Blogging the Torah: Parashat Behar-Bechukkotai, How Can I Observe Sh’mittah when I Live in a Four-Story Walk-Up?

One of my favorite books of midrashim is the children’s book, Does God Have a Big Toe? In the first story, “Partners,” Rabbi Marc Gellman describes a conversation between God and the angels.  The angels think that the universe is a mess and suggest that God should tidy up a bit, so God does.  God organizes the rocks and the waters and creates earth and all of the life on it.  At the end of the story, after the man and woman have been created, God explains that the work is not done, but that God’s partners, those people, will continue. This partnership is our brit, our covenant with God, which began formally with Abraham and is passed down the generations.

Early in this week’s double Torah portion of Behar-Bechukkotai, we learn about another part of our covenant, the land.  The Torah tells us, parallel to our structure of our week, where we work six days and rest for one, the land will be worked for six years and rest for one.  In the case of a week, we learn in Exodus 31, that the people of Israel will observe Shabbat as an “ot,” a “sign” of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.   Later on in Vayikra 25, the Torah tells us that “Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather your yield.  But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a Shabbat L’Adonai.” The same word of “Shabbat” is used here, with the emphasis that this is a Shabbat for God.  Does that mean that our weekly Shabbat is for us?  Perhaps God knows that the land needs a rest just as much as we do.

The year of rest is called sh’mittah. The Torah goes on to tell us that after seven cycles of seven years, there will be an additional year of rest.  This fiftieth year is the yovel, the jubilee year.  The Torah explains that “in this jubilee, each of you shall return his holding — ahuzzato.”  Brad Artson points out that this word holding indicates that the land is “given to the Jewish People as God’s part of our brit, our covenantal relationship.”  Sforno, the 16th century Italian commentator, taught that this brit can only be expressed within the land of Israel. This also holds for the other agricultural laws in the Torah including the laws of leaving the corners of our fields free for gleaning.

OK, so I know that your saying, we don’t live in Israel.  And I bet that most of us aren’t farmers.  What does this have to do with us?  According to The New York Times, “The number of Americans who lived in households that lacked consistent access to adequate food soared … to 49 million, the highest since the government began tracking what it calls ‘food insecurity’.” This means that these men, women, and children do not know where their next meal is coming from and when it will arrive.  According to the World Food Programme website: “There are 925 million undernourished people in the world today. That means one in seven people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life. Hunger and malnutrition are in fact the number one risk to the health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.”

If we are truly to be partners with God, it seems to me that metaphorically we are are still required to leave the corners of our field available for the hungry to glean. How can we do this if we live in a four-story walk-up or a suburban ranch?   Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger suggests that when we have a simcha, we donate 3% of the money that we spend on food to the hungry. There are countless organizations that feed the hungry.  There are soup kitchens and food pantries in almost every area.  And there is the old lady in your building or the widower down the road who is alone and would so love some homemade soup. They may not be poor, and we may not think they’re hungry, but they may not have what it takes to see to their own nutrition.

Although Sforno says that we are not obligated to this mitzvah, I would like to suggest that we can certainly fulfill it.  Let’s challenge ourselves this spring to find new ways to renew our partnership with God and give others opportunities to glean.

Jason DeParle, “Hunger in U.S. at a 14-Year High”, The New York Times, 11/16/09
Bradley Shavitt Artson, The Bedside Torah, Contemporary Books, 2001

About Gail F. Nalven

Jewish Educator, Rabbi, Tefillah Leader, Songleader, Teacher, and Freelance Jew
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