An international dealer in high-end fabrics once visited with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. As an active member of the Chabad community in England, the businessman was quite familiar with how the Rebbe's advice and blessings had impacted many people's lives in virtually every area of the human experience. At one point in their discussion, an almost tongue-in-cheek proposal was put forth for the Rebbe to partner with the entrepreneur in a business venture. The Rebbe turned serious and said, "Fair enough. Remember though, that in a partnership, neither partner gets to make a move without the consent of the other. Do we have a deal?"
Though skeptical about the Rebbe's knowledge of his trade, the man was nevertheless excited about this opportunity to "partner" with the tzadik, and readily took the deal. The Rebbe then advised him to make a large purchase of a certain material that hadn't even been on the man's radar screen. The dealer went home and placed a large order for this unusual fabric. When he reported back to New York, the Rebbe responded that the buy was way too conservative. A much larger quantity should have been purchased. On this say-so, the man went out and bought astronomical quantities of the stuff -- to the point of investing his entire personal fortune to pay for the shipments.
To the man's chagrin, shortly after the acquisitions, the value of this material began to plummet. Perhaps, he thought, he should sell at least some major portion of it. As promised, he contacted the Rebbe for his consent. To his surprise, the Rebbe did not grant consent and reminded him of their agreement with regard to unilateral moves.
As the price of the material continued to sink so did the man's spirits. Every day, he watched his fortune slipping further and further away. All pleas to the Rebbe were met with the same answer: "Don't sell."
Facing financial ruin, the man began to question his entire relationship with the Rebbe and Chabad-Lubavitch. Perhaps it was all a mistake. With each day's devaluation of his inventory, his distance from the Chabad community widened.
The bleeding continued for several months. One day, the price took a slight tick back up. He again consulted the Rebbe. But the Rebbe still withheld consent. When the price rose to where he could break even, the Rebbe still would not greenlight the sell-off. The man's disillusionment turned to bitterness.
Shortly thereafter, a famous fashion designer put out a line that called for extensive use of an unusual material. The man in England had the market cornered. When he reported this to the Rebbe, he was told that the time had come to sell. The inventory went fast. The man made many millions in profit. He excitedly boarded a plane to hand the Rebbe a check for his "share." The Rebbe declined, requesting that the man give the money to charity instead.
The man then asked the Rebbe if they could perhaps pursue another venture together. The Rebbe smiled as he demurred: "I'm sorry... You're a shvacher shutaf, a weak partner."
In the opening of this week's Torah portion, we're taught that, at Mount Sinai, God told Moses to instruct the Children of Israel regarding the observance of shmittah, the Sabbatical Year. Upon entering the land of Israel, they were to count the years in cycles of seven. For six years they could work the soil and reap its fruit, but the seventh year should be a "Sabbath rest unto God." No sowing, no pruning, no picking, no reaping. A full year set aside for spiritual pursuits.
The Torah later goes on to say: "And if you will say: 'What will we eat in the seventh year? -- Behold! We did not sow nor gather in our crops!' ... I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for the three-year period...." In other words, the Divine blessing that would enrich the soil as a result of the observance of shmittah would compensate three-fold for the perceived loss of revenue while the land was allowed to lie fallow.
Israel's entire economy was built around agriculture. To just shut down for an entire year was an act of self-sacrifice and a bold statement of trust in God. Indeed, in those early years, when all citizenry fully observed shmittah, the blessing was in the soil -- just as promised. Nobody went hungry as a result. Life was good. It was only after some decided to "kill the goose that laid golden eggs" and tried to gain that extra edge by working the seventh year that things began to fall apart.
We can talk at great length about our faith in God; our trust in His absolute wisdom, goodness and beneficence. But do we put our money where our mouths are? It is not necessarily when we are tied to the stake that the authenticity of our faith is put to the test. Gut-check time can happen in the office, at the bank or in the supermarket.
Whether it's keeping the Shabbat holy, sending our children to Torah schools or going the extra mile to keep a kosher kitchen, shmittah reminds us that Mount Sinai represented a bridge between theory and practice; faith and action; trust and resolve. Upon that mountain, the Almighty took us in as His partner in the business of creation. He's been imploring us ever since: "Don't be a shvacher shutaf."
Rabbi Moshe D. Bryski serves as the executive director of Chabad of the Conejo and dean of the Conejo Jewish Day School.