By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
“When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath to the L-rd … But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest … you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” (Vayikra 25: 1, 2, 4)
After the detailed description of the laws of Shemittah and Yovel, along with the blessings the Jewish people will receive if they are observed correctly, follows a warning of what will happen if we fail to do so:
“And you I will scatter among the nations … the Land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin. Then shall the land make up for its Sabbath years throughout the time it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies … Through the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your Sabbath years while you were dwelling on it” (Vayikra 26: 33–35).
Crime and Punishment
While today we cannot know why certain tragedies befall us, there are times where the Torah reveals to us what the crime is that begets a certain punishment. A clear example of this is Shemittah.
Included in the “curses of Torat HaKohanim,” as Chazal refer to the curses of parashat Bechukotai, the verses clearly state that the exile is an excellent time for the Land of Israel to “catch up on its sleep,” and make up the time it was supposed to rest during the Shemittah years. Rashi (ibid., 35) precisely calculates and demonstrates how the 70 years of the Babylonian exile match the years of Shemittah and Yovel that the Jewish People failed to observe.
Here we might ask: What’s the connection? Can land be sleep-deprived? Does it really need these sabbatical years? We can easily understand that if the Jewish People don’t internalize that the land is G-d’s and act as if they own it, it is necessary to wake us up through exiling us from the land. However, the references to the land’s needing rest are rather surprising; after all, soil is inanimate.
Today, we know that Shemittah is vital for land to replenish its mineral reserves as well as other resources. This is also the rationale behind alternate sowing cycles that were employed since ancient times. Even so, it seems that this explanation is insufficient. If the land does not lie fallow, the farmer himself will see how the soil’s fertility is depleting. In this case, exile is unnecessary.
It seems we cannot escape saying that the Land of Israel had to make up for lost years of sleep; however, these were not merely meant for the soil’s physical needs, but rather for its spiritual rejuvenation.
Rabbi Yoel Sirkis writes in his commentary Bayit Chadash (Bach) on the Tur (O.C. §208) that we mention in the birkat me’ein shalosh (al ha’michyah) “and we will eat from its fruits and be satisfied by its goodness.” “Since by eating of its fruits, we receive nourishment from the sanctity of the Divine Presence and its purity, [it is in this manner that] we are satisfied by its goodness.” He further explains that impurity in the land, which can be caused by the nation’s sins, can be manifested also in its fruits and thus also affect those eating them. At the same time, those who work the soil are also at the greatest risk to become spiritually degraded to ground level. In this way, the danger is double-ended: the land can deteriorate, and so can the nation living on the land.
A Time to Embrace, a Time to Shun Embraces
Let’s take this one step further. The shidduch, so to speak, between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel is beautiful and fitting, but it also contains a risk. In practice, the relationship between the two can be likened to a relationship between man and wife:“As a youth espouses a maiden, your sons shall espouse you, and as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your G-d rejoice over you” (Yeshayahu 62:5).
The encounter between man and wife certainly can bring about tremendous blessing, due to the characteristics of each. If gone about the wrong way, though, this relationship can become disastrous: “If they merit, the Divine Presence rests between them; if they do not merit, fire consumes them” (Sotah 17a). Perhaps this is why in marriage there is also “a time to embrace and a time to shun embraces” (Kohelet 3:5), a period where halachah imposes certain distance so both partners can replenish their strength, both physical, but especially spiritual, so that their renewed relationship will be more sacred and pure, one that elevates and not the opposite, G-d forbid.
The same holds true in our relationship with the Land of Israel. At times, this beautiful relationship can be fraught with pitfalls along the way. These mistakes can be rectified by setting aside a year (and during Yovel, two consecutive years) of separation. The land is left alone and allowed to lie fallow while man takes a break from working the soil and invests in his spiritual world. When this vital resting period is not observed, the minor problems and corruption snowball into major corruption, which require rehabilitation. The Jewish People must then leave the land: “Then shall the land rest and make up for its Sabbath years.”
When in exile, disconnected to a certain degree from our engagement with the material and physical, we are left to engage only with spirituality. This is in no way ideal, since we were created to engage in the physical world and rectify it by imbuing it with spirituality! However, if this rectification is not being performed in the Land of Israel, there is no point for us to be living there. After both land and people fill their respective requirements, they can once again meet, this time with renewed vigor, to fulfill their ultimate purpose together: to rectify the world.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.