) [D’varim 8:17] and ignoring God’s mastery of her and the entire world.
During the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness, it was patently clear to them that they relied exclusively on God. Their existence in the wilderness was the result of overt miracles, with the pillar of clouds protecting them during the day and the pillar of fire at night; their sustenance was from manna, which descended from heaven; they received everything they had directly from God. Under such conditions, belief and faith in God were clear and obvious, with little risk of losing this belief and this faith. However, upon Am Yisrael’s entry into the Land, the miracles of the wilderness ceased, requiring the Israelites to function on a natural level. Given the effort involved in working fields, it was no longer clear that God is the source of the nation’s bounty. The new situation required major adjustments by the Israelites, including acceptance of the fact that even under the new conditions, everything they have comes from God.
Therefore, the Torah stresses that the mitzva of shemitta is presented upon the nation’s entry into the Land. The Torah wishes to teach that this mitzva is indeed connected to entry into Eretz Yisrael; with the quantum change from a life style based upon miracles to living on a natural level, it is imperative to convey a message concerning working the fields of the Land and settling the Land, a message which will prevent the nation from abandoning its belief and faith in God.
The Mitzva of Shemitta – Living in the Land on a Miraculous Level
Kli Yakar further explains that God commanded Am Yisrael to work their fields in Eretz Yisrael in a supernatural manner. The nations of the world, says Kli Yakar, plant their fields for two years and let them lie fallow for the third, in order to rejuvenate the soil, while God commanded us to plant the fields for six consecutive years and not work them during the seventh; while anticipating that the yield of the sixth year will suffice for three years, as the Torah states; “I will appoint My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years” [Vayikra 25:21]. Kli Yakar states that the pesukim speak of two supernatural phenomena: the Land remaining fruitful despite being worked six years consecutively and its yielding in the sixth year enough produce for three years. In this manner, Am Yisrael relies on God and realizes that its agricultural success is due to Him. The Israelite farmers do not rely solely on their own labor in their fields or on their own abilities. While investing efforts in developing the Land, the Nation of Israel understands that ultimately their success is in God’s hands.
A Land Which the Eyes of God are Constantly Upon [D’varim 11:12]
Based on the exposition of Kli Yakar, Rabbi Yosef Lieberman [in his book Mishnat Yosef] offers an explanation of the reason the Torah states “The Land I am giving you” in connection with shemitta. Firstly, the Torah stresses that the Land was given to us by God, and not by our own hands. However, there is an additional message: the Israelites are to enter the Land which is under God’s direct and constant supervision; that is, Israel’s settlement within the Land is supernatural. In this Land, Divine providence is evident even in the day to day work in the fields.
A Sabbath to the Lord
The Torah’s reference to shemitta as “a Sabbath to the Lord” is now understood: the Torah expresses the concept that requiring the Land to rest every seventh year is not parallel to the approach of other nations, which let the land lie fallow for the land’s sake. For Am Yisrael, the Land rests in the seventh not for its own sake, but as an expression of the fact that whatever it produced during the six years the fields were planted and harvested is through God’s grace.
The Torah commands that the Israelites are to observe the sabbatical year following their entry into Eretz Yisrael, not working the fields every seventh year. We raised three questions:
One, why does the Torah stress entry into the Land?
Two, why was it important for the verse to stress that it was God Who gave the Land to Israel?
Three, why does the Torah state that the Land rests “a Sabbath to the Lord” when all mitzvot are for the sake of Heaven?
We presented the exposition of Kli Yakar; that the underlying reason for the mitzva of shemitta is to instill belief and faith in God within Am Yisrael. In the wilderness, Am Yisrael received God’s bounty through overt miracles, which was not the case once they entered the Land. Having to toil for their sustenance, the Israelites were at risk of losing sight of the fact that whatever they have is God’s gift. Therefore, the Israelites were commanded to act counter to the natural situation, working their fields six years consecutively and allowing the fields to rest during the seventh year, in order to instill belief and faith in God and the realization that it is He Who provides everything. Rabbi Yosef Lieberman explains that the Torah stresses that it is God Who gave us the Land so we may remain cognizant of His constant and ongoing providence. The Torah stresses that the Land rests as “a Sabbath to the Lord” so we not think that shemitta is for the Land’s benefit; the true purpose of shemitta is to foster faith in God.
May we be privileged speedily in our days to fulfill the mitzva of shemitta completely, with the entire Am Yisrael secure within the Land, and with true belief and reliance on God.