On Jealousy and the Sabbatical Year

Sometimes, we can be very clever. We can figure out ways to avoid the straightforward observance of a commandment. At times, this can be critical, such as the sale of chometz to a non-Jew before Passover. It is legitimate, utilizing a real loophole to save people for whom Passover could be financially ruinous (eg. a supermarket owner).

On such loophole relates to the prohibition of working the fields in the 7th year. The Rabbinate instituted a similar sale of the land for that year, enabling the Jewish "previous" owner to continue to till the fields. In the early years of the state, this measure may have saved some settlements from ruin.

But now, I believe, it is time to stop it. It is time to observe the shemita-sabbatical literally. This is because we are losing out on the most important perspective of our nationhood by using a loophole. We are missing the point, and I don't believe Hashem wants us to miss this point!

Example. This year, my family did not sell chometz. We got rid of it all, and it was an uplifting experience. We felt truly the pressure to clean and the sense of accomplishment when we fulfilled the mitzva in its purest sense. We can only wish the same for the farmers in the Sabbatical! There is a message of true happiness hidden in the Shemita.

You see, the Shemita tells us that the Earth is God's and that all of our accomplishments are with His help. We should never say "It is my actions that have brought me this wealth." By stopping to work the fields, we acknowledge God's ownership of the land, and we state, by our passivity, that we believe it is Him who has given us the blessings of the Earth.

Why is this crucial? What if I really did work super hard? Maybe it WAS my efforts?

No! Once we believe it was our efforts, we fall into the pit of possessiveness. We develop a sense of entitlement, and when others are more successful than us, we become jealous. God is reminding us of a basic truth: Our success is because of the gifts He gave us, including health, talent, land and creativity. Yes, we USED those gifts successfully, but He gave them to us in the first case.

Therefore, there is no need to look at others who succeed and feel jealous. After all, that came from God as well, so why be bitter? Rather, if you feel you have underachieved, look upwards and try harder, or smarter.

By eliminating the sense of possessiveness which leads to entitlement, we inoculate ourselves from jealousy, the most destructive emotion. That is the true message of the Sabbatical year, and a lesson that can only be learned viscerally by observing it properly.

No Work in the Fields This Year

In contemporary Israel, some of the laws of the sabbatical year are dealt with by temporarily selling the fields to a non-Jew. Since, according to Jewish law, fields belonging to a non-Jew are exempt from the sabbatical year limitations, this allows crops to be planted and harvested, albeit with some restrictions. This process, known as the "Heter Mechira", is quite controversial. On the surface, it seems like we are exempting ourselves from the laws of the sabbatical year by use of a technical loophole. Is this the ideal way to serve God?

While I am opposed to the widespread use of this technique, there are times and places when it may be the only solution. This is not the topic of this article, so I will cut to the quick and deal with a question that this sale brings up. It is a legal question, to be sure, but it has deep spiritual implications. The question is a practical one: How are we to treat the produce of fields that were sold for the sabbatical year?

Crops that grow in a Jewish-owned field in the sabbatical year have what is called "the sanctity of the Seventh Year." They must be eaten in a certain fashion, and treated with a degree of respect. They may not be thrown in the garbage, and they may not be used for other purposes. Does this status of sanctity of the fruits and crops also applies to those that grow in the field of a non-Jew? The rabbis are divided on this issue.

This question is an example of a larger question. What is the nature of the sabbatical year? Is it an obligation for the fields to be rested, or for man to refrain from working? Do I say that the obligation is for man, and therefore only applies to Jews, who are obligated in the Torah? If so, it makes sense that there is no sanctity in the produce of a field owned by a non-Jew. But if I say there is an element of granting the land its rest, then it is the land that generates the sanctity, not its particular owner.

At the end of Leviticus, God cautions that exile will result if the children of Israel do not observe the sabbatical year. The total proclaims that the land will "appreciate her rest during the time she is abandoned by (the children of Israel, while they are in exile)." This verse implies that it is the land that requires the rest and generates the sanctity. It implies that the land has developed a "sleep deficit" that it needs to make up during the exile. The assumption here is that there will be nobody else in the land working the fields, and indeed the lands shall rest.

History has largely borne that out. During the long years of exile, the land of Israel was mostly desolate. Mark Twain's description of a barren landscape nearly 150 years ago was a constant for centuries. Nonetheless, the commentator Kli Yakar is bothered by the possibility that others may indeed work the fields. If so, how will the fields rest? The Torah must not be making claims that may not pan out.

Rather, he says, the fact that others may work the fields is of no consequence. The sabbatical year has a more elevated purpose. It is to frame all of our worldly endeavors with faith in God. The greatest challenge to faith is not suffering, but success! The successful businessman begins to believe, "my strengths and skills of hand have made for me all of this fortune." Thus, says the commentary, God tells us to stop all the work, and see what happens.

What will happen? The fields will produce more than double the produce in the sixth year. Same effort, same business plan, dramatically different results. Similarly, the children of Israel were forbidden to collect the Manna on the Sabbath. They did not know that, and when they got home on Friday morning from gathering in their daily food, they realize that they had taken twice the usual amount. That's strange? They thought they had done their usual Friday shopping.

God is teaching us a powerful lesson here. The lesson is not that we are completely insignificant in making our fortunes, that it is all God. That is not true, because if it would be, we should never have to work the fields, not in the seventh year nor in any year! We should not have to rest just on the Sabbath, but rather all week long! If it is a lesson of faith, let it be absolute.

What is the true lesson of faith here? Not that God makes our fortune for us, but rather he gives us the strength and ability to make our own fortune. The fields in the sixth year will only give us extra bounty if we bother planting them in the first place. If we don't plan to fields, certainly nothing of significance will grow. God wants us to do our part, but realize that it is He who grants as the power to succeed.

When you think about it, you realize that this is the perfect arrangement. Why? Because if I know that it is God who gave me the gifts I have, I will take care to use them responsibly. If God gives us the ability to make our fortune, we must use our fortune for purposes that God would approve of. We must support the weak, we must build a lifestyle of morality and balance. We must avoid the bottomless pit of materialism. God wants us to make a difference, that's why He has faith in us and gives us strength.

Many things in the world are double-edged swords. Nuclear power can fuel an entire country, or it can destroy an entire world. So it is with spiritual power. The combination of the children of Israel and the land of Israel is a spiritual nuclear power plant. God wants us to use that power to light up the world. We are to be an example of His morality. But if we fall into the pits of materialism, if we forget that God gave us these powerful gifts, that power could destroy the world. It would send a destructive message to all of humanity, leading to the breakdown of society.

In such a case, God has no choice but to exile his people and thus, save the world. The moment they are ready to return to the land, and fulfill their stewardship faithfully, is the moment that the world can be truly enlightened.

This is the message of the sabbatical year, this is why it was given at Mount Sinai. It is an equal significance of the 10 Commandments, for it is the purpose of the Jewish people in the world. The sabbatical year is about faith, and together with faith comes tremendous responsibility. The other nations were not given the job, so even if they work the fields during the seven years, no affront to faith is committed.