Parshas Behar - Shemittah: Returning To Our Point Of Origin
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וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה בְּהַ֥ר סִינַ֖י לֵאמֹֽר:
And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, (Vayikra 25:1)
The first passuk in our parsha deviates from the ordinary introduction of וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה לֵאמֹֽר in that here we are also told the location of the meeting between Moshe and Hashem.
Rashi explains this textual anomaly:
בהר סיני: מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני, והלא כל המצות נאמרו מסיני, אלא מה שמיטה נאמרו כללותיה ופרטותיה ודקדוקיה מסיני, אף כולן נאמרו כללותיהן ודקדוקיהן מסיני, כך שנויה בתורת כהנים. ונראה לי שכך פירושה לפי שלא מצינו שמיטת קרקעות שנשנית בערבות מואב במשנה תורה, למדנו שכללותיה ופרטותיה כולן נאמרו מסיני, ובא הכתוב ולמד כאן על כל דבור שנדבר למשה שמסיני היו כולם כללותיהן ודקדוקיהן, וחזרו ונשנו בערבות מואב:
on Mount Sinai: What [special relevance] does the subject of Shemittah [the “release” of fields in the seventh year] have with Mount Sinai? Were not all the commandments stated from Sinai? However, [this teaches us that] just as with Shemittah, its general principles and its finer details were all stated from Sinai, likewise, all of them were stated-their general principles [together with] their finer details-from Sinai. This is what is taught in Torath Kohanim (25:1). [And why is Shemittah used as the example to prove this rule, especially since the very fine details are not even specified here (Sefer Hazikkaron)?] It appears to me that its explanation is as follows: [At the plains of Moab, Moses reiterated the majority of the laws of the Torah to the Israelites before their entry into the land of Israel, this reiteration comprising most of the Book of Deuteronomy. Now,] since we do not find the laws of Shemittah [“release”] of land reiterated on the plains of Moab in Deuteronomy, we learn that its general principles, finer details, and explanations were all stated at Sinai. Scripture states this [phrase] here to teach us that [just as in the case of Shemittah,] every statement [i.e., every commandment] that was conveyed to Moses came from Sinai, [including] their general principles and finer details [and that the commandments delineated in Deuteronomy were merely] repeated and reviewed on the plains of Moab [not originally given there].
Rashi's explanation is somewhat confusing. If the unusual language of the passuk teaches us that all of the general principles and all of the details were given at Har Sinai then any Mitzvah could have been used to teach us this lesson. Why does the Torah specifically single out the Mitzvah of Shemittah? There must be some intrinsic connection between the idea that the entire Torah was given at Har Sinai and the Mitzvah of Shemittah. What is that connection?
Furthermore, the Torah tells us:
וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶם֙ אֶת־חֻקֹּתַ֔י וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֥י תִּשְׁמְר֖וּ וַֽעֲשִׂיתֶ֣ם אֹתָ֑ם וִֽישַׁבְתֶּ֥ם עַל־הָאָ֖רֶץ לָבֶֽטַח:
You shall perform My statutes, keep My ordinances and perform them then you will live on the land securely. (Vayikra 25:18)
וישבתם על הארץ לבטח:שבעון שמטה ישראל גולים, שנאמר (ויקרא כו לד) אז תרצה הארץ את שבתותיה והרצת את שבתותיה, ושבעים שנה של גלות בבל, כנגד שבעים שמטות שבטלו היו:
Then you will live on the land securely: because it is through the transgression of [the laws of] Shemittah that the Israelites are exiled [from their land], as the verse says, “Then, the land will appease its Sabbaths. [All the days of desolation while you are in the land of your enemies -] the land will rest and appease its Sabbaths” (Lev. 26:34). And the seventy years of the Babylonian exile [when the land remained forcibly at rest], corresponded to the seventy years of Shemittah not observed by Israel, [and thus came to rectify and “appease” them]. [see Rashi Lev. 26:35where the calculation is explained; Shab. 33a; and seeII Chron. 36:21]
Why was the first Beis HaMikdash destroyed? The Gemara in Yoma (9b) tells us that it was due to the fact that Klal Yisrael transgressed עבודה זרה, גלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים (idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed). While we do find other reasons given throughout Chazal, Rashi quotes the Medrash that connects our failure to keep Shemittah and the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. Is not keeping Shemittah on par with the violating the three major transgressions for which we are obligated to give up our lives? The answer to this question is a resounding yes! The Mishna in Avos (5:9) explicitly says so!
גָּלוּת בָּא לְעוֹלָם עַל עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה, וְעַל גִּלּוּי עֲרָיוֹת, וְעַל שְׁפִיכוּת דָּמִים, וְעַל שְׁמִטַּת הָאָֽרֶץ.
Exile comes to the world for idol-worship, sexual promiscuity, murder and the failure to leave the land fallow on the sabbatical year.
