Shemitah (the Sabbatical year) occurred every seven years. The fields lay
fallow, the six-year-term Jewish slaves were released and sent back to their
families and all the fruits and grains in the orchards and fields were made
available to any that needed.
Every 50 years, Yovel (Jubilee) was celebrated. In addition to all the laws
of Shemitah, most ancestral lands were returned to their original families,
and long-term Jewish slaves were freed to return home.
Every seven years, and every fifty years, the nation would undergo a
reorganization and redistribution of wealth and property. Every Shemitah and
ever Yovel elevated the downtrodden and the destitute to the status of the
wealthy and the landed. Produce was shared equally, and all Jews needed to
be subservient to G-d, and only G-d - not man.
The laws of Terumah, Maaser, Lekech, Payah, Shikcha, Bikurim, and Urlah (laws
dealing with priestly gifts and the rights of the poor) were reserved for the
non-Shemitah and Yovel years. During those periods, the wealthy and the
landed were responsible to support the Kohain, Levi, and the needy. G-d, as
all the commentaries explain, gave us more than our allotted portions so that
we could do all His wishes for providing for those who did not have their
own. Just as we have a partnership with the tribe of Levi to support them
because they do our work in the Bais Hamikdash (Temple), so too, we are
partners with the poor in safe-keeping their money and providing for their
needs. This understanding should challenge the prevalent attitude that the
poor, and I have to assume that it was equally true when we were giving
Terumah and Maaser to the Kohain and Levi, are somehow beholden to us for
what we give them. In fact, the opposite is true. We are actually in their
employ, no different than a business partner is responsible and dependent on
his partner and the banker is responsible and dependent on his customers.
With the Kohain and the Levi we are partners; with the poor we are bankers.
It is interesting to note that the portions designated for the Kohain and the
Levi are called presents due to the Kehunah - priesthood. The intention is
to emphasize that what the Kohain and the Levi receive, as their portion is a
"present" from G-d just as all that we have is a gift from G-d. It has
nothing to do with our actual work and effort. Our yearly income is set each
Rosh Hashanah for the entire year. We work only as a consequence to the sin
of Adam and Chava in Gan Eden. However, the degree of our success has
nothing to do with our actual effort. Before the sin of eating from the Tree
of Knowledge we were completely dependent upon G-d's providence. The only
difference after the sin is the degree of our awareness of our dependency.
Before the sin, while living in Gan Eden, it was overtly obvious that our
existence was totally dependent upon G-d. After the sin, as we live outside
of Gan Eden, our total dependency upon G-d is simply less obvious. The fact
that we have to "work for a living" provides us with the illusion of
independence. Therefore, G-d built into His system ongoing reminders that we
are, in truth, totally dependent upon Him for all that we have, regardless of
our chosen occupation. Terumah, Maaser, Shemitah, Yovel etc. along with
saying Brochos - (blessings) and daily Tefilah (prayer), are some of those
reminders. Just as the Kohain, the Levi, and the poor depend upon us for
their livelihood, regardless of what they do, so too are we dependent upon
G-d for our livelihood, regardless of what we do.
Considering the history of our people, it is interesting to note the changes
in our chosen professions. Starting with Gan Eden, humankind was commanded
to "work and safe-keep" the garden. After being expelled from Gan Eden, the
consequence of "by the sweat of your brow…" suggests that man was to continue
farming the land. Kayin (Cain) and Hevel (Able) are clearly identified by
their choice of professions. Kayin was the farmer, and Hevel was the
shepherd. After killing Hevel, Kayin was no longer allowed to farm the land;
so, he turned his skills in the direction of city dwelling and its attendant
industries. After the Mabul (Great Flood), Noach continued to farm,
(planting the vineyard) and ten generations later, city dwelling had been
perfected by Nimrod (Tower of Bavel) while Avraham became a shepherd.
Yitzchak added farming to his choice of occupations, while Yakov returned to
the sheep herding of his grandfather. Yakov's twelve sons introduced
themselves to Pharaoh as herdsmen, and the Egyptians forced the construction
industry upon us. Upon entering Eretz Yisroel most of us became farmers, and
it has been the long years of exile and persecution which has turned us into
bankers and merchants.
