At the beginning of the parashah, Rashi deals with the famous question, “What does Shemitah have to do with Mount Sinai? Were not all the mitzvot given at Sinai?”1.

The answer that he gives is very surprising and not entirely sufficient: “Just as the laws of Shemitah were revealed at Sinai with all their general principles and details, so all of the mitzvot were revealed at Sinai with all of their general principles and details.”

This answer explains what Mount Sinai has to do with Shemitah, but not at all what Shemitah has to do with Mount Sinai. According to Rashi, Mount Sinai had to be mentioned here in order to teach us that even though Shemitah is already mentioned elsewhere in the Torah, all of its principles and details were revealed at Sinai, and the same applies to all the other mitzvot as well. Yet even if this mitzvah is the paradigm for the other mitzvot, the question still remains: Why was Shemitah the mitzvah that was specifically chosen to be mentioned in connection with Mount Sinai?

The whole subject of “Shabbat of the Land” – Shemitah and the Jubilee year – is known to be a very important matter in the Torah, of far more importance than is ascribed to it nowadays, and one of the proofs for this is in the next parshah.

Toward the end of the Tochechah (the section of reproof in Leviticus 26), it says, “Then the Land will enjoy its Shabbatot…As long as it is desolate, it will enjoy the Sabbatical rest that you would not give it while you were living on it.”2 The implication is that the great Tochechah refers specifically to the laws of Shemitah and the ­Jubilee year.

When Jeremiah discusses why the Land was destroyed, what emerges is that G‑d overlooks forbidden sexual relationships, idolatry, and bloodshed, but He does not overlook neglect of the Torah.3 In our portions as well, a similar idea emerges. The implication here is that G‑d overlooked forbidden sexual relationships and bloodshed, but not the laws of Shemitah. He is willing to forgive us for everything, but what ultimately creates the great destruction foretold in the Tochechah is the disregard of the laws of Shemitah. In the Mishnah’s list of sins deemed responsible for punishment coming into the world as well, it can be observed that neglecting the laws of Shemitah occupies a central place.4

A world that has changed

We hear and read much about the difficulty that the Shemitah year entails, the great sacrifice that G‑d requires of us. And the truth is that for a farmer who works the land, Shemitah obviously means a fundamental change in his whole way of life. This is doubly true when the majority of Jewish people in the world live in the Land of Israel, and when most of these people are farmers and agricultural workers.

In Josephus’s The Antiquities of the Jews, he relates that over the course of Jewish history, many military defeats occurred during the Shemitah year or in the year immediately following it. The reason for this is that at the end of the Shemitah year or in the year that follows it, a country that is based on an agricultural economy has expended all its resources and is economically depleted. Hence, its ability to absorb suffering is at a low, and an enemy army can conquer it much more easily.

Today, however, we live in a different world. When a country subsists on agriculture, and its surplus – if it exists at all – is very small, this means that even an ordinary Shabbat is an economic burden, and certainly a whole Shemitah year is an unbearable burden. Therefore, in the times of our sages, it was indeed necessary to fight for the observance of the seventh year. As it says in the Midrash, keeping the laws of Shemitah truly required heroic strength and great fortitude.5 But the more that time goes by, and certainly in recent years, keeping the laws of Shemitah has become less and less of a hardship, the underlying reason being that most Israelis today are not farmers. For many years now, the only agriculture that most Israelis encounter – if they encounter it at all – is their little home garden.

While a farmer’s perception of Shemitah is obviously different from that of the average Israeli, the difficulty of observing the laws of Shemitah is much lower than in the past. At the very most, it becomes one of the many nuisances that an observant Jew must deal with, another “annoying” halachah. Just as one must eat kosher food, and just as living in the Land includes observing the laws of terumah and maaser, Shemitah is now added to the list. However, these halachot have long ago ceased to make much of a practical difference, even for farmers.

The concept of sabbatical – not just as a weekly day of rest but also as a legal regulation that entitles people to a year’s vacation from their jobs – is becoming increasingly established all over the world. How can the economy survive this phenomenon? The answer is that the industrialized world lives on a tremendous surplus, and with it, a tremendous amount of waste. Modern society is based on the production of services, and most people in modern society engage in providing services, not in production of goods. This changes people’s relationship to the land and their dependence on it, and this change has lessened the perceived existential significance of keeping the laws of Shemitah.

“For the land is Mine”

It appears that the whole idea of Shemitah has another meaning, one that is more relevant in our generation’s reality. It is this meaning that is emphasized in this parshah as well. This emphasis is not connected with G‑d demanding of us a great sacrifice; rather, the emphasis is on the question of who owns the land.

