Chapter 25

21 I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years: Although we should strive to understand the lessons that God’s commandments hold for us, we should not fall prey to the tendency to rationalize them, i.e., to think that the logical benefits we discern in fulfilling the commandments is the their ultimate purpose. For example, with regard to the sabbatical year, it is very tempting to suppose that it is nothing more than a means of naturally improving the fertility of the soil. After planting for six years in a row, the nutrients in the ground need to be replenished, and so we leave it fallow for a year. After the rest, the field will understandably produce more and better produce than it did before.

The most serious danger in rationalizing the commandments lies in proceeding to the next logical step: presuming to evaluate the relevance of the commandments based on the rational explanation for them we suppose to be their purpose. In the case of the sabbatical year, for example, we could think that with modern agronomical advances, such as crop rotation and fertilization, etc., there is no need to let the land lie fallow for a year, so the observance of the sabbatical year is no longer relevant.

It is in order to disprove this argument that God promised His blessings specifically for the sixth year. Were the purpose of the commandment to allow the soil to be replenished, we would expect the Torah to promise increased yields in the years following the fallow year. By promising the increased production in the sixth year—which should naturally be the weakest—God shows us that it is specifically and exclusively His blessing that is the source of the increased production.

Although the laws of the sabbatical year apply only in the Land of Israel, its lessons are applicable in our day-to-day lives wherever we live. As Jews, we must spend time every day in prayer and studying the Torah study; we must give charity and support Jewish schools and yeshivas; we cannot work on the Sabbath and the holidays. How can we hope to live financially sound lives, when we see our non-Jewish neighbors, who are not “handicapped” by any of these obligations, struggling to earn their livelihood?

This is the lesson of the Sabbatical year. If we do what God requires, He will bless us—not only spiritually, but materially as well.1

I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year: Allegorically, the six years during which work is permitted are compared to the six millennia of the world’s present state of existence. The seventh year corresponds to the seventh millennium, when the world will “rest” from its present state. Thus, we are now in the latter part of the sixth millennium, i.e., towards the end of the sixth “year.”

In this context, the same question posed in the preceding verse applies: Aware of how the Divine consciousness and spiritual strength of the latter generations cannot compare to that of the earlier ones, we may wonder: how can it be that the sixth “year,” the weakest one, will be the one to provide for the seventh? How can our feeble attempts at Divine service usher in the Redemption, when that of our holy ancestors did not?

To this, God replies that in the merit of our simple faith, expressed in our dedication to our Divine mission despite all obstacles and beyond the constraints of logic, He will increase the yield of the “sixth year,” and bring us the Redemption.

Moreover, there are three levels of redemption, alluded to in the verse, “He will bring us to life after two days; on the third day, He will raise us up and we will live before Him.”2 The first level is the preparatory period before the advent of the Messiah, in which we experience a foretaste of messianic reality as we witness the final days of exile. The second level is the period immediately after the coming of the Messiah, in which the world will once again function as it is meant to, but still within the limitations of nature. This is the period the sages referred to when they that “the only difference between this world and the messianic era is with regard to the subjugation [of the Jewish people] under the [non-Jewish] nations.”3 The third level will begin with the Resurrection of the Dead and be characterized by a complete existential reversal of nature, in which what we presently consider miraculous will become natural.4

Thus, in this context, God’s promise that the sixth year will produce enough for three years means that the merit of our dedication to our Divine mission throughout the sixth millennium will suffice to bring us to all the three following “years,” the full flowering of the final Redemption.5

36-38 You must not take interest: There is a subtle yet crucial difference between profiting from an investment and from a loan. When we invest in a financial venture, the money we invest still belongs to us, and thus our money is “working” for us. We may therefore be said to have earned the profit that the venture returns. In contrast, a loan transfers the ownership of the principal to the borrower with no more than an obligation to repay it later. Thus, taking interest on a loan is profiting from someone else’s effort without having participated in that effort. The lender is collecting interest based only upon the fact that the money used to belong to him.

As such, taking interest on a loan is the very antithesis of the way God intended the world to run. God created the world in such a way that we must work for our achievements. Both spiritual and material reward is achieved only through effort. In the words of the sages, “If someone says to you, ‘I have toiled but not found [results],’ do not believe him. If he says, ‘I have not toiled, but nonetheless found [results]’ do not believe him either. Only if he says, ‘I have toiled and found [results],’ believe him.”6

To be sure, God could have arranged for us to receive His beneficence without having to earn it; this would have seemed to better accord with His intrinsic benevolence. But then we would have felt like the objects of charity, or worse, like parasites. We would have been denied both any sense of accomplishment and the great satisfaction of enjoying the fruits of our labors.