But how can this be? Violating Shemittah does not seem to be anywhere near the level of the idolatry, murder and sexual promiscuity! How are we to understand that they are being equated? Furthermore, what is the connection between the failure to keep Shemittah and golus?
Lastly, in Parshas Vayeilech (Devarim 31:10-13) the Torah tells us that at the end of Shemittah, as we begin the new seven year cycle, on the Yom Tov of Succos, the King would read from specific sections of Sefer Devarim in front of all of Klal Yisrael (this Mitzvah is known as Hakhel). This begs the question, what is the connection between Hakhel and Shemittah?
And I swear
In order for us to answer these questions let us change gears for one moment and explain the nature of a shevua, an oath, in Yiddishkeit.
When Avraham sent his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak the passuk tells us that he made Eliezer swear a shevua:
וְאַשְׁבִּ֣יעֲךָ֔ בַּֽיהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא־תִקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ לִבְנִ֔י מִבְּנוֹת֙ הַכְּנַֽעֲנִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָֽנֹכִ֖י יוֹשֵׁ֥ב בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ: כִּ֧י אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מֽוֹלַדְתִּ֖י תֵּלֵ֑ךְ וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִ֥י לְיִצְחָֽק:
"And I will adjure you by the Lord, the God of the heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose midst I dwell. But you shall go to my land and to my birthplace, and you shall take a wife for my son, for Isaac." (Bereishis 24:3,4)
Why does Avraham make Eliezer take a shevua? Is Eliezer not his trusted servant. In fact Rashi (Bereishis 15:2) tells us that Eliezer was דולה ומשקה מתורת רבו לאחרים, he drew and gave to drink from his maters teachings to others. In other words, it was from Eliezer that Avraham's teachings spread throughout the world. If Avraham trusted Eliezer as someone who was capable of transmitting his teachings, it is reasonable to assume that he ought to be trusted to fulfill his mission of finding a wife for Yitzchak. Why then does Avraham make Eliezer take a shevua?
We find a similar anomaly when it comes to Yaakov's request that Yosef bury Yaakov in Eretz Yisrael.
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הִשָּֽׁבְעָה֙ לִ֔י וַיִּשָּׁבַ֖ע ל֑וֹ וַיִּשְׁתַּ֥חוּ יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַל־רֹ֥אשׁ הַמִּטָּֽה:
And he said, "Swear to me. " So he swore to him, and Israel prostrated himself on the head of the bed. (Bereishis 47:31)
Why does Yaakov make Yosef take a shevua? As the favored son of Yaakov, surely Yosef will fulfill his father's wishes. This should be especially true in light of the Gemara in Gittin (15a) which teahces us that it is a special Mitzvah to fulfill the last wishes of someone on their deathbed. Did Yaakov really not trust Yosef?
We often think of taking a shevua as a way of ensuring that someone is telling the truth but that is not the complete understanding. A shevua galvanizes the strength of a person to give them the power to accomplish their goals in the face of great obstacles. In the case of Eliezer, Avraham understood that Eliezer had an internal obstacle to overcome. Chazal tell us that Eliezer had a daughter of marriageable age and it was his desire to marry her off to Yitzchak. It would be no small feat to convince Besuel and Lavan to part with Rivka and allow Eliezer to bring him home to Yitzchak. Contending with that wily pair on its own is a difficult task but when combined with the fact that it went against Eliezer's self interest Avraham had real cause for concern. Taking a shevua assures Avraham that Eliezer will have the strength to overcome these obstacles and fulfill his mission of finding a shidduch for Yitzchak
Similarly when it came to Yosef returning Yaakov to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, Yaakov knew that Yosef would face real obstacles. Pharaoh saw Yosef as the source of all of the wealth in Mitzrayim. It was Yosef who prevented Mitzrayim from financial ruin during the famine. While Yaakov was assured of Yosef's love for him, he had real cause for concern that Pharaoh would be reluctant to allow Yosef to leave Egypt. Taking a shevua assures Yaakov that Yosef will have the strength to overcome these obstacles and fulfill his mission of burying Yaakov in Eretz Yisrael.
The Gemara in Niddah (30b) teaches that when a child is still their mother's womb they take a shevua:
ומה היא השבועה שמשביעין אותו תהי צדיק ואל תהי רשע ואפילו כל העולם כולו אומרים לך צדיק אתה היה בעיניך כרשע והוי יודע שהקב"ה טהור ומשרתיו טהורים ונשמה שנתן בך טהורה היא אם אתה משמרה בטהרה מוטב ואם לאו הריני נוטלה ממך
And what is the oath that the angels administer to the fetus? Be righteous and do not be wicked. And even if the entire world says to you: You are righteous, consider yourself wicked. And know that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is pure, and His ministers are pure, and the soul that He gave you is pure. If you preserve it in a state of purity, all is well, but if you do not keep it pure, I, the angel, shall take it from you.
