“A Sabbath to HaShem” (Leviticus 25:2)

Parshat Behar
Shabbat, 20 Iyar, 5782
21 May, 2022
The Temple Institute

“When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to HaShem.” (Leviticus 25:2)

The land of Israel is no ordinary land. On the face of it, it is not the most spectacularly beautiful land, it is not the land most endowed with natural resources, it is not the most expansive land, not the most peaceful land nor the most fruitful. Yet it is all of these things and more.

The reason, pure and simple is, the land belongs to HaShem. The land of Israel is G-d’s land, not merely in the poetic sense, but quite literally. The land belongs to G-d.

G-d made a promise to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov to bequeath their descendants with the land, and G-d made a covenant with Israel at Sinai to bless the nation with the land of Israel as an eternal inheritance. As receivers of this inheritance, the children of Israel are responsible for its maintenance.

Being that it’s G-d’s land, that daily maintenance includes keeping G-d’s commandments, His ordinances and His statutes. Among these are many commandments that directly apply to how Israel is to relate to the land.

And foremost among these commandments is the commandment of shemitta – keeping the sabbatical year, the seven year cycle, which, upon every seventh year the land is to lay fallow, to enjoy a Sabbath rest.

Israel the people does not have dominion over Israel the land. Israel the people have a relationship with Israel the land. Land and people are partners under the watchful eye of HaShem, who has blessed both land and people with a unique and holy relationship.

The land of Israel, “flowing with milk and honey,” will be a constant blessing for Israel, who will reap and sow the benefit. And Israel, as we know, will have to work that land according to the instructions given her by Torah and share the bounty of the land, both its livestock and its produce, with HaShem.

Just as Israel requires a day of rest every seven days, in order to sequester herself with HaShem, replenish herself spiritually and recount that HaShem created both the heavens and the earth and that He rested on the seventh day, and so shall His children, so does Israel need to grant the land a rest every seven years, so that the land can replenish itself both materially and spiritually.

Does the land of Israel have a soul? That is a tough question to answer, but it most certainly is endowed with spiritual riches which can be accessed and activated only by the people of Israel. This is the reason for the blossoming of the land of Israel these past one hundred and fifty years which have seen the return to the land by Israel.

G-d grants access only to the people to whom He promised the land.

But clearly the covenant by which G-d has bound the fate of the children of Israel to the land of Israel is no mere contractual agreement. For G-d the land of Israel is personal. This is the meaning of G-d’s words, “the land shall rest a Sabbath to HaShem.”

The shemitta sabbatical year is not just a rest for the land, it is a Shabbat for HaShem.

Every week, upon sanctifying the Shabbat we recite the words which G-d spoke to Israel in the wilderness: “Between Me and the children of Israel, it is forever a sign that in six days HaShem created the heaven and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested.” (Exodus 31:17)

A more precise translation of “He ceased and rested” is “He returned (to Himself) and reinvigorated His soul. “A Sabbath to HaShem” suggests that this same phenomenon of self-rejuvenation also occurs during the sabbatical year of rest for the land.

G-d is constantly recreating the land of Israel, reviving it, replenishing it so that it can share its blessing with Israel, and every seventh year the land of Israel, like creation itself, is completed as G-d rests, only to be recreated once again as the seven year cycle begins anew.

And just as the Sabbath day is a day of rest for Israel in which three plentiful meals are guaranteed to all that observe it, G-d makes clear to Israel His commitment that the land will provide more than its usual bounty as the shemitta year approaches, seeing to it that Israel will be able to observe the shemitta year in comfort. G-d, the land and the people of Israel will observe the shemitta year together.

G-d placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, a sacred place with no want, and instructed him to tend to the land and guard over it. There Adam should dwell forever, enjoying the garden’s bounty and never knowing want, if he will but keep the one commandment G-d had given him: “But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” (Genesis 2:17)

G-d has granted to Israel an enhanced arrangement: Keep My Torah and its 613 commandments, which is nothing other than the Tree of Life, itself, and I, your G-d, will grant you peace and keep you free from want forever. This is an offer no people can refuse.

Living in G-d’s garden, flourishing in His land, is an incomparable blessing, and an awesome responsibility. Keeping the shemitta year, allowing the land to rest, is nothing less than renewing the eternal contract.

G-d bless the land of Israel!

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