Moreover, God not only rewards us for our efforts but assures us that they are productive, for He knows that even the greatest reward will not satisfy a worker who feels that his work is pointless. This, in fact, was how the Egyptians tried to demoralize the Jewish people—not merely by making them work, but by making them perform utterly useless tasks.7

One who lends on interest is therefore contravening the fundamental principle of Judaism, denying the notion that the reward should be dependent upon and commensurate with the effort expended. The sages therefore assert that “Whoever accepts the yoke of [not lending with] interest has accepted the yoke of the kingdom of heaven; whoever rejects the yoke of [not lending with] interest has rejected the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.”8

From a somewhat deeper perspective, it could be argued that loaning on interest does not deny the principle of “reward for effort” completely; after all, the lender has enabled the borrower to invest and reap profits, and would seem to deserve some compensation for having done so.

The crucial point, however, is that taking interest on a loan is receiving reward for a past deed: the one-time act that took place at the beginning of the transaction. In contrast, taking a return on an investment is receiving reward for the ongoing involvement that continues throughout the life of the investment. In this sense, too, taking interest is fundamentally opposed to how God wants the world to run. God does not “loan” us the powers He grants us, as a one-time act; He “invests” them in us, remaining intimately involved in our efforts to reap the rewards of our efforts. Denying His involvement in our lives is a form of deism, a heresy totally inimical to the notion of Divine providence that lies at the core of Jewish belief.

God has woven into the fabric of creation the mechanism that He will behave toward us in the same way that we behave towards our fellows. In this vein, the sages’ statement, “Know what is above you”9 can be understood according to its literal translation, “know [that] what is above [is] from you.”10 Similarly, the phrase “God is your shade”11 is interpreted to mean, “God is your shadow,” i.e., He “mimics” our behavior towards others in His behavior toward us.12

Thus, when we forego interest on our loans, God responds in kind: He not only grants us the initial potential to be successful both materially and spiritually but continues to assist us throughout our labors. When someone takes interest, God also responds in kind: He grants him the initial potential but refrains from extending him ongoing supernatural assistance.

It is in this sense that the sages, explaining the mention of the Exodus in connection with the prohibition against interest,13 tell us that “whoever acknowledges the commandment [not to take] interest acknowledges the Exodus from Egypt; whoever denies the commandment [not to take] interest denies the Exodus from Egypt.”14 As we have seen,15 the Hebrew name for “Egypt” (מצרים) means “limitations,” so “going out of Egypt” means being released from the limitations of the nature, which is exactly how God treats us when we forego taking interest on our loans.

In a more abstract sense, resting on our laurels and relying on past successes is a form of taking interest. For example, once we have expended efforts in educating our children, students, or anyone else over whom we have had any influence, and have succeeded in inspiring them to teach others, we might be tempted to “retire” in order to focus exclusively on our own spiritual development, confidant that we will duly receive our share of the sublime revelations of Divinity they elicit by inspiring others. However, benefiting from the results of such past labor is like taking interest on a past loan, the interest of which is forbidden. In contrast, if we continue to disseminate Judaism just as we taught them to, our work with them remains an “investment,” the “interest” from which is rightfully due us.16

42 They are My servants: Some of us are so enslaved to our work during the six days of the workweek that it seems as if we have sold ourselves into the service of another person for six years. Even when the Sabbath comes, the “seventh year” when we are supposed to go free, we are loathe to release ourselves from the exhilaration of our work.

The Torah therefore teaches us that this is not right. We were created to serve God: to study His Torah and to fulfill His commandments. Since God created us for this purpose, He has certainly provided us with the wherewithal to implement it. Even when we work during the week, we must not consider ourselves enslaved to our work; rather, we should work in order to use the fruits of our labors for holy purposes. And on the Sabbath, we should rise completely above any association with our mundane lives.

By thus liberating ourselves from our personal enslavement, we hasten the general Redemption, when the whole world will be free to pursue spirituality and Divinity unhindered.17

43 You must not work him with backbreaking labor: As mentioned above,18 working without purpose is demoralizing and can even drive a person insane, whereas working with purpose—even if the task requires extraordinary effort—is richly rewarding. The satisfaction we gain from the sense of accomplishment is greater even than that which we derive from the wages we earn.19

A wealthy landowner found it relaxing to observe his laborers rhythmically swinging their scythes, harvesting the wheat in his fields. Wishing to enjoy the same peace of mind constantly, he approached one of the peasants with a proposition:

“I will pay you double your wages,” he told the peasant, “to stand in my living room and swing your scythe.” The peasant agreed with undisguised excitement, as he would be doubling his pay while considerably easing his workload.

After several hours of his imaginary labor, however, the peasant quit. Even when the landowner offered to further double his wages, he refused. “When I don’t see the result of my actions,” he declared, “it is impossible to work.”

The efforts we are required to expend in studying the Torah and fulfilling its commandments may be great, but we know that our efforts here below have profound influence on the cosmic realm above. Our knowledge of the effect of our efforts in the spiritual realms enables us to perform it with strength, vitality, and joy.20