This week's Torah portion, Behar, tells us that when we enter into the land we may farm for six years but the seventh year should be a Shabbat for the land. During that year we should neither sow nor reap; it is a chance for the earth to experience the sacred rest which is part of the structure of creation. The Torah goes further: not only is every seventh year meant to be a shmita (sabbatical) year, but after seven "sevens" of years -- 49 years -- the 50th year is the Yovel, or "Jubilee," and that year too is a year of sacred rest.
During the Yovel, all debts are cancelled; those who have gone into indentured servitude are released; and any land transactions which have taken place are annulled so that the land can return to its original owners. Or perhaps I should say, original caretakers -- since Torah is clear that the land may be lent to the tribes of Israel, on condition of appropriate behavior thereupon, but it truly belongs to the Holy One of Blessing.
It's always striking to read these verses during the counting of the Omer. This week's Torah portion instructs us to count seven "sevens" of years, and to celebrate the 50th year as a time for proclaiming liberty throughout the land. Right now we are counting seven "sevens" of days, and we will celebrate the 50th day as the time of the giving of the Torah. What might the parallel teach us? How is Shavuot like the Jubilee?
In his collection Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber recounts that the rabbi of Kotzk was asked: "Why is Shavuot called 'the time the Torah was given' rather than the time we received the Torah?" The Kotzker answered: "The giving took place on one day, but the receiving takes place at all times." Shavuot is the day when we celebrate God's gift of Torah -- but the reciprocal process of actively receiving Torah is ongoing. The Jubilee year is the year when we celebrate release from our accumulated debts and transactions -- but the reciprocal process of actively creating liberation is ongoing.
The sabbatical and Jubilee year teach the importance of emunah, trust and faith. In the ancient world, taking a year off from cultivating food was a profound gesture of emunah. It required a leap of faith in God Who would provide even if we stopped our farming and harvesting. (And if that were true of the sabbatical year, how much more so the Jubilee year.)
My b'nei mitzvah students frequently ask me whether this ever actually happened. Maybe, maybe not. I can offer a variety of rabbinic teachings about the conditions under which we are traditionally considered obligated to follow these teachings. But for me, that's not the interesting question. I'd rather ask: what spiritual truths can we learn from this week's Torah portion?
As Shabbat is our weekly reminder to relinquish work and to recognize ourselves as holy and beloved regardless of our job titles, salaries, or accomplishments, the shmita year reminds us that the earth too is holy and beloved regardless of how "valuable" it may be and regardless of how we may usually put it to work for us. And the Yovel year urges us to let go of debts and grudges, to relinquish old angers and outdated paradigms, in order to experience true freedom.
It's only when we are free that we can choose to enter into a different kind of relationship -- the covenant between us and God which we reconsecrate and renew at Shavuot. Slaves to Pharaoh, slaves to overwork, slaves to opinion and custom can't enter into real relationship with God. But once we are free, then we can choose: not to be enslaved, but to serve. Our purpose in this life is not earning money or seeking fame. It's serving God through caring for our planet and living in right relationship with each other.
This requires emunah, trust and faith, no less than the temporary cessation of farming did. To proclaim release and liberty -- to consciously free ourselves from old paradigms, constricted understandings, the grudges and hatreds we have taken on -- requires us to trust that something better is possible. It requires us to believe that there is more to who we are than our accumulated labels. But imagine if each of us could really do that. What new Torah might we be capable of receiving at Shavuot then?
Image: closeup of the Liberty Bell, with its inscription of a verse from this week's Torah portion: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."