In the Shemitah year, and even more so in the Jubilee year, there is an aspect of suspension of property ownership by a kind of royal decree from heaven. Our sages call it an afkaata demalka – a royal suspension.6 G‑d proclaims that He is suspending ownership of land and property, canceling all debts.

Such a suspension is not an anomalous idea. Ever since Greek and Roman times, and in other countries and other times as well, instances of this kind of decree have occurred. In the past, some countries instituted such a decree when they sensed that the economic situation was volatile. When they sensed that the pressures, the inequality, or the exploitation of a certain class had reached the point of being unbearable, the country would simply announce that it would stop paying its debts, and creditors would now have to write everything off as a loss.

In a certain respect, however, it appears from the Torah’s account that the idea of Shemitah and the Jubilee year is not exactly suspension of ownership but something a little different; it can be called reinforcement of ownership.

An example of this notion can be seen in present-day reality: In the heart of New York City there is a large building complex called Rockefeller Center, home to landmark structures such as the GE Building and Radio City Music Hall. This whole area is actually private property, except that the owner implicitly allows the public access to it. For part of one day each year, the area is closed in order to make it known that it is not actually public space but private property. By closing it for one day, the owner reinforces his ownership. He declares that the public uses his property by right of use, not by right of ownership.

In the Shemitah and Jubilee years, the Owner reinforces his right to all possessions by suspending our usage rights. This can be seen from the fact that the “royal suspension” of Shemitah and the Jubilee year is not an absolute suspension and does not eliminate ownership of property completely. After the Shemitah year, the land does not become ownerless and does not go to whoever wants it. Changes do occur, but when the Shemitah year is over, the owner can begin to eat from his land’s produce again. Everything is his, as before: The land is his, the trees are his, and the fruit is his. The Shemitah year was only an intermission.

When the Torah says, “Your cattle and the wild animals that are in your land may eat all its produce,”7 this is because the suspension is not a true monetary divestment, where property is confiscated from its owner. It is simply that the owner of the land is taken down a notch and reminded that in reality, he is only a tenant. After all, the owner may eat from the produce of his field during the Shemitah year; the difference is that the neighbor’s donkey is permitted to do so as well, as are all other animals.

An analysis of the laws of Shemitah shows that this matter of “and the wild animals that are in your land” is a very important detail. All the dates by which Shemitah-year produce must be removed from the house depend on whether the produce is still available to the animals in the field.

This point grounds the essence of Shemitah upon the fundamental restoration of ownership to G‑d; He is the owner, and we are mere strangers and sojourners in His land. Once every several years, the ownership is removed from our hands, so that we should understand that although we are hereditary tenants who lease or hire the land, and we have a certain right of possession, the ownership itself is not ours.

The Torah describes another law that is related to this same point. When a “residential house in a walled city”8 is sold and is not redeemed during the first year after the sale, the house becomes the permanent property of the buyer and does not revert at the Jubilee year. By contrast, when a Levite sells his house, “the Levites shall forever have the right of redemption.”9 The reason for this law is rooted in the very idea we have been discussing. The Levites are the only ones who are expressly and openly designated as strangers and sojourners. An ordinary person who buys a portion of land says to himself that this portion belongs to him. The Levite, however, knows that his livelihood is provided by G‑d, that he eats and resides as a tenant, since he is a servant of G‑d. Therefore, the Levite cities are held under stronger possession, because in essence, the Levites’ possession of them is weaker. The Levites have more rights because they know that in truth nothing is their own. They know that they received these places as a gift, and they subsist on them only because G‑d allows them to do so.

G‑d is Master of the world and L‑rd of the earth,10 and therefore everything that is here belongs to Him. To ensure that we remember this, He takes away from us the exclusive right to use things, returning everything to its original residents – the animals, the beasts, and the dogs.

“If your brother becomes impoverished”

This is one aspect of Shemitah, which emphasizes the service, the ownership, and the fact that G‑d is the Master of the world. The other aspect begins from the verse, “If your brother becomes impoverished.”11

As our sages understood it, this section concerns a schlimazel, a ne’er-do-well, who fails at all his endeavors. He has inherited land, but unfortunately, he does not succeed in managing it and is forced to sell it. Soon enough, he is forced to sell his home as well; he finally takes out a loan, with or without interest, and that, too, he is unable to repay. As a result, he has no other recourse – he must sell himself as a slave. But why is this section situated here?