What is the value in a fetus taking a shevua? We do not remember taking such a shevua. It has no halachik significance. As we explained, we will all face tremendous obstacles in this world. As the fetus leaves the womb it must be prepared to overcome the challenges that lie ahead. Taking a shevua strengthens us for the trials and tribulations that lie ahead.
But how exactly does taking a shevua galvanize our strength? The Sefas Emes (Matos 5634) explains that a shevua shares the same shoresh and sheva, seven. When God created the world he did so with seven spiritual powers known an as the sefiros. These seven spiritual forces devolved into the material world. This explains why the number seven always represents totality and completion. When a person takes a shevua, they gather together all of the seven forces that exist within them (man is a microcosm of the world and on a micro level we also contain seven sefiros) and focus their strength on fulfilling the task ahead. Once fully devoted, the Sefas Emes explains, the name of Hashem rests upon them.
The seven forces within man are connected to the seven forces from which all of creation emanate. The Gemara in Shavuos (38b) teaches that when Hashem said "Do not take my name in vain" (swearing) the entire world shook. When a human being takes a shevua they galvanize all of the seven sefiros within them and this in turn galvanizes all of the seven sefiros of the entire world. Swearing in vain diminishes our connection to the source of our existence. To express this idea the entire world shook when Hashem gave us the commandment not to swear in vain.
To take this idea one step further let us explain the difference between an ohr yashar (direct light) and an ohr chozer (returning light). An Ohr Yashar is light as it is revealed from its source. It is a radiant light that pulls outwards. To explain this let us compare light to our thoughts. A thought that compels you to share that thought with others is an Ohr Yashar. It radiates outwards to others and reveals its source. In contrast an Ohr Chozer is like a thought that is private and personal. You may not even be aware of the thought until someone else comes along and helps you experience the thought. An Ohr Chozer would help you become aware of the innermost recesses of your personality. When God created the world he created both Ohr Yashar and an Ohr Chozer. The Ohr Yashar in Kabbalah is identified with the number six. Six days a week we work to reveal God's presence outwardly in the world. The Ohr Chozer is identified with the number seven. On the seventh day we keep Shabbos which returns the world to the innermost point of God's being. Anytime we encounter the number seven in Judaism we are connecting to the concept of the Ohr Chozer. Seen from this perspective, the power of a shevua is that it returns something to its point of origin in God. When Avraham sent Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak he was tasking him with reconnecting him to his point of origin (finding a spouse is reconnecting to the other half of our soul which split before birth). When Yaakov asked Yosef to bury him in Mearas HaMachpelah in Chevron, he was not merely tasking him with burying him in his desired place but with returning him to his point of origin (Chevron means connection and is identified with the Ohr Chozer). Before a fetus goes out into the world it takes a shevua that it will retain its purity just as it was in its original point of origin.
With this in mind we can explain a very curious, often overlooked, story in the Torah. In Parshas Vayera, in between the exile of Yishmael and the Akeida, we find a conversation between Avraham Avinu and Avimelech. Avimelech sees that Avraham has emerged from Sodom unscathed and recognizing that God is with Avraham he desires to enter into a treaty with him.
וְעַתָּ֗ה הִשָּׁ֨בְעָה לִּ֤י בֵֽאלֹהִים֙ הֵ֔נָּה אִם־תִּשְׁקֹ֣ר לִ֔י וּלְנִינִ֖י וּלְנֶכְדִּ֑י כַּחֶ֜סֶד אֲשֶׁר־עָשִׂ֤יתִי עִמְּךָ֙ תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה עִמָּדִ֔י וְעִם־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־גַּ֥רְתָּה בָּֽהּ: וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם אָֽנֹכִ֖י אִשָּׁבֵֽעַ:
And now, swear to me here by God, that you will not lie to me or to my son or to my grandson; according to the kindness that I have done with you, you shall do with me, and with the land wherein you have sojourned." And Abraham said, "I will swear." (Bereishis 21:23,24)
According to the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 54:2) the kindness that Avimelech did for Avraham was giving him land to dwell on (Bereishis 20:15). In return Avimelech now asks Avraham to take a shevua that he will never lie to Avimelech or his progeny. Avraham swears and a treaty is made between them.
The Torah tells us that there was a well in dispute between Avraham and the servants of Avimelech who had stolen it from Avraham. Now that Avimelech and Avraham have this understanding, Avraham takes the opportunity to retake ownership of this well. Avimelech claims that he did not know of this dispute. Avraham takes flocks and cattle and Avimelech and Avraham form a covenant. With a covenant made this should have been the end of the story but Avraham continues to separate seven ewes. Avimelech asks Avraham what the seven ewes are for and Avraham explains in taking these seven ewes from Avraham it will be a witness that Avraham is the rightful owner of the well. Avimelech does so and the story seemingly concludes with naming the place of the event:
עַל־כֵּ֗ן קָרָ֛א לַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא בְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע כִּ֛י שָׁ֥ם נִשְׁבְּע֖וּ שְׁנֵיהֶֽם:
Therefore, he named that place Beer sheba, for there they both swore. (Bereishis 21:31)
The question is obvious. We find that Avraham swore to Avimelech but where do we see that Avimelech swore to Avraham? (Interestingly, this is the very first time a shevua in the Torah is made. Whenever we want to study the essence of an idea we always examine the first time it is mentioned in the Torah. This is an excellent opportunity to see the inner nature of a shevua.)
