When you enter the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field…and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest…
You shall count off seven weeks of years — seven times seven years — so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud…you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family…(Vayikra 25:2-4, 8-10)
For six yearly cycles, master the land:
rejoice in the orderly columns of plants;
water and prune and gather the crops.
Yet each seventh year, leave the fields fallow,
and just as the earth’s innate wisdom emerges,
recover the freedom to be who you are.
Ponder the vision of plenty, unfolding,
let go of possessing, of searching for more,
rather reap what is naturally there.
After seven times seven, at the blast of the horn,
return to your birthright and reclaim your home
as you harvest your essence from exile.
Parashat Behar begins by describing the concept of Shmita. The word Shmita itself does not appear in this Parasha although it does in Devarim (15:2). The word Shmita derives from the root lishmot, meaning “to let drop” or “to fall”. In the Shmita (seventh) year, the people were commanded to relinquish debts – the debtor was released from the burden of the debt while the creditor was freed from holding onto it. The land was left fallow, the crops were not tended but could be eaten by all who wished or needed. In the Jubilee year, the Yovel, which is also mandated in this Parasha (Vayikra 25:8-17 and subsequently) land that had been sold to pay a debt reverted to the original owner. This was to prevent polarization of society, precluding condemnation of the poorer class to permanent servitude.
In an article on understanding Shmita by Rabbi Avi Weiss, http://www.jns.org/latest-articles/2014/9/16/the-sabbatical-year-of-shmita-and-spiritually-responding-to-terrorism#.VUqD-Pmqqko=, he posits that the key to understanding Shmita is to reflect upon Shabbat. He cites author and translator Dayan Dr. Isidor Grunfeld, who suggests that Shabbat comes to remind us of God’s mastery over the world: in everyday life we hope our efforts will be successful, but if they are, there is an inherent risk that we might believe our success is due to our own power alone. So, for one day each week, we refrain from our creative endeavors to demonstrate that God is the ultimate Creator, not us. The Sabbatical year parallels this. For six years we work the land. Here again, we could be lulled into believing that any success is ours alone. So, for one year, the land remains fallow: and we are reminded that the earth belongs to God.
Rabbi Weiss quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “For six days, we focus on having more; on Shabbat, we focus on being more — we remember that “to have more is not to be more.” Or perhaps, for six days we are involved in the world of existence, but on Shabbat we are involved in the world of essence — of being at peace, real inner peace.
“So too, for Shmita. For six years we work the land: we engage in the outer world. But in the seventh year we too need a sabbatical, to contemplate the deeper questions of meaning and purpose. As the Torah states: and the Sabbatical year will be “for you/for your sake.” ”
In an article considering what the contemporary spiritual relevance of the mitzvah of Shmita might be, (aside from the aspects pertaining to the land) http://www.jewishspirituality.org/shmita5775/, Rabbi Jonathan Slater regards the Shmita as a “year of release” and says, “Releasing sounds simple, but it requires intention and practice. In fact, it is quite difficult. The Sages exemplified how difficult letting go is in the midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 1:1) where they argue that those who allow their fields to lie fallow, their vineyards to go untended were similar to angels. In particular, they are “the mighty in strength who fulfill God’s word” (Psalm 103:20). In this light they exclaim, “Have you a mightier person than this?” ”
Rabbi Slater continues, “Letting go of what we perceive to be our possession; letting go of our daily habits of livelihood, professional identity, schedule; letting go of what we rely on to make us feel secure; letting go of the assumption that we are right — this is what release asks of us. It is a courageous act, an expression of inner power. It is very difficult. It is, perhaps, the hardest thing we will ever do, as every letting go is in anticipation of our final release from this life. We — rightly — cling to life, but we become habituated to holding on, even when letting go may be the source of blessing.”
Although the two mitzvot of Shmita and Yovel are intimately linked to an agrarian society, the Rabbis wondered what spiritual relevance they might hold, so we find in Pirkei Avot (12:7) “Exile comes into the world…on account of not keeping the Shmita of the Land.” In an article on Shmita, http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2012/09/16/embracing-the-shmita-cycle-a-new-year-vision/, Yigal Deutscher comments, “The idea of exile goes beyond the simple notion of being disconnected from a particular land. It implies a broken state of being, a broken set of relationships. It implies doubt and disempowerment. It implies isolation and separation…”
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch understands the word “yovel” to derive from the root “to bring”. He says, “[it means] to bring a person to where he is suited to be…”He says “[the] Yovel is the “bringer”, that which brings men and possessions home to the due place and order to which they really belong.”
In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen says, “We are all more than we know. Wholeness is never lost, it is only forgotten. Integrity rarely means that we need to add something to ourselves; it is more an undoing than a doing, a freeing ourselves from beliefs we have about who we are and ways we have been persuaded to “fix” ourselves to know who we genuinely are. Even after many years of seeing, thinking, and living one way, we are able to reach past all that to claim our integrity and live in a way we may never have expected to live. Being with people at such times is like watching them pat their pockets, trying to remember where they have put their soul…Often in reclaiming the freedom to be who we are, we remember some basic human quality, an unsuspected capacity for love or compassion or some other part of our common birthright as human beings. What we find is almost always a surprise but it is also familiar; like something we have put in the back of a drawer long ago, once we see it we know it as our own.”