Parshat Behar speaks of Shemitah, the seventh sabbatical year, when the land lies fallow, when working the ground in any way is prohibited. And the Torah describes the experience of these years and the potential reaction of the farmer:
כה:כ כי תאמרו מה נאכל בשנה השביעית הן לא נזרע ולא נאסף את תבואתנו
And when you say: what shall I eat during the seventh year when we have not planted nor collected out produce.
כה:כא וצויתי את ברכתי בשנה השישית ועשת את התבואה לשלש שנים
And I commanded my blessing during the sixth year and it will make produce for three years.
The verse describes the obvious feelings of a farmer, the anxiety that goes along with allowing your field to lie fallow, what will I eat?
And God says don’t worry, I will send my blessing in the sixth year, that you should have plenty for the two years to come.
Ramban, in his introduction to Bamidbar, explains that the laws of the Israelite encampment in the desert parallel those given to the people before the revelation at Mount Sinai: Just as at Mount Sinai, no one was permitted to approach the mountain when God’s presence was there, so too the encampment surrounding the Mishkan, which contained God’s presence, required the same restrictions. Ramban’s comments here are based on the principle which he establishes in the beginning of Parashat Terumah: The Divine Presence which rested on Mount Sinai transferred to the Mishkan, and the very structure of the Mishkan is based on the revelation at Sinai.
In fact, according to Ramban, the entire Chumash can be seen as a description of the encounter between God and the Jewish people. In the beginning of Shemot, Ramban explains that the construction of the Mishkan is included in Sefer Shemot because it represents the completion of redemption: When the Mishkan was completed and the Shechinah rested among the Jewish people, the return to the status of the Avot was achieved. Bereishit, Shemot, Vayikra and Bamidbar thus all revolve around achieving and maintaining God’s presence in our midst. According to Ramban, the divine revelation of Sinai was not a one-time event but an ongoing one which was sustained through the Mishkan and then the Mikdash. Rambam too writes that the sanctity of the Mikdash, which was based on the presence of the Shechinah, is everlasting (Hilchot Beit HaBechirah 6:16). This is why, according to Ramban, there is a lasting mitzvah to remember the revelation at Sinai (Sefer HaMitzvot, shichechat halavin 2).
Based on this, we can understand why we read Parashat Bamidbar the week before Shavuot. The fundamental idea of Sefer Bamidbar is that the revelation at Sinai is not merely a past event. Before Shavuot we recall that God’s presence remains with us even through our travels and travails in the desert.
Notes that this isn’t the way the Torah works. The Torah doesn’t ask questions, or describe questions that will be asked, it rather anticipates them. For example, it doesn’t say, if you will come to think that there are other Gods, then remember there is only one who took you out of the land of Egypt. It just says, “I am the Lord your God”. The Torah pre-empts questions, rather than asking them, and answering. It eschews discussion, and chooses statements. The normative biblical style would simply declare, “I shall send my blessing in the sixth year so that you will be fed for three years”, without mention of the creeping doubt in the mind of the farmer.
For the Noam Elimelech, this anomaly highlights an essential quality of emunah, belief, faith. It is making a theological statement about the nature of faith, that true faith recognizes that questions are detrimental rather than helpful.
I believe that this moment has less to do with faith than it does with anxiety, sensitivity, and joy. Nachmanides points out that the real anxiety of Shemitah is not year 7. Year 7 will be rich with the fruit that was planted during year six. The real anxiety is year 8. The farmer has not worked his land at all. There will be nothing growing when year 8 begins.
Herein lies the crux of the issue. There is a black cloud hanging over the Shemitah year. It is the anxiety and uncertainty of the future. While there is plenty for this year, the portent of a year that will begin with nothing planted lies ominously in the future. And this angst, this apprehension, can potentially rob an innocent farmer of the opportunity to embrace the spiritual beauty of the Shemitah year. So worried is he that next year he will go hungry he cannot enjoy the vacation, the freedom, and rest that the Torah has bestowed upon him.
We all know the feeling, sitting on vacation, trying to enjoy the moment, when knowing full well that your desk at work is piling with papers, that emails are flooding your inbox, and that work and catch up awaits you upon return.
Shemitah is about appreciation, about recognizing that the gifts of the land, while they are in some sense the fruits of your labor, they have been bestowed upon us by God. It’s about taking the opportunities of the freedom from work to embrace more spiritual matters: learning, friendship, and family. The farmer of the Shemitah year is encouraged to linger in the Temple, to sit at the feet of the scholars and enjoy their Torah. He embraces the freedom to look at his field not for its economic value, but for its aesthetic beauty. To remind himself, that the earth is the Lord’s and we have been given the great privilege to till this beauty. It is a time to reset, recall values, recalibrate our spiritual compass. We work for God, for people, for family. Break from the consistency and mundane, and embrace the freedom to meditate and love.
It is exceptionally hard. That’s why the Torah anticipates the question. It’s a statement of empathy. God is saying to the farmer: “I understand how difficult this is. I understand the anxieties, the apprehension about the future. But embrace this moment, take my hand and enjoy this year with me, and for once allow ME, God says, to worry about the future. You embrace the opportunities of the present.”
We spend so much time worried about the future, anxious about what will happen next. Where will I be in ten years? How can I enjoy the Sabbath when the work of the week ahead looms? To this God says, I hear your pain, but trust me. Every so often, we need to enjoy the blessings of the moment, and forget about the weeks ahead.
More broadly, the Zionist experience spends much of its time worrying about the future. The state of Israel’s safety, economy, and success plague our minds. It’s hard to enjoy this immense gift that has been bestowed upon us by God. Perhaps in this seventieth year, like the seventh, we should linger a moment to be grateful for the great blessing that has been bestowed upon our generation.