The mystery deepens when we examine the two final pesukim of this story.
וַיִּטַּ֥ע אֵ֖שֶׁל בִּבְאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיִּ֨קְרָא־שָׁ֔ם בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהֹוָ֖ה אֵ֥ל עוֹלָֽם: וַיָּ֧גָר אַבְרָהָ֛ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֖ים יָמִ֥ים רַבִּֽים:
And he planted an eishel in Beer-Sheba, and he called there in the name of the Lord, the God of the world. And Abraham dwelt in the land of the Philistines for many days. (Bereishis 21:33,34)
What exactly is an Eishel? Rashi explains that it a machlokes between Rav and Samuel. One says that it was an orchard from which to bring fruits for the guests at the meal, and one says that it was an inn for lodging, in which there were all sorts of fruits.
What is the meaning of the juxtaposition of Avraham's covenant with Avimelech and the planting of the Eishel? Why does it matter that Avraham lived there for many years (Rashi explains that Avraham lived there for 26 years, even longer than he lived in Chevron)?
The Chiddushei HaRim explains that the first four letters of the name Avimelech and a remez to the four exiles that Klal Yisrael will undergo (Edom, Bavel, Yavan, and Madai). Avraham's interactions with Avimelech are a template for Klal Yisrael and the four exiles. Let us explain.
The mission of Judaism is to build a dwelling place for God in our world. This means that we are obligated to engage the world in a fashion which reveals the inherent spirituality of the world. In other words, there is God, the world, and Klal Yisrael which serves as a bridge between the two. The exiles that Klal Yisrael experience is our opportunity to bring the word of God to the nations of the world.
Avimelech, as a symbolic representation of the four exiles, recognizes the strength of Avraham Avinu. (Avraham is so named because he is the father of all nations.) The nations of the world recognize that as representatives of God we have something unique to share with the world. They want the truth, hence Avimelech asks Avraham to swear that Avraham will not lie to him or his children. The Rabbeinu Bechaya explains that this means that Avraham will not expel Avimelech's children from the land nor will he destroy the fruits of the land. The nations of the world ask us to leave the world for them. Teach us about its Godliness but do not expel us from that which is ours. Since we are the "nations of the world" the world rightfully belongs to us. Avraham swears to it. In other words, Avraham has now gathered together all of the seven sefiros that lie within himself so that he will have the strength to fulfill this mission of bringing Godliness to the world. The shevua will enable him to return the world to its original point of origin. But now that he has done so the issue of the well comes to the fore.
God is not only to be found beyond nature in the realm of the transcendent but also within nature in the realm of the immanent. The well in Judaism symbolizes the search for God that lies beneath the surface. If Avimelech, as the representative of the nations of the world, wants Avraham to bring Godliness down into this world then Avraham needs a reciprocal commitment from Avimelech. The digging of wells (finding Godliness in the world) is our obligation. That may not be stolen from us by the nations of the world. This was the disagreement between the servants of Avimelech and Avraham. The servants of Avimelech reasoned that if the world belongs to them, how could the well belong to Avraham? Is the well not of the world? Avraham's response was his very first lesson. God is not only to be found in a spiritual meditation but in the mundane activities of this world. If we are to reveal God in this world we cannot do so only from beyond creation, it must be from within creation as well.
Avimelech agrees and a covenant is formed but this is not enough for Avraham Avinu. He needs Avimelech to swear to it. Where do we find that Avimelech takes a shevua? In line with our previous understanding the answer should be quite obvious. When Avimelech accepts the seven (sheva) ewes that Avraham set aside for him it is an expression of the shevua (oath) that he was taking. With both shavuous having been made, each side committing themselves fully to the mission of bringing Godliness down into the world (With Jews as the teachers and the nations of the world as the students) Avraham appropriately named this place Be'er Sheva. And indeed Be'er Sheva would become the place where Godliness would be openly manifest in the world. As Yaakov flees from Eisav it is Be'er Sheva where he has his famous dream with the Malachim ascending and descending the ladder. Ultimately, this is the future site of the Beis HaMikdash.
However, the Medrash (Medrash Shmuel Parsha 12) teaches that as a result of the seven ewes that Avraham gave to Avimelech many tragedies befell Klal Yisrael.
