Judaism is an odd mix of radical universalism and radical particularism; also of spirituality, social justice, and finance law. Parashat Behar focuses mainly on the mitzvot of shmitah, the Sabbatical Year, and of yovel, the release of Hebrew slaves and of purchased land during the fiftieth year in the cycle. Shmitah is the commandment to let the land rest from all agricultural activity, and to allow everyone, most importantly the poor, to freely pick the crops that now grow wildly and naturally. In addition, all debts from loans given by one Jew to another are forgiven.

The Sefer Hachinuch, a work of halachah that describes and elucidates every mitzvah according to the Talmud’s understanding, in the order in which each mitzvah appears in the Torah, describes the reason for shmitah (siman 84):

From the roots of the commandment: to establish in our hearts, and to draw a powerful image in our minds of the renewal of the world. “For in six days the Eternal made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day (Exodus 20:11)” the Eternal imposed rest on God’s self… The obligation falls upon us to frame all our times, day by day and year by year in this manner, to count six years and to rest on the seventh, so that we might never forget this principle; just as we count six days in a week as work days, and count the seventh as a day of rest.

This establishment of our way of counting time, not only of days, but also of years, of seven-year periods, of months (between major holiday periods), of weeks (between Passover and Shavuot), by groups of seven, is radically particularistic. It is a uniquely Jewish way of measuring time. The week was once unique to the Jewish people, and only with the spread of Judaism’s offshoot religions, Christianity and Islam, did the seven-day week become universal. It is deeply rooted in the Jewish notion of how the world came into being.

But as uniquely Jewish as it is, its radical universalism and its profound spirituality come from the fact that it is based in its being a means of directing our attention to what/who lies behind the fact of existence itself. Time, space, light, darkness, life, matter and energy, the untouchable sky and the concrete earth, are all things that come into being. Whatever we can touch, see, describe, or imagine has a beginning and an end. Beyond and before it all is the essential Oneness of being that we call God. Our patterns of seven days, weeks, months, and years are meant to remind us of God as creator.

Finally, we must recognize the social impact of the shmitah year. It is intended to be a time when the poor can eat, and that the poorest Jews may be relieved of their loan debts. But because lenders were unwilling to lend money as the seven-year cycle approached its close, Hillel established the legal device known as the prozbul, through which lenders would sign their bonds over to the court. Since it is only private individuals who are forbidden to collect debt during the shmitah year, and not the courts, lenders could get paid back, and the poor could receive loans.

Studying the laws of shmitah  help us to link together our spirituality, our cultural identification with the Jewish people, our sense of morality and justice, and our ability to examine legal strategies for actualizing those values. This is the process of Torah. This is Judaism.

Shabbat Shalom!

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