This week, with the reading of Behar-Bichukotai, we end the book of Vayikra. The book of Vayikra is often thought of as devoted entirely to sacrifices or, a little more broadly, to the world of the kohanim – sacrifices and tumah vi’tahara, purity and impurity – and has thus also been called Torat Kohanim, the Torah of the Priests. However, this only described the first half of Vayikra. Beginning with Achrei Mot, the Torah turns to the lives of the entire people, and delineates the prohibitions of idolatry and forbidden sexual relationships, framed in terms of tumah and taharah.
This relocating of presumably Temple-centric concepts to the normal lives of the people is completed in the parasha of Kedoshim, where the entire people is called upon to be kadosh, to be holy just as God is holy. The concept of kedusha, we are told, is not limited to the Temple. It is a concept that must guide our lives in all its dimensions, and thus the parasha lays out a wide and diverse array of mitzvot for our lives outside of the Temple, mitzvot which allow us to achieve lives of kedusha. God had us build a Mishkan so that God could dwell in our midst, but the purpose of God dwelling in our midst is not to find God only in the Mishkan, but to take the encounter of God in the Mishkan, and to bring it out of the Mishkan and into all aspects of our lives.
Until now, the life of kedusha outside the Temple is defined by a life of mitzvot observance in general, and of the observance of Shabbat in particular. Shabbat serves as the counterpart to Mikdash. Mikdash is the holiness of space, and Shabbat is holiness of time. Thus, Shabbat and Mikdash are regularly juxtaposed in the Torah. And of the two, it is the kedusha of Shabbat that is greater. Shabbat precedes Mikdash chronologically – it existed at the beginning of Creation and was commanded even before the revelation at Har Sinai – and its sanctity cannot be violated even for the sake of the construction of the Mikdash. One aspect of its greater importance undoubtedly lies in this – that the kedusha of Shabbat applies to all – men and women, kohanim and Yisraelim – and at all times and at all places. It is the regular, ongoing, experience of kedusha, of veshakhanti bi’tokham, of “I will dwell in their midst”, that exists in our lives.
Shabbat is kedusha outside of the Temple for the individual and the community, but it still falls short of a full life of kedusha. It is only in parashat Behar, that the kedusha of Shabbat becomes the basis for structuring the entire society.
The mitzvah of shmitta, called here Shi’vi’it, the Seventh, is described in the opening section of the parasha as a “Shabbat for the land.” The Torah underscores this point, repeating the word “shabbat” seven (!) times in the opening section, and then commanding the mitzvah of the yovel, after seven cycles of shmitta – it is a Shabbat of the Shabbats.
The use of the term “Shabbat” for the Sabbatical Year demands attention. It is the concept of kedusha, the concept of Shabbat, applied to the land and to the entire existence of the people as a nation. The Torah spells out in Bichukotai the consequences for not observing the Shabbat of the land: destruction of the Temple and exile from the land. The loss of these two is effectively the destruction of us as a nation. And, indeed, for two thousand years, from the destruction of the Temple and the exile until the establishment of the modern State of Israel, we have ceased to exist as a nation. We continued to exist as a people, as a religion, but we were not a nation.
Shmitta, then, is kedusha applied on the national level,; it is the structuring of our national identity on the principle of kedusha. What does that mean? The refrain of the Torah in our parsha is “For the land is Mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with Me.” (Vayikra 25:23). On the individual and communal level, the refrain from work one day a week, on Shabbat, structures our life so that it is not just about work, creating, and possessing. Our work takes place in a larger context, in a frame of kedusha, and it must serve a larger purpose. On the societal level, our refraining from working the land on year out of seven, on Shmitta, structures our society so that its goals and institutions are not – cannot – be about the acquisition of wealth and the exploiting of the land.
A society that keeps the shmitta understands that the land is not the owner’s to dispose of how they please, and works to protect its natural resources. A society that keeps the Shmitta understands that our energies cannot be devoted to the massing of unlimited wealth, for property will revert to its original owners every 50 years. A society that keeps the Shmitta understands that other human beings are not put on Earth for us to maximally exploit them to our benefit, for humans are not made to serve others, but to serve God. The mitzvot of lending without interest also appear in this parasha, because a society that keeps these laws understands that our money is given to us not for our enrichment at the expense of others, but that our money, our wealth, and the land itself is given to us by God to serve God and to help people. A society that keeps Shmitta understands that everyone must be cared for, that everyone lives and thrives: “And you will strengthen him – the stranger and the sojourner – and he will live with you” (Vayikra 25:35) . Such a society structures its goals and institutions so that what it values is not wealth and possessions, but serving others and serving God.
Until now, we as a people have done very well in the observance of Shabbat and mitzvot. We have done less well in living lives ofkedusha. Our lives of mitzvot often are ones of technical observance, and we lost sight of the values that underlie the mitzvot. We keep the Shabbat meticulously, but this often does not translate into a reframing of our working lives in a way that they serve a higher purpose. And, most significantly, we have never really structured a society around the principles of Shmitta. In short, we have never given Shmitta a chance. What would it mean to structure a society around principles and goals that are profoundly different from those of the society in which live, in which we have always lived? What would it mean if our financial, industrial, legal, and commercial institutions were structured around the principles of Shmitta?
It is hard to imagine how we can begin to realize such a restructuring of society, but there are places we can start. Not, perhaps, in our secular institutions, but in our Jewish ones. Over 100 years ago, one of the most important institutions for the immigrant Jewish communities in the United States was the Hebrew Free Loan Society. Built on the principles of our parasha, this institution realized the primary responsibility of the Jewish community to support its members, and to do so in ways that made them productive members of society. Through its membership-based structure, the reciprocity that it engendered, and the embracing of the value of communal responsibility, not only were individuals helped, but the entire community was strengthened. Today, we do not have such communal institutions. And often the communal religious institutions that we do have – synagogues and Jewish schools – more buy into the values of academic achievement, professional achievement, earning potential, and amassed wealth – that are those of the secular society than they attempt to redirect our communal values to those of the Torah and those embodied by Shmitta.
On this Shabbat, let us think how in our individual lives we can bring the kedusha of Shabbat into the week, to structure our working week to serve a higher purpose. And let us think how we can bring the kedusha of Shi’vi’it into our society – how we can work without Jewish institutions so that they embrace and communicate the values of a society that serves a higher purpose, that reaches for kedusha.