God, Jews & Israel:

The Unbreakable Covenant

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, BeHar, takes up the subject of Shemitah which disallows the cultivation of one’s farmland in the Land of Israel during the seventh year. No demonstration of human ownership is permitted as Rashi says:

Even though I prohibited (the produce) to you, I did not enjoin you from eating and benefiting from it. Only, that you must not conduct yourself as the landowner, but rather everyone must be equal (in reaping the benefits of the produce of the Land): you, your worker and fellow citizen (BaMidbar 25:6).

This is an amazing law that is not duplicated by any other nation. It proclaims that everything exists only because Hashem Created the world and continues to Oversee its development. Thus, by refraining from exercising dominion over agriculture in the seventh year, the farmer acknowledges that the land is not truly his but ultimately a gift from the Creator.

This causes him to be humble and not feel superior to anyone. He also realizes the extent to which Hashem cares about the needy and desperate citizens, and even the animals, and he is inspired to be generous in opening the gates of his property and allowing everyone in. This requires that one let go of his attachment to his possessions, which helps to free him from his dependency on “things.”

There is another dimension to Shemitah. Most people would be surprised that the farmer has been granted such an extended vacation. But is that truly such a good thing? Idleness can be dangerous if it prompts a person to waste his time on non-productive activities that don’t elevate him to a higher level. Extended vacations can cause a person to become immersed in various diversions that appeal to his baser instincts and tastes. Chazal extol the virtue of “Torah Im Derech Eretz” (Torah study combined with an occupation) neither of which appears to be present in the Torah’s Shemitah program.

However, the real benefit of the Shemitah year is that it affords a person the opportunity to “seek out Hashem” by studying His Torah and practicing good and charitable deeds. The main purpose of the weekly Shabbat, by restricting labor and business activity, is to give a person the opportunity to focus on the study of Torah ideas. Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik goes so far as to say that one who scrupulously avoids all prohibited activities on the Shabbat but fails to devote any effort to Torah study is akin to one who desecrates that holy day. (Harerei Kedem on Matters of the Shabbat, Siman 88)

Man’s need to perfect himself and reach the goal for which he was brought into existence is built into the creation. Shabbat is a unique institution which was designed to provide humans with the opportunity to exit the world of necessity and enter into G-d’s domain to luxuriate in the Divine Presence. This can be a transformative experience or in contemporary lingo, a game changer.

Virtually all peoples and cultures have adopted the seven-day week, even though there are no cosmic events corresponding to it, as in the case with the phenomena of the month or year. There is also universal recognition that one day each week should be set aside as a “Day of Rest.”

[The Christians observe their “Sabbath” on Sunday and the Muslims celebrate theirs on Friday–which is not in accordance with the Torah, which clearly states that “G-d created the world in six days and ‘rested’ on the seventh day; therefore, Hashem blessed the seventh day and sanctified it” (The Decalogue, Shemot 20:10). To me, this seems ironic. The only reason you keep a seven-day week and observe a Sabbath is because it is mandated in the Torah. If so, why not do it properly and make Shabbat at the appropriate time, Saturday? Or would that be too much of an acknowledgment that the “Jewish” Torah is the real Word of G-d?]

From the words of the Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) it seems that Gentiles as well as Jews are enjoined to sanctify the Sabbath. That is because observance of this unique day proclaims one’s faith that Hashem Created the world and ‘rested’ on the seventh day. If mankind were to honor the Shabbat, it would unite us all in the fundamental Doctrine of Creation. Aside from the purely religious benefits of this belief, its universal adoption would promote mutual respect among all people and implicitly affirm that we have all been created in the Image of G-d.

The Rambam states in The Guide (Book II CH XXXI {2:31}) :

Therefore we are told in the Torah to elevate this day (i.e. Shabbat); with the purpose of establishing thereby the Principle of Creation which will spread in the world, when all people keep the Sabbath on the same day. For when they ask why this is done, the answer is given: ‘For in six days the Lord hath made, etc.”(Shemot 20:10).

The Principle of Creation is so important that it manifests itself in the weekly Sabbath, in the Shemitah, which is the seventh year, and in the Yoveil (Jubilee) which is the fiftieth year after the conclusion of seven Shemitah cycles. This indicates that the conduct of all aspects of our economic life as well as our merciful and considerate treatment of others is rooted in the realization that we are all beings who have been created in the Divine Image and must reflect Hashem’s Infinite Wisdom and Compassion in all that we do.

The Doctrine of Creation has great practical significance for the ultimate redemption of mankind. At the outset of his Biblical commentary (Bereishit 1:1), Rashi asks why the Torah begins with the Creation narrative rather than with the details of the first Mitzvah He communicated to the Jews, i.e. the declaration of the New Moon. (Shemot 12:2) He answers:

“He conveyed the power of His works to His People in order to give them the inheritance of nations” (Psalms 111:6). So that if the nations of the world were to say to Israel, ‘You are thieves, for you have taken by force the lands of the seven nations,” Israel will respond to them, “All the earth belongs to G-d. He Created it and Gave it to whomever He saw fit. It was His Will to give it to them (the seven nations) and it was His Will to take it from them and give it to us.”

Today, the Jew-hating people accuse us of stealing lands which they claim belong to them. The best response is the true one, that Hashem promised the land to the Patriarchs and delivered it to their descendants, the Jewish People, after them. The enemies of Israel delude themselves into thinking that G-d has rejected the Jews, and therefore all the promises He made to them are no longer valid. This is a falsification of Hashem’s words, which we must be vehemently refuted.

The Rambam in his famous “Iggeret Teiman” (Letter to the Jews of Yemen) says:

We are in possession of the divine assurance that Israel is indestructible and imperishable, and will always continue to be a preeminent community. As it is impossible for G-d to cease to exist, so is Israel’s destruction and disappearance from the world unthinkable, as we read, “For I the Lord change not; and you, the Sons of Jacob, will not be consumed” (Malachi 3:6).

Similarly, He has avowed and assured us that it is unimaginable that He will reject us completely, even if we disobey Him and disregard His commands, as the prophet Jeremiah avers: 

Thus says the Lord: “If Heaven can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath; then will I also cast off all the seed of Israel for all they have done” says the Lord (Jeremiah 31:36).

Indeed, this very promise has already been given before through Moses our teacher who says: 

And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Lord their G-d (Leviticus 26:44).

Hashem’s covenant with the Jews cannot be annulled. Israel is the eternal People of G-d and His gift to them of Eretz Yisrael will never expire. He exiled His People from the holy land because of their sins, with the understanding that no other nation would be able to cultivate its soil. So it remained in utter desolation for thousands of years, waiting for its legitimate owners to return. And now the land is built up, its deserts bloom and its authentic inhabitants live in prosperity. May Hashem grant peace to His Nation Israel.

Shabbat Shalom.