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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community:

Two thoughts which emerge from the laws of Shemittah—the Sabbatical Year--which are introduced in Parashat Behar.

I once saw an American TV show with Hebrew subtitles. The character says, “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” The subtitle was Rashi’s famous question:

מה ענין שמיטה אצל הר סיני
"What does Shemittah have to do with Har Sinai?”

Why does the Torah need to specify that these laws were promulgated at Sinai?  

Think about how you would react. You own a business and are commanded that every seventh year you may neither go to work, nor service your old customers, nor seek new ones. You may not even benefit from any business that happens to come your way without your effort. If money comes in, leave it lying around somewhere for anyone who needs it. But, “Don’t worry,” the authority who issued the command assures you, “It will be just fine.” Now reflect back to the agricultural society of Eretz Yisrael, a society in which virtually the only source of income and sustenance came from the toil of farmers working the land. A whole year without planting, crops, or harvest? Is that what Moshe is telling us that Hashem has commanded?

As we all know, timing is everything. Shemittah calls upon farmers who even in good years grow just enough to feed their families to take and extraordinary leap of faith—perhaps the greatest leap of faith required by the Torah-- and to believe that somehow they could take the year off and not have to watch their children go hungry. God understood that this Mitzvah had to be presented at the proper time, at a time that the people’s faith in Him was strong enough that they could accept His command. What better time than in the midst of the majesty and awe of the Revelation at Sinai to ask the people to believe that “It will be just fine?”

The lesson for us as parents and educators about the need to find the proper time, place and mode of delivery for the important messages we need to give our children is rather obvious.


Later in the Parasha we find the Torah reassuring us:

וכי תאמרו מה נאכל בשנה השביעת
If you ask, “What will we eat during the seventh year when we are neither planting nor harvesting?

וצויתי את ברכתי לכם בשנה הששית
"I will ordain My blessing for you on the on the sixth year and you will have a crop sufficient for three years.”

Why did the Torah wait until the question is articulated to give this assurance? Would it not have made sense to forestall the need for a question by giving this promise at the same time as the instructions about the Shemittah year? Why give anyone the opportunity to even ask the question? 

In order to answer this question we need to look at the issues that are raised throughout the Parasha. Almost all of them deal with people in economic distress—those who have been forced to sell the family property, those who need to borrow money, debtors who become indentured servants to pay off their loans—and with how those more fortunate are instructed to deal with them. 

Years ago the following was included in sociology textbooks: A wealthy parent had a child who was growing up in a prosperous neighborhood and who knew nothing about the real world. The parent hired a governess to teach the child about poverty. At the end of the “course” the child wrote a composition to demonstrate her understanding of poverty: “There once was a very poor family. Everyone in the family was poor. The father was poor. The mother was poor. The children were poor. The maids were poor. The cooks were poor. The butler, gardener, and chauffeur were poor.” 

Rabbi Yaakov ben Yaakov Moshe Lorberbaum of Lissa (1760-1832) commented that the Torah understood that it would be very difficult for those who had never experienced a moment of need, who had never had to think for even a moment about whether he/she would have food or shelter for the family, to relate and fully live up to the responsibility toward the less fortunate that Judaism places upon each of us. So the Torah gave us the laws of Shemittah—you may not plow, plant, or harvest for a full year— without immediate reassurance so that even the wealthy would be forced to panic for a moment and ask מה נאכל בשנה השביעת –How will I feed my family that year? Fulfilling the Mitzvot which call upon us to help the less fortunate with a full heart calls upon us to somehow also understand their pain.

Dr. Kalman Stein
Head of School

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