Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in
the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath
of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (Vayikra 25:3,4).
When you enter the land, dig over the earth;
deep in the furrows scatter the seeds.
Rejoice at the sight of seedlings sprouting;
tender leaves spiraling up to the light.
Gather the harvest from fruit-laden vines,
sickle the sheaves of sun-golden wheat.
But each seventh year, leave the land fallow,
a Sabbath of rest – neither plant then, nor reap.
Instead, feast your eyes on the land’s wild beauty –
see what the earth, unhampered, brings forth.
Open the gates: let the destitute enter;
let them wander the fields and blamelessly glean.
Let the acres, untrammeled, recover their wisdom:
let the land be replenished at Source.
Aside from the intricacies of the laws of Shemita (leaving the land to lie fallow every seventh year) and the economic problems involved for modern farmers in an increasingly competitive world, there is another over-arching perspective to consider. In a contemporary article entitled Let the Land Rest: Lessons from Shemita, the Sabbatical Year, Rabbi Noam Yehuda Sendor addresses this: http://www.jewcology.com/resource/Let-the-Land-Rest-Lessons-from-Shemita-the-Sabbatical-Year-Longer-Article. (The next Shemita year will begin on Rosh Hashanah 5775, September 2014).
He says that in the Garden of Eden, there was a balance in which people were to “work and guard” the Earth, and the Earth would sustain its inhabitants. This harmony has been lost. Rabbi Sendor believes that the commandments of Shemita can help to heal the brokenness in humanity’s relationship to the Earth.
The farmer has invested six years of unceasing and strenuous labour and is now to stop work for a year. The Torah tells us, “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” (Vayikra 25:23). Here is a reminder that we hold the land in trust. We are further told that we are to render all seventh-year produce “hefker — ownerless” and free. For that year, the farmer is commanded to surrender his ownership of the land and let the hungry (humans and animals) enter and eat freely of whatever grows there.
Furthermore, in the Shemita year, outstanding debt obligations are to be cancelled.
The people are to absolve each other of debts which have accrued. Rabbi Sendor says that some of these commandments of Shemita “help reorient us to ensuring that every part of society is looked after, especially the destitute and underprivileged. We also learn of the great sensitivity to all living beings that is required of us, as we must care for the animals of the field and make our produce available to them. For an entire year we are commanded not to focus on our financial growth and the expansion of our assets, but rather we are to focus all of our resources on others.” He adds that the laws of Shemita shift our perspective from seeing the earth as a resource to be exploited, to an awareness of the beauty and complexity inherent in the natural world which God has created.
Rabbi Sendor believes that the way the earth is treated today reflects that humanity has yet to learn the lessons of Shemita. He mentions the deforestation of vast portions of the Earth’s forests resulting in incalculable environmental damage, releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and driving thousands of species of life to extinction each year. He describes the “slash and burn” method of clearing land for agriculture, employed globally by both small and large-scale cattle farmers, involving cutting the vegetation of a plot of land and allowing it to dry, at which point it is burned. The cleared forest lands are then cultivated for a few seasons until yields decline on the fragile, nutrient-poor soil, used for cattle pasture until it is further degraded, and then abandoned. (According to recent research, leaving the land to lie fallow for a year improves the mineral content of the soil.)
Rabbi Sendor concludes “Shemita demonstrates that the earth needs to rest as an ecological necessity, just as people need to rest as a spiritual necessity. Shemita represents an ideal, an expanded perspective which seeks out meaning in all experiences and moves us to treat the world around us, and its fruits, with the sanctity they deserve. The world is sorely in need of wisdom that helps us learn to relate differently to the land.”
He quotes Rabbi Menachem Froman, who said, “I feel that there is something very, very deep in the love between man and land… Man is made from dust and to dust he will return. The connection between man and his land is the connection to his life source. That connection can derive from love or it can derive from possessiveness: meaning that you want to be the owner of the land, to control it.”