Growing up in Brooklyn, we lived in a neighborhood where I was the only religious girl I knew. I felt certain that people in America thought—mistakenly of course—that keeping Shabbat was optional. I could not understand how anyone imagined this choice was in their hands. To me, Shabbat was so deeply woven into the fabric of the universe and the way G‑d created the world, that they must simply not know, I concluded. Otherwise, who could say, “No thank you, I don’t want to plug into the full meaning of the universe”?

Later, as a student at a prestigious Ivy League university, where we were led to believe that the almighty “A” was all that mattered, my secular Jewish friends would say, “How can you keep Shabbat? How can you possibly manage the workload if you don’t use Saturday to get it done?” And I wondered, ‘How in the world can you make it through the rest of the week without Shabbat?’

Shemitah and Shabbat

Shemitah has always struck me the same way. Aside from it’s many similarities to Shabbat (a year of rest following a six-year work cycle), it too seems sewn into the very fabric of the universe and writ large into the life we are meant to live as Jews in the Holy Land. In fact, it is designed to take us to the very pinnacle of existence as a Jew, to evolve and resolve, in almost superhuman ways, the eternal tension of the G‑dly soul that naturally aspires to great heights, forced to be constrained in an earthly body with its constant downward entropic pull.

It is designed to evolve us to an angelic level. Angels are completely devoted to the will of their Creator. The Midrash tells us they have no necks, no way to turn away from this desire to serve G‑d. They have only one foot, no way to be pulled in two directions at once, tempted by anything other than complete nullification to G‑d’s will.

We, on the other hand, struggle between our G‑dly soul, that wants only to do G‑d’s will, and our physical being, that pulls us toward self-gratification. We constantly struggle to quiet the body, to convince it to partner in the ventures of the G‑dly soul, its source of life.

How to make the body understand? If it only knew, of course it would want to do the will of G‑d, too! There is nothing better, nothing sweeter. At the same time, there is nothing harder.

True Strength

When we stood at Mount Sinai and declared, “We will do and we will listen!” we ascended to the level of the angels. Our bodies had finally gotten the message and longed to do the will of G‑d and only the will of G‑d. It was as if we said, “We want to serve You even before we know what that entails. We are completely given over to Your will! No questions!” We ascended to the level of Adam, before he ate from the Tree of Knowledge. King David describes angels) as“mighty ones of strength who do His bidding.”1 The midrashexplains that these words actually describe us, at Mount Sinai, when we declared our readiness to do G‑d’s will. We attained that angelic level, while still in our physical bodies.

Yet in a clever midrashic twist, we discover that this verse actually refers to one who keeps shemitah. He or she is the “true mighty one of strength,” because this mitzvah is not one that lasts a day or a week or a month, but an entire year. Moreover, he must watch, silently, as his field, the one he worked tirelessly for six years, lies ownerless, day after day, as person after person — neighbor, friend, enemy, or even wild beast — comes rampaging in and helps themselves to the fruits and produce growing there.

He is silent not because he is forced to be, because it is a mitzvah. He is not sitting there seething and wishing he could run out to the field and shoo everyone away. No, he is the one sitting there in silence, because he has conquered his natural tendencies and there is nothing to say. He is sitting in complete inner repose and utter trust and faith in G‑d, a silence of mind and body and heart. He has truly triumphed over his body, and his body has grown in awareness and desire to serve the G‑dly soul. This is the one who can be called a “true mighty one of strength.”

Faith and Devotion

It seems the mitzvah of shemitah is designed to help us evolve in a lasting way to the place where our whole desire is to give ourselves over to G‑d and His will. It is the place where we know the truth of ain od milvado (“there is only G‑d”) so deeply and fully that it allows us to dwell in complete trust and faith, in silence, even in the face of what seems an impossible reality to bear.

And this mitzvah of shemitah is considered the headquarters of bitachon (trust) in the Torah. For the “true mighty one of strength” who observes shemitah, the mitzvah spreads faith not only over the seventh year, but through the six years that follow. The keeper of this mitzvah realizes that not only is G‑d providing for me in this seventh year when I do not work, but it is G‑d Who provides for me the six following and preceding years, when I work the land. It was never “my own strength and the strength of my hands,”2 not in the seventh year, nor any other. My hands were moving, but G‑d was providing the strength.