Thursday, Dec 2, 2021

Shmittah: The Year-Long Song We Can All Sing

A few weeks ago, we introduced the Shmittah year of 5782. Now that it has arrived, we will explore what we gain and how we can grow from this once-every-seven-year experience.

The Seforno, as often mentioned by Rav Chaim Kanievsky, teaches that the farmers who did not plough or plant for an entire year in effect entered a unique national kollel, where they learned Torah in tranquility.

Rabbeinu Bachya (Shaar Habitachon, new ArtScroll edition, page 230) explains that when one relies totally upon Hashem for his sustenance, it creates a powerful sphere of serenity around him. He has no worries, concerns or need for action, since he knows that Hashem is taking care of him.

We might add that this is like a return to our 40-year sojourn in the Wilderness, where we ate the monn, drank from Miriam’s well, and were protected by the Clouds of Glory. This year, we can all – wherever we are – enjoy the benefits of this peaceful time by immersing ourselves in learning Torah and avodas Hashem. The following are just some of the lessons and Shmittah experiences that each of us can access most easily during this magical year.

A Pathway to Humility

Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch (Parshas Behar, page 736) reveals the ultimate goal of all the Shmittah prohibitions: “a most wonderful year-long act of homage performed by the whole nation, where every field and orchard, every garden and meadow, every fruit, every blade of grass is made to proclaim that G-d and G-d alone is the L-rd and Owner of the Land…[We] are stripped of all haughtiness and pride of possession, retire before G-d in complete equality and equal rights with the poorest inhabitant and the animals of the wild.” Someone put it even more succinctly and poetically as “the song of a nation to its Land” (see Torah Shebaal Peh Journal, No. 15, page 143). The goals of achieving humility and an understanding of those who have less than us can be achieved during Shmittah by contemplating what is happening in the land and transferring it directly to our heart and soul.

What is Hefker and What is Not

A beautiful story related in the ArtScroll Shmittah book by Rav Chaim Kanievsky (page 64) can be utilized as a paradigm of Shmittah observance everywhere. It is well known that Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz planted esrog seeds that had been given to him by the Chazon Ish. During Shmittah, Rav Lefkowitz appropriately declared the trees and their esrogim hefker and many people simply came to pick their own. One day the Steipler Gaon knocked on the door, requesting permission to pick an esrog. Rav Lefkowitz responded that there was no need to ask. “The fruits are hefker,” he reminded the Gaon. But the Steipler himself explained his knock at the door. “The fruits may be hefker, but the world isn’t hefker. It is still only proper to ask permission before entering another person’s yard to cut fruits from his tree.”

This lesson that “the world isn’t hefker” is applicable all the time, but Shmittah is a particularly appropriate time to review its ramifications. Firstly, all of our birchos hanehenin – blessings upon foods – are predicated upon the teaching of Chazal (Brachos 35a) that if we do not make a brocha before eating, it is considered stealing from Hashem. However, it is not just the mundane form of robbery; it is actually me’ilah – stealing from consecrated hekdesh matter. Secondly, although we do not usually see instant retribution for transgressions, “the world is not hefker.” The Chofetz Chaim famously watched several times that we know of, and perhaps many more that we do not, absolutely sure that certain egregious outrages would actually receive punishment in this world. Indeed, in one case, a landlord who threw a widow and orphans out into the winter street was severely stricken with illness some fifty years later. Another man who viciously switched his son who was being drafted into the Czar’s army as one of the Cantonists with a poor orphan later had to bury that son with his own hands, since he had died from a contagious illness and no one would touch him. Despite occasional misconceptions, the world is not hefker and Shmittah is a good time to take it to heart.

Caring Even About the Inanimate

Although the hetter mechirah – selling the land to a gentile – was endorsed by many gedolei Yisroel during the 19th century because of rampant poverty in Eretz Yisroel, the Chazon Ish and other poskim did not want to rely upon this leniency. Even those poskim who allowed it did so only reluctantly and insisted that the issue be revisited every seven years.

Rav Binyomin Mendelson, the famed rov of Moshav Komemiyus, likened this mitzvah to the covering of the challos during Kiddush to spare them the “shame” of not being used for Kiddush instead of wine. This teaches us, he said forcefully, that even inanimate objects such as challah must not be humiliated. He therefore concluded that embarrassing the entire Holy Land by working the Land during Shmittah would be infinitely worse than leaving the challos uncovered.

This concept is also illustrated by the Shmittah visit made by the Chazon Ish and the Ponovezher Rov, who greeted the trees with “a gutten Shabbos” and a kiss to the ground.

We might add that numerous Chassidic leaders and baalei mussar would also treat inanimate objects that had been used for a mitzvah or even provided comfort and protection with a degree of respect. This tradition was strengthened in Chassidic circles by the reverence tendered to objects belonging to various tzaddikim which had become infused with their sanctity. Shmittah is a good time to remember this form of avodas Hashem as well.

The Time to Reflect, Not Retire

The Abarbanel teaches that the seventh year, and in fact all the sevens, come to remind us of the human life span and the time to return to basics. Just as people must work for six days and rest on the seventh, and the land must be worked for six years and rest on the seventh, so should people work, if necessary, until age sixty and then…turn inward. It is not, as someone once told me, “O.K. time for the golf course.” It is a time to take stock, make changes, improve, learn more, and repent. That is the Shmittah message at any age, but especially for those reaching “retirement.” It is a time to retool, not regress into games and triviality.

All Parnassah Comes from Hashem

The posuk introducing Shmittah states, “When you arrive in the land that I am giving you” (Vayikra 25:2). The Kaf Hachaim asks why the Torah had to mention here that Hashem is giving us the land. He answers that, at first, a farmer who is told that he will have to leave all his fields fallow for a year will fear desperately for his livelihood. The Torah itself predicts that he will ask how he can possibly survive. The answer is this posuk. The same Creator Who gave you the land miraculously will also feed you despite the fact that you have done nothing to make the crops grow for the seventh year. This holds true of every expenditure for mitzvos or seemingly impossible prohibition that will “interfere” with one’s wealth-building. However, Shmittah reminds us of the opposite. When we set aside time for Hashem in our lives, everything miraculously turns out for the best.

Shmittah Leads to Moshiach

Chazal (Yalkut Shimoni 658) teach that the reward for proper Shmittah observance will be the ultimate redemption. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 97a) is even more specific: “At the end of the Shmittah year, Moshiach ben Dovid will arrive.” Rav Moshe Shapiro explains (Mimaamakim, page 385) that geulah will happen when we fully understand and appreciate that Hashem owns the earth and everything therein. It is the culmination of our understanding that even the land that we have bought, tilled, ploughed and harvested is not ours but His. That conclusion, too, can be ours during Shmittah even if we are not in the Land. If we help the “Shmittah warriors” in their noble quest, dedicate more time than usual to Torah and mitzvos this year, and work on our emunah and bitachon, then we can bring Moshiach wherever we are. Yes, Shmittah is technically limited to a time and a place. But avodas Hashem is timeless and beyond space. It is, however, easier to feel the Divine presence during the year designated for closeness to the Shechinah.

We can all do at least some of the above and join our brethren in Eretz Yisrael in a period of unparalleled spiritual elevation and growth. May this Shmittah indeed be the harbinger of the geulah sheleimah bimeheirah b’yomeinu.

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