Reflecting on our place in the world

Maharat Rori Picker Neiss is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis.

By Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

In a world in which we value action, speed, productivity and rapid-fire response, perhaps the most incredible thing to ask of a person is to simply stop.

Yet, that is exactly what the Torah commands us to do.

In this week’s Torah portion, we are commanded to observe the seventh year as a year of rest for the land. The Torah calls it shnat shabbaton, the Sabbath year. Like on the Sabbath, it is a commandment for us to rest and for the land to rest. And just like on Shabbat, the commandment is not only for us, but for our families. The rules extend to our servants and even to our animals.

On Shabbat, we stop because God stopped. The Torah teaches that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. So we, too, create for six days and rest on the seventh. We remember that it is our job to emulate God, and we remember that much as we strive to emulate God, we are not God. We have dominion in this world but, no matter what we might like to think, we do not have control over this world.

One day a week we stop, and the world keeps going without us. And one year out of seven, we stop. We live off the produce of the land, but we cannot work the land. We live off of our faith — our faith in the land, our faith in God. We remember that God created the world, that everything in the world comes from God. We remember that much as we work the land, much as we work in the world, much as we think that the world happens because of us, everything is because of God.

Following the laws of the Shmita year, we are introduced to the laws of the Yovel, the Jubilee.

The Torah teaches:

“You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years – so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land. … That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, neither shall you reap the aftergrowth or harvest the untrimmed vines, for it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you: you may only eat the growth direct from the field” (Leviticus 25: 8-12).

At first glance, it might seem that the Yovel year is an outgrowth of the Shmita year. The two are listed one after the other, and they both require the land to lie fallow.

Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Abravanel, the 15th-century Bible commentator and Jewish philosopher from Portugal, makes a fascinating note. He points out that with regard to Shmita, the Torah uses the word “Shabbat,” to rest, seven times. Yet, when teaching about Yovel, the Torah never uses Shabbat at all. 

Abravanel expounds that this is because the Yovel year is not meant to remind us of the creation of the world, but to remind us of the giving of the Torah. Just as the Torah was given on the 50th day after the exodus from Egypt, and we were commanded to count the days, so, too, we are commanded to count seven Shmitas for the Yovel.

In this sense, Shmita and Yovel together mark the two main events in Jewish history: the creation of the world, and the receiving of the Torah. One recalls the universal relationship with God and with the world, and one recalls the particular relationship of God with the Jewish people.

Indeed, these two events pervade our prayers, our holidays and our rituals.

Yet, Shmita and Yovel teach us something even more profound about these events. They demand of us to not only set aside a moment to remember, or a day to remember, but to set aside a full year. They permeate into the very core of our business lives, into our livelihood, into our survival. Shmita and Yovel are not about what we do in the synagogue; they are about our fields, our servants, our land, our home.

But it is only when we pause to reflect, when we look out at the world around us, when we remember that God created the world, when we remember that God gave us the Torah, that we look at the world and we do not see the world as it is, but we remember the world it is supposed to be, and we remember the people that we are supposed to be in that world.