I think that the point presented here is the other aspect of Shemitah, the message of “All is from You, and from Your hand have we given to You.”12 On the one hand, the emphasis of the parshah is that G‑d is Master of the whole world and all who live within it; He gives and He takes away. This is the aspect that expresses the power of lordship. But there is also the other aspect of lordship. Lordship entails not only control but also commitment. The concept of “Whoever buys a Hebrew servant is like one who buys himself a master”13 reaches all the way to G‑d. If this is your servant, then you have a responsibility toward him. Just as the servant has obligations, so does the master. Just as a person can address his servant as “my servant,” a servant can now address his master as “my master”; the master has a duty and an obligation toward him as well. Authority and dominion are not one-sided but, rather, demand involvement and concern from the master regarding his servants, and a responsibility to support them and provide for all their needs.

In light of this, what happens in the end to the poor schlimazel we spoke of earlier? G‑d acknowledges that no matter how unfortunate this person is, he is His, so He must look after him. Likewise, when the poor fellow sinks even lower, “and he is sold to a stranger sojourning in your midst or even to the root of a heathen’s family”14 – he is sold to idolatry itself – he, too, remains under G‑d’s responsibility.

Such things have indeed happened. An acquaintance who was the Israeli ambassador to a Muslim African nation told me that one day the imam of the capital city came to him with quite a story. It turns out that this imam was a Yemenite Jew who, in search of a livelihood, wound up in Africa and did not do so well in business. But he had an advantage over the locals: He knew Arabic. He was therefore hired to read them the Quran until they would learn to read, study, and understand the text like he could. Eventually, he rose in the ranks to the point that he became the chief imam. Now that he had reached old age and had accumulated money, he asked the ambassador to somehow convince the authorities to let him make aliyah and settle in Israel. Sure enough, the imam came to Israel and lived in Haifa for several years. This was a Jew who sold himself as an imam. He recited the Muslim prayers five times a day and read and taught from their holy text. This, too, could be a Jew’s livelihood.

Even in such a case, G‑d insists that this schlimazel is His. He is responsible for him. So He will make sure to pull him out, uproot him from these places, and bring him home.

The central motif in this parshah is that besides the message of “But the land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; you are merely strangers and sojourners with Me,”15 there is also the message of “I am G‑d your Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt;”16 “For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves.”17 And again: “For the People of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt.”18 That is to say, they are My servants, My people; and since they are My servants and are Mine, they belong to Me, with all that that entails.

The picture that arises from both sides of the matter is that the entire parshah speaks of the same subject: G‑d’s servants and their service of G‑d. How do they serve God? What is it like to be “called ‘Priests of G‑d’ and termed ‘servants of our G‑d’”?19 The answer given here is that just as they belong to Him in that He can confiscate and apportion their land, so, too, do they belong to Him in the sense that He is responsible for looking after their wellbeing and welfare for all time.

A kingdom of Priests

What, then, does all this have to do with Mount Sinai? Shemitah has to do with Mount Sinai in that this parshah is the essence of what happened at Mount Sinai. The revelation at Sinai represented the acceptance of the service of G‑d in both senses: divine lordship and our service. In Parshat Behar this is expressed precisely, in detailed form; here, the Torah explains what it means that He is our Master and we are His servants, how this comes to expression, and what it relates to.

This is exactly what G‑d told us at Mount Sinai even before the giving of the Torah. Those last moments before the Torah was given were moments in which G‑d had not yet “forcibly imposed” the Torah upon us.20 And at that time G‑d said, “And now, if you will obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be My special treasure among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine. You shall be to Me a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.”21

The concept of “a kingdom of Priests” is the essence of our service. As the Ibn Ezra and others explain, “Priests” in this context means servants: You are G‑d’s servants. As the Torah relates, “Moses…set before them all these words…And all the people answered as one and said, ‘All that God has spoken we will do.’”22 G‑d asks the people if they want to be His servants. The people answer that although they don’t yet know the details, they do want to be the servants of G‑d.

Here, too, in Parshat Behar, G‑d says to us: “You are Mine.” We cannot have true ownership of anything, but G‑d will always provide for us, even when we act like schlimazels. If we think that we are successful on our own merits and that everything is our own, then G‑d will simply take it back. But if we are unsuccessful and lose everything, He will provide for us.

All this we took upon ourselves already at Mount Sinai. Even then we agreed to be G‑d’s servants, His tenant-farmers – on condition that we would also receive usage rights.