May 2, 2013
Rav Kook – The Shmitta – and Personal Release – Parashat Behar-Behalotecha
“Any life, no matter how long and complex it may be, is made up of a single moment – the moment in which a person finds out once and for all who s/he is.” (Jorge Luis Borges)
So often it is the inner voices (from tradition, society, family, friends, and mentors) and not our own that influence how we think, feel and behave in the world. These voices either lead us to or take us away from realizing our best selves. When the voices do indeed lead us astray, we need to be able to release them, a thought that came to mind as I read a verse in this week’s parashah describing the institutions of the Shmitta (Sabbatical) and Yovel (Jubilee) years: “You shall proclaim a dror (“freedom” or “release”) throughout the land for all its inhabitants…” (Leviticus 25:10)
This dror specifically refers to land, people and debts in the seventh year. The Shmitta year requires that land lie fallow (i.e. no planting, pruning or harvesting) and that slaves, employees and animals are free to eat what is left in the fields. Deuteronomy 15:1-6 adds that creditors must remit debts owed to them by their neighbors and kinsmen.
The deeper purpose of the Shmitta year is to enable the land to rest, to wipe our slates clean from debt and to return the world to its original pristine order.
The rabbis, however, raised two serious questions about the Shmitta year:  What happens to the livelihood of the community during Shmitta? and  What happens to our willingness to make loans to the needy according to the spirit of a mitzvah in Deuteronomy 15:9: “Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart.”
Noticing that the people were not loaning money to the poor because of the Shmitta’s remission of debt, Hillel the Elder (1st century BCE) instituted a legal formula called the Prozbul, whereby a creditor could still claim his debts after the Shmitta year despite the biblical injunction against doing so. The Prozbul was a document that turned over supervision of the loan to the beit din (Jewish court) which would collect and repay the debt thus encouraging generosity, enabling the poor to borrow and the rich to secure their loans (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 37a).
Since the laws of both Shmitta and Yovel only apply in the land of Israel, and Yovel applies only when all the Jewish people are living in Israel, until the Zionist movement Shmitta and Yovel mattered little to Diaspora Jewish communities.
However, Zionists complained that if farmers did not work the land the nascent settlement movement's existence would be threatened. In response, lenient rabbinic authorities justified setting the laws of the Shmitta year aside based on the principle of sha’at hadechak (“undue hardship”).
In 1888-89, a Hetter Mechira (“A Bill of Sale”) was developed to permit Jewish farmers to sell their land to non-Jews (i.e. Arabs), similar to the selling of hametz (leven) to non-Jews during Passover, so that the Jews could continue to work the land and survive even during the Shmitta. After the Shmitta, the land would revert back to the former Jewish owners.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, wrote of another problem in not showing leniency towards the Biblical law:
“Even worse is the potential condemnation of Judaism and widespread rejection of Torah observance that could result from a strict ruling…”
Rav Kook reasoned that a strict ruling would demonstrate that Judaism is incompatible with the modern world and the building of a Jewish state.
The principle of taking into account the impact of Biblical law on individuals and community and the necessity of reinterpreting tradition in the modern era is a core reason that Judaism and the Jewish people have survived 3500 years, longer than any other people anywhere in the world.
On a personal level too, this portion challenges us about the importance of becoming who we really are. In this spirit, I suggest that we consider this question: From what and how will I release myself (dror) this year and thereby find out who I really am?
May this year become a dror (release) for each of us.
The next Shmitta year is 2014-2015 (5775)