“This Land is Your Land, this Land is Your Land…”
On Sukkot, at the beginning of the shmita cycle (i.e. the Sukkot of ‘Year One’), everyone is to gather in Yerushalayim (they are all in the vicinity anyway because of the holiday) and hear specifically chosen sections of Sefer Devarim read by the king (according to tradition) in order that the whole nation will ‘hear and therefore learn to be in awe of God’, ‘and the children that did not know previously of this required awe will listen and learn it for all time’. The sections chosen to be read are from (1) the beginning of Sefer Devarim, where Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael that God has in fact come through with His promise to the forefathers and is soon to give their children the Land; (2) the second paragraph of kriyat shema in which God describes the system that will facilitate the proper mutual relationship between Him and the nation: the basic system of mitzvot and averot, the repercussions thereof, and the ‘lengthening of days in Eretz Yisrael’’ if upheld properly; and (3) the halakhot of giving ma’aser from one’s crop, the paradigmatic expression of understanding the true source of one’s bounty which their Land produced. The theme which so blatantly ties these three sections together is the Land: as the symbolic representation of God’s fulfillment of His promise, as the reflection of a truly observant nation, and the vehicle with which the nation can demonstrate their true awareness of their Divinely bestowed survival – all together teaching the required “awe”.
The fundamental message behind the stoppage of work on the Land every seventh year is similar to that of the meaning of Shabbat (a cessation of creative work every seventh day): the Land and its ability to produce belongs to and is controlled by God; and to facilitate a deep understanding of that truth, once every seven years the nation is commanded to express that awareness by allowing everyone to enter any field and eat from anywhere they desire. God also promises that there will be enough food for everyone, even having left the Land fallow for the year, conveying the message that even though the farmers haven’t actively been involved in the cultivating of the Land it continued to produce because of a ‘larger’ framework above their control.
The question must be asked: if the entire theme of the sections read for the ceremony of Hakel is the Land and the integral lessons it helps to convey, and the symbolic meaning behind shmita is the understanding of God’s authority as expressed through the Land, wouldn’t the significance of Hakel’s lesson be more poignantly realized and inculcated if it took place during the shmita year instead of immediately after its conclusion?
During the ‘season’ of Sukkot (in a normal, non-shmita year) the farmers would have been collecting and storing that which they planted during the Pesach ‘season’ and harvested ‘during’ Shavuot; this grain and other produce they would either store in silos or sell, in order to survive the winter. At the time of the Sukkot of Hakel, however, they would have been prohibited from plowing, seeding, harvesting, etc. and even though the new cycle of years has begun and they were now technically permitted to once again work the Land, nonetheless they were forced to live off the produce which God provided until the planting of the following season. It is at this convergence of opposing feelings, when the farmers have regained their independence and yet still were forced to depend on God and His sustenance, that the ceremony of Hakel was performed; for this is the moment of the greatest appreciation of the Land and its true role in the nation’s ongoing relationship with God – the perfect time to comprehend the “awe” the king’s reading of the Torah was established to instill.
In C.S. Lewis’ philosophical-religious work Screwtape Letters, in which a senior devil directs and councils a novice devil in the ideal methods with which to ensnare his human ‘project’, Screwtape writes:
“[the interruptions] anger the [the human] because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen…[however] the man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of his time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his [property]…we produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion…[they are taught] not to notice the difference between senses of the possessive pronoun – ”my boots” and “my father”…and all of the time the joke is that the word “mine” in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything.”
When the people have once again begun their arduous agricultural process after a year’s Divinely commanded hiatus; when they’ve left their homes and established temporary housing in their nation’s capital; when they ultimately gathered together to hear the message from the king, this is the true message of Hakel. The lesson they are to hear, appreciate and fully comprehend is that while they may say “my land’, it is truly not theirs; and while they may feel that it is “my produce”, truly it belongs to a Greater owner. “לה’ הארץ ומלואה” – “The land and everything within it is God’s” – and we are merely the privileged and trusted tenants of this Divine property, to be used, shaped and worked in the context of achieving a greater awareness of God’s role in our lives and our responsibility to Him.
Rav Jonathan Bailey