ויהי ארון ה’ בשדה פלשתים שבעה חדשים. כתיב, (בראשית כא, ל) כי את שבע כבשות וגו’. אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא לאברהם, אתה נתת לו שבע כבשות, חייך, שאני משהא בשמחת בניך שבעה דורות. דבר אחר, אתה נתת לו שבע כבשות, חייך, שבניו הורגין שבעה צדיקים מבניך. אלו הן שמשון, חפני, ופנחס, שאול, ושלשת בניו. דבר אחר, אתה נתת לו שבע כבשות, חייך, שבניו מחריבין ז’ משכנות מבניך. אלו הן אוהל מועד, וגלגל, ונוב, וגבעון, ושילה, ובית העולמים תרין. דבר אחר, נתת לו שבע כבשות, חייך, שארוני מחזר בשדה
Seven generations were killed. Seven Tzadikim (Shijmshon, Chafni, Pinchas, Shaul and his three children) were killed. Seven Mishkanos were destroyed etc... What did Avraham Avinu do wrong that such horrible tragedies came as a result of the shevua he asked Avimelech to make? The halacha is that a goy is killed for keeping Shabbos. The domain of the Ohr Chozer is not given over to the nations of the world. The innermost point of God's being is reserved for Klal Yisrael. To enter into a covenant with Avimelech was fine but to ask him to take a shevua was inappropriate. The result was tragic. Nevertheless, finding Hashem in the world means finding God in all areas of life. Even in times of great suffering we reveal Hashem's presence by holding on to our emunah and recognizing God as the source. This is after all the inner meaning of the sheva/shevua concept to begin with. So although Avraham Avinu was criticized for having Avimelech take a shevua, it did present us with an opportunity to find God even in the lowest aspects of our world.
With this in mind we can understand the connection between the Eishel and the shevua of Avimelech. Let us first take a look at the the precise language of the passuk for it is in fact a curious one.
וַיִּטַּ֥ע אֵ֖שֶׁל בִּבְאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיִּ֨קְרָא־שָׁ֔ם בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהֹוָ֖ה אֵ֥ל עוֹלָֽם: וַיָּ֧גָר אַבְרָהָ֛ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֖ים יָמִ֥ים רַבִּֽים:
And he planted an eishel in Beer-Sheba, and he called there in the name of the Lord, the God of the world. And Abraham dwelt in the land of the Philistines for many days. (Bereishis 21:33,34)
Now according to the opinion that Eishel means an orchard it is understandable why the Torah says that Avraham planted an Eishel. According to the opinion that Eishel is an inn why would it say that Avraham planted an inn? The Gemara in Sotah (10a) addresses this issue and prves that we do find the language of planting when it comes to pitching tents as we see in the passuk in Daniel (11:45) ויטע אהלי אפדנו, “And he shall plant [vayitta] the tents of his palace. Still we are bothered. While the language is feasible it is certainly not normative. Why does the Torah stress the fact that Avraham planted an inn?
The Gemara in Sotah (10b) teaches us the nature of the inn that Avraham ran. The passuk says, וַיִּ֨קְרָא־שָׁ֔ם בְּשֵׁ֥ם יְהֹוָ֖ה אֵ֥ל עוֹלָֽם, and he called there in the name of the Lord, the God of the world. The Gemara darshens that the passuk should not be read וַיִּ֨קְרָא, and he called, but rather ויקריא, he caused others to call. In other words, Avraham's Eishel became a place where people would recognize that God is אֵ֥ל עוֹלָֽם, the God of the world. How would he do so? When guests of Avraham finished their meal they would bless Avraham for the food. Avraham would then question his guests, "But did you eat from what is mine? Rather, you ate from the food of the God of the world. Therefore, you should thank and praise and bless the One Who spoke and the world was created." In this way, Avraham caused everyone to call out to God.
We can now understand why immediately following the story of his covenant with Avimelech, Avraham sets up his Eishel. He has sworn himself to the mission of bringing Godliness to the world. Only when the world recognizes God as the creator will his mission be complete. This is the purpose of the Eishel. Not to provide an income for Avraham but so that the world will have a place where they can learn about the truth of God. And accordingly, this is where Avraham spends most of his days. Fittingly, it is on the site of this Eishel in Be'er Sheva that the Beis HaMikdash is built where on Succos we offer seventy (the ultimate completion of sheva 70*10) oxen corresponding to the seventy nations of the world. In this way we reveal their inner Godliness. As Rav Yehoshua Ben Levi said, "If the nations of the world had known the value of the Temple for them, they would have surrounded it with fortresses in order to protect it. For it was greater value for them than for Israel….” (Bamidbar Rabbah Parshah Aleph Siman Gimmel)
We can now understand why the language of planting is appropriate for the Eishel. The Gemara in Shabbos tells us that Emunah comes from learning Seder Zeraim. Planting, unlike building, requires a faith that the seeds will grow. The farmer sows the field, turns the soil over, waits for the seeds to decompose in the ground but all the while turns to Hashem and asks him for wind and rain. Without God he knows the harvest will not be bountiful. The businessman and the builder hold their fate in their own hands. They can easily believe that it is their own strength and ingenuity that led to their success. Therefore, Chazal identified learning Seder Zeraim (planting) with developing our Emunah. As the place in the world where Avraham sought to bridge the gap between God and the world, planting an Eishel, even if it meant the inn and not the orchard, becomes the best possible language for the Torah to use.
