Jews with Views – Tu BiShvat Edition 5782
We asked five accomplished Jews from around the world to reflect on how we can make Shemitta meaningful for Jews today – both in Israel and the Diaspora.
BY RABBI GIDEON SHLOUSH
I once heard Senator Joe Lieberman say: “G-d was the first Zionist. Our job is to continue His work.” And what a job Am Yisrael has done over the past 120 years. With little blue tzedakah boxes around the world, they raised the money needed to redeem the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people. The return of the Jewish people and the establishment of Medinat Yisrael after 2,000 years of exile is an absolute miracle; that half the Jews in the world live here today is breathtaking.
Shemitta is a year of profound faith, when the miracle of our people’s return and the holiness of our nation are amplified. Traveling around Israel, it is remarkable to see farmers who are careful not to work their fields, confident that G-d will provide for them. It is mesmerizing to see signs in the fields – כָּאן שׁוֹמְרִים שְׁמִיטָה – “Here, we keep Shemitta” and signs in front of schools – כָּאן לוֹמְדִים שְׁמִיטָה – “Here, we learn about Shemitta.”
We must ask ourselves: How many Shemitta years will we get to experience? How can we absorb its lessons of faith and trust in G-d? Let us be inspired by the Jews who have made their way back home, demonstrating faith in the Torah, in the words of the Prophets and choosing to be a part of the unfolding destiny of the Jewish People.
Rabbi Gideon Shloush is the Director of the Department of Jewish Heritage at Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael in Jerusalem. He and his family made Aliyah to Israel this past summer after serving for the past 25 years as the rabbi of Congregation Adereth El in Manhattan. Rabbi Shloush previously served as Executive Vice President of RZA–Mizrachi.
BY RABBANIT SHARON RIMON
On a near-daily basis, farmers feel dependent upon Hashem. Agriculture depends on many uncontrollable factors, such as the climate, rain and pests. This is true primarily in Eretz Yisrael, which is dependent on rainfall and where, even more so, one feels a connection to G-d.
The Torah commands us to stop working the land during Shemitta and to be utterly dependent on G-d: “And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year?’… I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year” (Vayikra 25:20–21).
This dependence is still felt today by Israeli farmers during Shemitta. However, most people today are not farmers. Additionally, in the modern world, we try to control everything in our lives, particularly when it comes to financial matters. To a certain extent, we prevent ourselves from feeling dependent on Hashem.
But the truth is that we all depend on G-d, at every moment, in any place and in any field. Shemitta invites us to become aware of our dependence and encourages us to think further: At what points in our lives do we feel most dependent on G-d? How can we extend this feeling to other aspects of our lives?
Can we feel our existential dependence on G-d even when our finances are stable?
By considering these questions, even those of us who are not farmers can tap into the power of Shemitta!
Rabbanit Sharon Rimon teaches Tanach and is Content Editor for the HaTanakh website.
BY RABBI ALAN HABER
The mitzvah of Shemitta presents us with an inspiring vision: A national Shabbat that lasts an entire year, during which the land itself rests, the economy slows down significantly, and everyone – rich and poor alike – are equals, united in their faith and trust in Hashem, and sharing the bounty given to us directly by Him.
Attempting to achieve this uplifting ideal is also a significant challenge. Frankly, we never wholly fulfilled the Torah’s demands; Shemitta was often honored more in the breach than the observance. In today’s global post-agricultural economy, the challenges take a different form. Conversations about Shemitta are usually limited to debates about the kashrut of Israeli-grown produce. Those discussions are meaningful, but it’s important not to think of this as a common kashrut question. Instead, the question we all need to ask is, “What can I personally do to help Am Yisrael keep this mitzvah better?”
One suggestion is to financially support farmers who keep the mitzvah by buying permissible products from them or through donations. Also, we should study and discuss this mitzvah’s powerful messages and work to implement those values in our communities. Finally, Shemitta also helps remind everyone that Eretz Yisrael is the center of the Torah’s world.
Rabbi Alan Haber serves on the faculty of Midreshet Torah V’Avodah and has taught at several other Jerusalem-based institutions, including Matan and Nishmat. He is a licensed tour guide and lectures widely in Israel and around the world. Many of his shiurim and publications can be seen on www.rabbihaber.net.
BY RIVKA ALTER
The Mishnah in Avot (5:9) lists four sins that cause exile: murder, adultery, idol worship and the failure to observe Shemitta properly. While the first three apply equally to those in Israel or the Diaspora, the fourth, forsaking Shemitta, has no application in the Diaspora as it speaks to the inherent connection between Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. As such, the Shemitta year serves as a stark reminder to those of us in the Diaspora of our distance from the Land of Israel.
If we do not merit living in Israel, the next best option is to ensure a strong connection from a distance. The Gemara (Menachot 110a) states that one who studies the laws of the korbanot, it is as if he has brought korbanot. While this may not literally apply to Shemitta, connecting to a mitzvah by learning about it is a helpful model for those living in the Diaspora.
Studying the laws of Shemitta, including halachic discussions about contemporary Shemitta observance, modern controversies in this area, and current technologies used to further Shemitta observance, is a fascinating and intriguing way to connect to Shemitta. Learning from and speaking to leading Israeli rabbis, farmers, educators, and lay people learning how to manage their gardens and kitchens brings Shemitta to life and draws us closer to the land and people of Israel.
Rivka Alter has taught Tanach and Halacha for over 20 years. She is a member of the Judaic studies faculty and 12th grade dean at Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central). She is a yoetzet halacha serving the Riverdale, NY and Stamford, CT communities and a teacher for Nishmat’s kallah teacher training program.
BY RABBI DR. SETH GRAUER
Our schools have vastly increased their mental health staff and resources. Adults regularly seek help from professionals. We have witnessed an explosion of disciplines associated with positive psychology and resilience.
Shemitta is all about rest and rejuvenation – two activities essential to positive mental wellness. Each of us needs a “sabbatical” every once in a while to be productive, just as a land that is allowed to lie fallow will become more effective and high-yielding. Encouraging individuals to find time for a personal Shemitta to foster greater religious, spiritual, emotional and even physical growth will help them succeed in all areas of life.
This applies to people of all ages, particularly during times of transition. Before beginning university, students should take gap years to learn in seminary or yeshivah; young adults could consider volunteering following their post-secondary studies before entering the job market. Those already working full-time need to make time for self-care days and mini-sabbaticals. Hashem built such practices within creation by mandating Shabbat. We rest from our normal weekday activities to spend more time focusing on tefillah, learning Torah, and spending time with family and friends.
Practically speaking, to connect world Jewry to Shemitta, we should encourage Jews of all ages to use the year to nurture their mental health and wellbeing. Find an activity to do that you never had time for. Learn something new. Connect with family in ways that you haven’t. Find ways to do more chessed. Ultimately, Shemitta is meant to help others, but we may also find that is the greatest way to help ourselves.
Rabbi Dr. Seth Grauer is the Rosh Yeshivah and Head of School at the Bnei Akiva Schools of Toronto – Yeshivat Or Chaim and Ulpanat Orot. He is also the Honorary Chairman of Mizrachi Canada.