Parshat B’Har begins with the mitzva of Shmitta, which we are privileged to be fulfilling this year. When discussing this mitzva, the Chinuch (mitzva 84) suggests three possibilities as to why we have been commanded to refrain from working the land in the seventh year. The first reason is that this mitzva reminds us of the fact that G-d is the ruler of the world and that whatever we succeed in bringing forth from the land is not a reflection on the land’s fertility or our abilities. G-d’s position enables Him to demand that we leave the land fallow. The fact that we are not only commanded to refrain from working the land, but that we are prohibited from extending ownership over any crops which grow independently, strengthens this view. G-d’s dominion over the world is amply demonstrated by our renunciation of our control over the land and its bounty for the year.
The second idea that the Chinuch proposes is that by giving up our ownership we develop the trait of generosity. We are essentially giving Tzedaka by allowing anyone to enter our fields and take what they want. By demonstrating our generosity in this fashion, we achieve the highest level of giving, namely the level of giving without any anticipation of return. (This should not be confused with the highest level of Tzedaka, where one helps the needy help themselves, often with a return of a loan. Here, the emphasis is on the giver, and his willingness to give.) According to this line of reasoning, Shmitta is a character building exercise for the landowner.
Finally, the Chinuch sees the mitzva of Shmitta as a vehicle for strengthening our faith and trust in Hashem. By sacrificing one’s livelihood for a year, and placing faith in Hashem that somehow one’s family will be supported while leaving the fields untilled and the crops unharvested, one shows tremendous faith in G-d. When that faith is rewarded, one’s trust in Hashem is immeasurably strengthened.
Interestingly, when explaining the prohibitions of working the fields, the Chinuch directs us to a separate mitzva, namely the mitzva of lending to the poor (mitzva 66). The purpose of that miitzva, says the Chinuch, is to heighten our sense of mercy and empathy. While it is clearly within G-d’s power to provide the needs of the indigent, G-d wants us to do so in order to become better people. This idea extends beyond the superficial level as well. By making ourselves into better people, we are better positioned to appreciate, and thereby increase, the good which G-d wishes to bestow upon us. By linking this mitzva to the mitzva of Shmitta, we see that renouncing our property rights in favor of the poor also creates a favorable environment for strengthening our link to Hashem.
If we return to the first reason that the Chinuch suggested, it is clear that there is a link between shmitta on the one hand and Shabbat on the other. (The Torah itself makes this link amply clear. Nechama Leibowitz pointed out that the passukim in our Parsha which discuss Shmitta use the root of ShaBaT (Shin Bet Taf) no less than seven times. One imagines that the number seven in this context is no coincidence.) The Chinuch himself demonstrates this link by using virtually the same language in describing the mitzva of Shmitta and the mitzva of Shabbat (mitzva 31). In both places the Chinuch sees the mitzva as a vehicle for strengthening our belief in creation (Chidush HaOlam). Both these mitzvot, by requiring the individual to rein in his creative abilities and reflect upon the true source of dominion and creativity in the world, deepen one’s belief in G-d as the creator of the world.
While the passuk in Shemot which sees Shabbat as “zecher l’maase breishit” (20:10) seems to make this point in connection to Shabbat amply clear, it is worth noting that the Ramban also sees this as the point of the passuk in Devarim (5:14) which describes Shabbat as “zecher l’yitziat mitzrayim”. The Ramban explains that the Torah is not providing a second reason for Shabbat (which is in fact the position of the Rambam), but is rather providing the two most salient examples of G-d’s creative powers in the world. Bnei Yisrael might not have been on hand to witness creation, but they were eyewitnesses to the many miracles that Hashem performed during the exodus, all of which were clear examples of Hashem’s ability to control nature.
There is another possible connection between Shabbat and Shmitta, one that resonates for all of us who have had the opportunity to dedicate a significant amount of time to Limmud HaTorah. In Sefer Devarim, (31:10-13) the Torah describes the 612th mitzva, the Mitzva of Hakhael. Every seven years we are commanded to come to the Beit HaMikdash and hear the Torah read by the king in a massive public ceremony. Most commentators (and the Halacha is in accordance with their position) understand that the mitzva is performed after the Shmitta year, during Succot of the eighth year. (Those of you who will be fortunate enough to be in Israel this year on Succot will be able to participate in the ceremony “zecher laHakhael, if we are not blessed with the “real thing” by then). The Ibn Ezra, however, posits that the Mitzva is performed at the beginning of the Shmitta year. The purpose of Hakhael is to create the proper environment for the Shmitta year, a year that should be dedicated to Limmud Torah. When discussing the mitzva of Shabbat (Shemot 20:7) the Ibn Ezra suggests a similar idea, that Hashem is giving us an opportunity to engage and come close to Him. The Ibn Ezra specifically links Shabbat and Shmitta, as opportunities to disengage from the daily demands of the world and to renew one’s connection to Hashem.
Shabbat Shalom, Yom Yerushalayim Samaech, and Chag Shavuot Samaech