Later on, as Yaakov is about to descend into the Golus of Mitzrayim the passuk tells us that he stopped in Be'er Sheva.
וַיִּסַּ֤ע יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וַיָּבֹ֖א בְּאֵ֣רָה שָּׁ֑בַע וַיִּזְבַּ֣ח זְבָחִ֔ים לֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק:
And Israel and all that was his set out and came to Beer sheba, and he slaughtered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. (Bereishis 46:1)
The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 94:4) questions why Yaakov went to Be’er Sheva and explains that he went to cut down the Eishel (cedar trees) that his grandfather, Avraham, had planted there. The trees were concealed with Bnei Yisrael throughout Golus in Mitzrayim and was eventually used for the middle bar inside the beams of the Mishkan. Why did Yaakov specifically need wood from the Eishel of Avraham? With the above in mind we can understand that the Eishel of Avraham and the shevua of Be'er Sheva that represented our mission to connect the world to its point of origin. Even in Golus we are given this opportunity as we descend lower into the world. Eventually our mission comes to its completion and it is the Eishel trees of Avraham Avinu that are the central piece in holding the Mishkan together.
Now that we clearly understand the inner nature of a shevua (as it relates to the concept of sheva) we are ready to understand the Mitzvah of Shemittah. As we will demonstrate,
Just as a shevua galvanizes all of the Sefiros of creation in order to strengthen us fulfill our God given mission so too the Shemittah that comes every seven years, shares a similar theme. Just as a Shevua is a light that draws us inwards so too Shemittah draws us back to our point of origin.
The pesukim describe Shemittah as a Shabbos LaHashem
דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם כִּ֤י תָבֹ֨אוּ֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֖י נֹתֵ֣ן לָכֶ֑ם וְשָֽׁבְתָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַֽיהֹוָֽה:
Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord. (Vayikra 25:2)
וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗ת שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ יִֽהְיֶ֣ה לָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַֽיהֹוָ֑ה שָֽׂדְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תִזְרָ֔ע וְכַרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תִזְמֹֽר:
But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard. (Vayikra 25:4)
The very term "Shabbos LaHaShem", literally means "a return to HaShem", the root of Shabbat being 'Shav', to return.
The Ramban (Vayikra 25:2) see this as a sod yemos olam, a secret of the workings of world history. The Ramban sees the seven days of creation as a pre-configuration of world history (see Ramban Bereishis 2:3). The world was designed to last for seven thousand years. Six thousand years of Olam Hazeh and one thousand years of Moshiach prior to Olam Haba (see Sanhedrin 97a). The six days a week that we work represent the six thousand years of history that we build our world into a dwelling place for God. Every week on Shabbos we set aside our weekday activities and focus on existence that is exclusively dedicated to Hashem. In this sense our weekly Shabbos is described as a glimpse into the world to come (the final thousand years of history). The weekly expression of world history has a parallel in the seven year Shemittah cycle. We work the land for six years which parallel the first six thousand years of history and we let the land lie fallow in the seventh year which parallels Olam Haba.
The Sefer HaChinuch (328) explains the reason for the Mitzvah of Shemittah:
שיראה ממעשה האדם בכל ענין שנה זו כאלו אין דבר מיחד ברשותו, רק שהכל ברשות אדון הכל
A person's actions during this year should indicate that he has no specific property, but that everything is the property of the Master of All.
When we put these two explanations together it is clear that following the laws Shemittah expresses that everything we own belongs to God thus returning the world to its source. In this way we bring the world to its historical completion as was set out from the very beginning of creation.
With this understanding of Shemitta in mind we can explain a perplexing Mechilta.
The passuk tells us:
וְשֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים תִּזְרַ֣ע אֶת־אַרְצֶ֑ךָ וְאָֽסַפְתָּ֖ אֶת־תְּבֽוּאָתָֽהּ: וְהַשְּׁבִיעִ֞ת תִּשְׁמְטֶ֣נָּה וּנְטַשְׁתָּ֗הּ וְאָֽכְלוּ֙ אֶבְיֹנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ וְיִתְרָ֕ם תֹּאכַ֖ל חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה כֵּֽן־תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְכַרְמְךָ֖ לְזֵיתֶֽךָ: שֵׁ֤שֶׁת יָמִים֙ תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה מַֽעֲשֶׂ֔יךָ וּבַיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖י תִּשְׁבֹּ֑ת לְמַ֣עַן יָנ֗וּחַ שֽׁוֹרְךָ֙ וַֽחֲמֹרֶ֔ךָ וְיִנָּפֵ֥שׁ בֶּן־אֲמָֽתְךָ֖ וְהַגֵּֽר:
Six years you may sow your land and gather in its produce. But in the seventh [year] you shall release it and abandon it; the poor of your people shall eat [it], and what they leave over, the beasts of the field shall eat. So shall you do to your vineyard [and] to your olive tree[s]. Six days you may do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, in order that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and your maidservant's son and the stranger shall be refreshed. (Shemos 23:10-12)
The Torah clearly juxtaposes Shemittah and Shabbos once again highlighting their shared nature. In fact, Rashi (23:12) quotes the Mechilta which teaches that the Torah does so because one might have thought that during Shemittah one does not need to keep Shabbos since the entire year is referred to as Shabbos. The Torah therefore juxtaposes Shemittah and Shabbos to teach that even during Shemittah we are obligated to keep Shabbos.
