May 19, 2016
In his commentary on this week’s sedra, Abarbanel offers three different perspectives on the meaning of the mitzvot of Shemita and Yovel which are the main focus of the beginning of the Torah portion.
The first perspective focuses on the Creation and the giving of the Torah. The observance of Shemita, the refraining from agricultural activities every seventh year, hints at God’s overall Creation. Just as the seventh day is the day of rest for the week, symbolizing God’s “resting” after six days of Creation, the seventh year is a day of rest for the Land. Just as the word “Shabbat” is used for the seventh day of the original Creation, so too the word “Shabbat” is used repeatedly in reference to every seventh year. However, in reference to the Yovel year, the fiftieth year that follows seven cycles of seven years each, the word “Shabbat” is not used. That year is not meant to remind us of the nature of the Creation, but rather to remind us of the giving of the Torah at Sinai which took place on the fiftieth day after the Exodus from Egypt.
Just as the Torah instructs us to count seven weeks and to then sanctify the fiftieth day, we are also instructed to count seven cycles of years. Since the giving of the Torah was accompanied by the blowing of the shofar, so too the Yovel year is heralded by the blowing of the shofar.
Shemita reminds us of the nature of the Creation in general, while Yovel reminds us of God’s sanctification of the Jewish nation through the giving of the Torah.
The second perspective focuses on Shemita and Yovel as hints to the various stages and requirements of the life of the individual. Our years are finite; man is granted seven decades of life. In his first decade the individual is maturing and is not responsible for his spiritual development. For the next five decades he is building his life. He is, in a sense, planting, cultivating, pruning and gathering the results of his efforts. However in his “Shemita year”, the last decade of his life, his focus on his material existence must give away to an emphasis on spiritual growth. Observance of the Shemita year enables us to focus on the purpose of our lives. Additionally, another lesson can be learned from the requirement that even though we don’t work the land, the produce which grows by itself must be left to whatever people or animals find it. This is a hint that after we die, the fruits of out labors might end up being enjoyed by those who had no part in their creation.
The Yovel year also hints at the next stage after the fifty years of physical toil. Through the Torah’s command to count and keep track of the years of each fifty-year cycle, we are also being taught to keep track of our years, and to dedicate that final decade to spiritual accomplishments.
When the Torah tells us to proclaim freedom throughout the land and to return each man to his family, it is telling us to free ourselves from the demands of physical accomplishment and to return to our true family — our spiritual roots.
The third perspective focuses on Shemita and Yovel as hints to the fundamental impermanence of the entire physical universe itself. The word “Yovel” is rooted in the Hebrew words for deterioration and destruction. Although the evidence for physical impermanence is readily available in our daily experience, we may be tempted to think that the celestial bodies are not subject to decay or destruction.
However, only God’s existence is permanent. The six days of Creation and the six years of the seven-year cycle also refer to the six thousand years of physical existence which will be followed by a millennium of desolation. Shemita and Yovel are hints to the two different stages of this destruction.
In the first stage the earth and the other celestial bodies will remain intact. However the earth will be totally desolate. In reference to Shemita the Torah states that the seventh year will be a year of rest for the Land. This is a reference to the seventh millennium in which the Land will be totally unproductive.
The Yovel year, however, refers to a total destruction of the entire physical universe that will take place after seven cycles of seven millennia, or in the fifty-thousandth year. The general principle of this third perspective is that just as the physical universe was created from absolute nothingness, so too it will be utterly destroyed and returned to the same absolute nothingness.
This explains why we learn that Shemita and Yovel are so important that the failure to observe them properly is what caused the exile of the people from the Land of Israel. In essence, one who heretically denies this concept of the eventual absolute destruction of all physical existence is essentially denying the concepts of Creation ex nihilo and the existence of a non-physical World-to-Come.