Resting the Land

We all know the importance of personally resting, to “recharge our batteries” and come back even stronger. However, our tradition maintains that it is of equal importance to rest our land, so much so that if Israel does not obey the Sabbatical year, its lands and cities will be destroyed. We have the ironic statement אז תרצה הארץ את שבתותיה “Then the land will have its sabbatical rest.”[1] In other words, if you don’t rest the land, you will be exiled from it, and I will force it to rest after the fact.

Rashi demonstrates that this is actually a kindness done to Israel, that Israel’s enemies will not be able to find satisfaction or bear fruit from the desolate land that they conquer.[2] I’m not sure how much of a kindness it is to be exiled from one’s land, even knowing that no one else will benefit from your hard work. Rashi also comments that Israel is exiled for 70 years corresponding to the 70 cycles of sabbatical and jubilee years that had been neglected.[3] This is a classic example of מידה כנגד מידה, measure for measure, that Israel is being punished exactly in the manner in which it sinned.

Why the emphasis on resting the land? Some have argued for the importance of crop rotation in not wearing out the soil, yet that is not the central reason for the land’s rest. It is also not to relinquish ownership through selling the land to a non-Jew. Rather, it is to remember that the land comes from a Higher Power and is not exclusively yours. This becomes even clearer through examining a verse in our portion, Behar. G-d implores Moses to tell Israel that “even crops that grew on their own from the seeds of the previous harvest you shall not reap, and the grapes of your untended vines you shall not gather.”[4] What happens to these crops? Are they left to rot in the fields? Not so, says Rashi, who comments on this verse “they shall be ownerless-free to all.”[5]

It becomes clear that the land is rested not for its own benefit but to teach us that ultimately the land does not belong to us but to G-d. There’s a great lesson here in our responsibility to safeguard the land. We cannot abuse it, working it to death to produce more crops for more money or growing on it as we please because it’s “ours.” Rather, we need to engage in a period of safeguarding the land, resting it so that it will bear fruit in future years and understanding with great humility that our land, just like everything in this world, is not exclusively ours to do with as we please. There is only one Owner of the land, and that is G-d. Our homes and all that they contain, our trees, our plants and our soil are not ours but rather ultimately G-d’s. Rather than trying to vastly increase our possessions, we need to take time once every seven years to remember the true Owner and to enable all of His creations to take from the land. We came into this world with nothing and we will leave it with nothing, while G-d remains eternal.

In studying the Laws of Conversion, I was amazed to discover that the specific laws mentioned for one to teach the convert center on the land and social justice. One must teach the proselyte that s/he cannot harvest the corners of his/her fields, instead leaving these for the poor. They are also instructed about the forgotten sheaf, which s/he cannot go back to get but rather must leave it for the poor. In addition, the prospective convert must learn about gleanings which fall from one’s arms during the harvest and which must be left on the ground for the poor. Why teach these commandments in particular? It is to demonstrate that we have a responsibility to look out for our fellow Jews (and I would add fellow humans) and make sure they have the necessities of life. A more direct way to do so is to proclaim that once every seven years your land is not your own-rather what grows on it is הפקר, available to everyone.

As we live comfortable lives in the suburbs, continuing to acquire more and more possessions, let us take moments when we do not seek to acquire more but are satisfied with the bounty that we have. May we also actively work to help those who do not have the necessities and the luxuries that we take for granted. Once every seven years, our ancestors were treated as equals-the land rested and all had ownership in what it naturally produced. May we recognize today that we are all equals and all human, bound by the same rules and responsibilities as everyone else and with the obligations to help those who are less fortunate. In doing so, may our lands be blessed and may we live our lives with fulfillment and meaning rather than feeling like we are in exile.

[1] Leviticus 26:34

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 26:32

[3] Rashi on Leviticus 26:34

[4] Leviticus 25:5

[5] Rashi on Leviticus 25:5

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