This is indeed strange. Would we really have thought that one not need keep Shabbos during the Shemittah year? Shemittah only restricts farming whereas Shabbos prohibits farming as well as many other "weekday" activites. Violating Shabbos comes with a much more stringent punishment than violating Shemittah. Clearly Shabbos is the more stringent of the two; Why then would Shemittah cancel out Shabbos?
The Shem MiShmuel answers that whenever the Torah mentions the laws of Shabbos, it is always in juxtaposition to the six days of the week. For example:
שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֘ יֵֽעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י שַׁבַּ֧ת שַׁבָּת֛וֹן קֹ֖דֶשׁ לַֽיהֹוָ֑ה כָּל־הָֽעֹשֶׂ֧ה מְלָאכָ֛ה בְּי֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֖ת מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת:
Six days' work may be done, and on the seventh day it is the Shabbos of rest; it is holy to God... (Shemos 31:15)
שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֘ תֵּֽעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ מִקְרָא־קֹ֔דֶשׁ כָּל־מְלָאכָ֖ה לֹ֣א תַֽעֲשׂ֑וּ שַׁבָּ֥ת הִוא֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה בְּכֹ֖ל מֽוֹשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם:
Six days shall work be done, and on the seventh day it is the Shabbos of rest, a holy gathering... (Vayikra 23:3)
In other words, Shabbos must be preceded by the six day work week. It is the contrast to the work week which makes Shabbos unique. No longer are we involved in the mundane pursuits of the week; on Shabbos we are totally dedicated to Hashem. But what if our work week was deficient? What if we were not allowed to work the land? During Shemittah one does not fully experience the six days of the week and therefore there was a possibility that Shemittah would have canceled out Shabbos. Of course this was only a hava aminah (a suggested possibility) and we do of course keep Shabbos but we have gained a fundamental insight into the nature of Shemittah. Every Shabbos we return the world to its original point of origin but the weekday remains in its mundane state. Shemittah diminishes the very notion of the mundane. In this fashion the Shemittah year more acutely represents the last (seventh) thousand years of history. In the last thousand years of history God's presence in this world will be manifest in a transparent fashion. There will be no reality that is divorced from God and therefore there will be no work week.
This is in line with the Medrash (Vayikra Rabbah 1:1) which says:
The mighty in strength that fulfill God's word” (Psalms 103:20). To whom does the Torah refer? Rav Yitzchak said, “To those who are willing to observe the Sabbatical Year. In the way of the world, a person may be willing to observe a commandment for a day, a week, a month, but are they likely to continue to do so through the remaining days of the year? But throughout that year this mighty person sees their field declared owner less, their fences broken down, and their produce consumed by others, yet they continues to give up their produce without saying a word. Can you conceive a person mightier than such as them?”
Shemittah requires total nullification of the self. The farmer who has spent six years cultivating his crop watches as everyone is free to eat from their fields. This is not one day off a week, it is an entire year! In this way they clearly demonstrate that they are living in the world to come as they no longer concern themselves with their mundane day to day farming.
We can now see a clear connection between the planting of Avraham's Eishel and the Mitzvah of Shemittah. Avraham sought to teach the world emunah through the planting of his Eishel. He taught those that came to his inn that there was a God who they ought to bless for the bounty they receive in their lives. The farmer who observes Shemittah is the ultimate student of Avraham Avinu as they role model for the world what the world to come will look like. A world in which the mundane has been totally nullified before God.
Shemittah Leads To Yovel
Understanding the elevated nature of Shemittah (over Shabbos) we can now understand how after seven cycles of Shemittah we are obligated in the Mitzvah of Yovel.
The passuk (Vayikra 25:3-10) tells us
You shall count for yourselves seven sabbaths of years, seven times seven years . . . a total of forty-nine years . . . And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all its inhabitants . . .
As we explained, the number seven defines reality. A shevua aggregates that reality and returns everything to its source. On Shabbos we experience a taste of the world to come but we return to our mundane work week. During Shemittah we live in a world to come reality for an entire year. The mundane has been diminished but it still exists. Yovel, the fiftieth year, represents an even higher dimension than Shemittah. Shemittah represents the last thousand years of history but Yovel represents an even more ethereal stage, in which we will be completely bound to Hashem.
