“And six years you should plant your land and gather its produce. And on the seventh you let it rest and lie fallow, and the poor will eat from it and what is left over the animals in the field will eat, so should you treat your vineyard and olive yard.”
“Six day you should do work, and on the seventh day you should rest so that your ox and donkey can rest and the son of the servant and the stranger can rest.”
“Three times you should make a festival each year.”
“You should keep the festival of the matzot, seven days you should eat matzot as I have commanded, during the spring, because you have left Egypt…”
“And the festival of harvest…and the festival of gathering”.
The commandment concerning shmitta in this week’s parsha is added to the long list of what would seem to be fanciful dreams for Am Yisrael. Surely the motley looking group of recently freed slaves got quite a kick out of hearing this parsha. The subject matter of the entire parsha must have been foreign to them.
In last week’s parsha they were given the Ten Commandments. The issues that were dealt with there seem to be very understandable to any member of any society. If you have a basic belief in God, parents and you don’t live, alone, on a deserted island, you are likely to grapple with the moral challenges provided by the Ten Commandments.
Parshat Mishpatim presents them with a whole series of scenarios that they must have had a much harder time with. The halachot are relevant to property owners, money lenders and indeed even slave OWNERS. It is in this light that we find the mitzvah of shmitta. An instruction not to work the field that they cannot imagine owning and making sure to provide for the poor and destitute, a group that they have been a proud member of since they were born!
The series of mitzvot that appear at this part of the parsha seem to be unrelated. However, Chazal, in the Mechilta, view them as part of a single structure. The focal point of the discussion is shmitta, the mitzvoth of Shabbat and the Chagim are mentioned in the close to proximity to Shmitta to send a specific message.
In a very cryptic line the Mechilta says three times that the mitzvoth that are mentioned here are singled out so that we should not assume that we are exempt from them during the Shmitta year. What we are not told is why we would even think that one would not have to observe Shabbat or the Chagim during the Shmitta year.
There are two directions that are taken in trying to explain this “hava amina” (intial thought).
If the purpose of Shabbat is to demonstrate God’s rule over the world, as we refrain from all creative work in the same manner that He did during the creation, this may not be needed during the shmitta year when we have dedicated a full year (all seven days each and every week) to that very concept. The observance of the weekly Shabbat as well would be redundant. The logic here would be similar in nature to the explanation that is given exempting us from wearing teffilin on Shabbat, as both serve a sign between Am Yisrael and Hahsem, we need not do both at the same time.
We can explain the alleged redundancy of the Chagim in the same manner. We are introduced to the concept of the three festivals for the first time in this week’s parsha. Each and every one is described by its agricultural significance. Pesach is in the time of the ripening of the crops, Shavuot at the time of harvest and Sukkot at the time of gathering. It seems that we are meant to celebrate God’s assistance at each and every stage of the agricultural cycle. (This is an element of the chagim that we lack living in the consumer society that we do). Once again if we are heavily involved in the shmitta year and we wake up and go to sleep every day bearing the responsibility of the prohibitions of the year glaring at us, one might assume that the chagim would not add any extra meaning to the lessons.
At least as far as the Chagim are concerned there is another interpretation that is offered. If the festivals are to mark the agricultural cycle then surely they should be abolished when we are neither planting, harvesting nor gathering in the produce. In fact, it is not that they represent an idea that we already understand, but rather they represent an idea that we have no connection to at all. (On a personal note, despite the fact that I am as urban a person as most these days, I found it strange marking Tu B’Shvat this year without the traditional tree planting. [Yes, I am aware of the fact that the custom of planting trees on Tu B’Shvat is only a hundred years old and makes little sense agriculturally and has limited religious significance. None the less Tu BShvat has remained, or rather has become, a holiday directly related to the trees, and when Shmitta makes the observance toned down it loses much of its glory]).
So it seems that can understand the initial thought that the Shmitta year has the potential to relegate both Shabbat and the Chagim to the status of either irrelevant or redundant. What is the Torah telling us by rejecting these ideas and insisting on the observance of Shabbat and the Chagim even during the seventh year?
I think that the element that is missing in the Shmitta year that we need to replace is the positive attitude toward Hashem. Shmitta is, by nature, a negative mitzvah. Even the parts that are listed in the positive categories are in essence negative. We don’t have much positive energy during shmitta. True, given all of the time off we should have time for many positive pursuits, however that is a by product of the halacha and not an integral element in it.
The Shabbat and Chagim provide us with a wealth of positive expressions of ahavat Hashem that take the message one step further. The Ramban and the Baal Hatanya (amongst others) point to the fact that positive mitzvoth stem form Ahavat Hashem while negative ones stem from Yirat Hashem. Both are essential to our relationship with God and it may be that this is the part that is missing in Shmitta that needs to be supplemented with by Shabbat and the Chagim.