An analysis of our national work resume seems to favor farming over any other
enterprise. Farming is the most logical choice for personal and communal
survival. Farming provides an ever self-renewing source of fuel, food,
shelter, and clothing. Farming, and its attendant jobs, engages far more
people as an industry than any other activity. Shepherding, on the other
hand, is an important industry that is ultimately dispensable. It isn't
necessary for food or nutrition, and it has a limited and replaceable
application for clothing and shelter. If not for the important role that
animals play in medical research and therapy, I would suggest that all forms
of animal consumption are potentially unnecessary. Therefore, farming seems
far more fundamental to human survival and development than shepherding. Why
then did Hevel, Avraham, Yakov, the twelve Shevatim (Tribes), Moshe, and
Dovid all choose to be shepherds? Why did Yitzchak, on the other hand choose
to be a farmer?
Following Adam and Chava's expulsion from Gan Eden, humankind was forced to
work. The work that we do is intended to challenge our sense of personal
effort and benefit. Who is really responsible for our accomplishments? Us,
G-d, or both of us? As explained earlier, it's only G-d who should receive
the credit for our successes. However, being that we are involved in the
effort, we tend to take partial or total credit for our achievements.
Farming is an industry that pits man against nature, man against G-d. From
morning to night, 365 days of the year, the farmer physically nurtures and
protects his investment of time, sweat, and money. Bone tired, the farmer
falls into bed at the end of a long hard day, only to arise before dawn the
next morning to again do battle with the forces of nature. His success is
sweetened by the extensive effort of his commitment, and his sense of
personal pride is certainly justified.
The shepherd, on the other hand, is a caretaker: leisurely tending to his
flocks, protecting them from predators, leading them to still waters and
green pastures. Their birthing is a miracle of nature, and their individual
growth and development a mystery. Any personal sense of accomplishment on
the part of the shepherd is misguided ego and arrogance. Therefore, our
great leaders and Tzadikim (Righteous individuals) chose to be shepherds
rather than farmers so that their free time at work could be maximized and
their personal involvement in the work's outcome minimized. While attending
to their flocks they could freely explore and contemplate G-d's covert but
manifest presence, and fully appreciate the degree of their own dependency on
Him. However, the farmer who struggles to care for his crops and is able to
nevertheless recognize and acknowledge G-d's total control and benevolence,
is far greater than the shepherd who justifiably wanted to avoid the test to
Yitzchak who never left the boundaries of Eretz Yisroel and who represents
the Jewish people after the time of Mashiach, was a farmer. For him, every
seed planted and every stalk that grew was a miraculous revelation of G-d's
overt control. That is why his yield was 100 times that of every other
farmer. His success had nothing to do with his own efforts.
When the Bnai Yisroel occupied the land it was supposed to be forever. It
was supposed to be the flagship economy of G-d's world. It was supposed to
be the natural but miraculous revelation of a country maintained by G-d's
direct supervision, "…from the beginning of the year to the end of the year."
It was supposed to be a land of lush vineyards and verdant hills, flowing
with milk and honey. It was to be a land whose every flower and stone
testified to G-d's mastery and love. That is why we were supposed to be
farmers. That is why we were given the laws of Shemitah and Yovel. In the
same way that our workweek is restricted to six days, regardless of the
specific industry, so too are we restricted on the seventh and fiftieth year.
Economic logic suggests that the farming industry could not sustain an
entire year of idleness, and certainly not two consecutive years. However,
G-d promised that the natural yield of the land would far exceed normal
output expectations. Just as Yitzchak planted and harvested 100 times the
norm, so too would there be enough to support the entire nation.
Of course, we would have to follow Yoseph's example and properly administer
the excess yield. However, just as Yoseph emphasized for his brothers that
his sale into slavery and his meteoric rise from rags to riches, and his
reorganization and administration of the Egyptian economy were clearly G-d's
doing, so too would each seven-year and fifty year cycle reveal G-d's
providence and protection.
In the end, no one, not the rich, the poor, the Kohain or the Layvie should
ever have disputed G-d's total dominion over the land, the economy, and the
people. In the end, exile would have been avoided and we would all be
farmers in Israel.