In other words, the seventh day is transcendent from the previous six but it is still defined by its transcendence of those days. The final stage of history, when we enter into the dimension of eight, matter and spirit are so completely intertwined that a new reality emerges. This reality is represented by the Mitzvah of Yovel. On Yovel all servants, including those who had sold themselves for lifetime labor, were set free, and all ancestral lands that had been sold reverted to their original owners. Yovel represents a state of true freedom in which, rather than just suspending the earthliness of the land, we free it of all the restraints of materiality. Given what we have said about the elevated nature of Shemittah (over Shabbos) it makes sense that it is Shemittah that is followed by the fiftieth year of Yovel which represents the final stage in history.
Parshas Behar always falls out during Sefiras HaOmer. There is a mystical teaching that if a Torah portion is read during a specific calendrical interval, it is an indication that there is a link between the two. The link in this case is quite obvious. Just as in Behar we are taught to count six years and observe Shemittah in the seventh year, and to count seven sets of seven and designate the following 50th year as Yovel, so too we find the same pattern in Sefiras HaOmer in which we count the seven days of the week and repeat this process for seven weeks culminating on the 50th day of Shavuos. In this sense,Sefiras HaOmer is in days what Shemittah and Yovel are in years.
The connection between Yovel and Shavuos can also be seen in the Yom Tov of Shavuos itself. The word Yovel is made of the letters "Yud" "Bet" and "Lamed". On Shavuos we read from Megllas Rus which begins in Beis Lechem Yehudah, the Roshei Teivos of Yovel. We find a similar connection between Beis Lechem Yehuda and the concept of Yovel in Yermiah when he says, "“A voice is heard on high… Rachel weeps for her children; she refuses to be consoled for they are gone… Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears… there is hope for your future; na’um Hashem, v’shavu vanim lig’vulam. - the word of Hashem, and your children will return to their border.” Hashem is spelled with a Yud and the Roshei Teivos of vishavu banim ligvulam spell out Yovel. The Navi here is referring to Rachel Imeinu, who upon seeing her children passing her grave on their way to exile, beseeches Hashem that her children should be redeemed. No wonder that Rachel is buried in Beis Lechem Yehuda.
Finally, the Arizal points out that the gematria of the word Omer is 310, which is the same as the word yesh. The word yesh represents the concept of the ultimate reward in the future, as the final Mishnah in Shas (Uktzin 3:12) derives from the passuk in Mishlei (8:21) “l’hanchil ohavai yesh,” that every righteous person will inherit 310 worlds (the gematria of yesh) in the world to come.
Shemittah - General and Specifics, One Point of Origin
We are now ready to return to our original questions.
While it is true that any Mitzvah given at Sinai could have taught us that both the general principles as well as the specific details were given at Har Sinai, the most appropriate Mitzvah to teach us this lesson is Shemittah. As we said, seven represents the totality of all things. In a shevua, the seven sefiros are brought together, giving us the power to return our world to its point of origin. The seven year cycle of Shemittah is the embodiment of understanding that all of the "specific" mundane aspects of our life are part of a more "general" category, all of which are connected back to the original point of origin at Har Sinai. In this sense, Shemittah is the paradigmatic Mitzvah that connects everything back to its source.
Similarly, when all of the individual (specific) Jews gather together (general) for the Mitzvah of Hakhel, the timing revolves around the Shemittah cycle. In other words, the same way that the Torah used the Mitzvah of Shemittah to demonstrate that all of the specific Mitzvos as well as the general principles originated at Har Sinai, the timing of Hakhel as it relates to Shemittah demonstrates that every individual Jew is a part of the larger nation and we are connected in our original point of origin.
Finally, it is now clear how a failure to observe Shemittah can be on par with murder, idolatry and inappropriate sexual relationships which all lead to golus. The Mitzvah of Shemittah embodies the entire mission of Judaism. We have demonstrated how Shemittah and taking a shevua share the same principle and how they both connect to the planting of Avraham's Eishel. We are charged with returning the world to its point of origin. It requires massive emunah to let your field lay fallow for an entire year. As we said, Seder Zeraim is identified with emunah. Keeping Shemittah is the ultimate expression that everything in this world (all seven sefiros) comes from God. In this way we build a home for God in this world. A failure to keep Shemittah is not a failure in a single Mitzvah but in the fundamental mission of all of Judaism. All of the other individual Mitzvos we perform are not connected back to their point of origin if the overall principle is lacking. Despite the fact that we had done many other Mitzvos, without the Mitzvah of Shemittah our other Mitzvos failed to connect us back to Hashem. The tragic result is exile.
May we be zocheh to keep the Mitzvah of Shemittah and to connect all of the individual aspects of our lives in sync with Hashem. In the merit of this holy Mitzvah may merit to experience the redemption of Mashiach that is hidden within this incredible Mitzvah.