By Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
21st May 2005
The biblical law of shemittah (‘release’) dictates that every seventh year the land of Israel must be given its rest. No work may be done on it, nothing may be harvested, and agriculture ceases notwithstanding the crushing financial burden that this must inevitably have imposed on the farming community. Of such importance was this institution that, in the haunting Tokhechah (‘passage of warning’) that follows on after the Shemmitah laws, the punishment of exile – enforced rest for the land - is held up as a direct consequence of Israel’s failure to observe the prescribed period of rest every seven years (Lev.26:24-35).
The message of Shemittah was clearly that, in the words of the prophets, ‘the earth and all in it belongs to God, the world and all its inhabitants.’ It was to prevent man regarding himself as a superman, as ‘owning’ the earth, the handiwork of God, as possessing the right to drain from it every ounce of its generative capacity, to pollute it or exploit it mercilessly. It was to make man aware of the ecological debt that he owes to the earth and to the God who created it as a green and fruitful garden within which man was to play out his life and destiny.
Shemittah is a powerful demonstration of our reverence and indebtedness to the land whose beauty and splendour nurtured our people’s creative imagination, spiritual sensitivity and aesthetic sense, inspiring within them their sense of awe and wonderment in the presence of nature, as well as providing the raw materials for his life, livelihood and survival.
Shemittah was also a counterbalance to materialism. It taught the farmer how to be disciplined, how to subsist on little; and it taught the rest of the population how to support the have-nots, how to pay for the subsidies that would have had to be given to the farmers; how to get used to shortages for a period every seventh year; how to be resourceful and innovative. It helped to give backbone to the nation, to toughen it and humble it, qualities that were all necessary in confronting hostile neighbours, on the one hand, and in promoting social equality and unity on the other.
There are many laws that govern the observance of the shemittah year, and an entire tractate of the Mishnah, Sheviit, is devoted to this institution. It was a mitzvah that continued to be operative even after the destruction of the Temple, and which remains operative even today in Medinat Yisrael.
There is a salient contemporary message here, contained in the philosophy of shemittah, with relevance to the fearful division in Israel over the question of the Road Map and withdrawal from territories that we acquired by conquest, but where settlers have since made their homes and their communities.
It goes without saying that the argument for handing back is hardly persuasive in the current climate of suspicion, of the Palestinian consensus wish to destroy Israel, and never to accommodate to her presence in the Middle East, and in a situation where only a wall, hermetically sealing us off from the enemy can possibly guarantee an absence of terrorism and hostility. The real fears of those who regard the hand-back as a recipe for disaster are understandable. For that reason, we can also appreciate their confusion and agony at having to give up the homes they have built and the communities they have established over decades. They are being called upon to make a very heavy sacrifice, for a benefit in return that amounts to little more than a demonstration to the world of how reasonable, how accommodating, how politically sensitive, Israel can be. And all this in a situation wherein the murderous Hamas terror organisation is steadily winning the hearts, minds and votes of the Palestinian people.
So we understand and sympathise deeply with the settlers. But, at the end of the day, they are not representatives of a separate and independent state within a state. Their fate is intrinsically bound up with the fate of the State of Israel as a whole. And in a democracy – and God forbid that we should ever have to live under any other political system, in Israel or elsewhere – everyone has ultimately to bow to the will of the majority, if they cannot sway it to their will by the force of argument. And argument is the sole force permitted within a democracy.
There is no future for a country wherein sections of its inhabitants refuse to bow to the will of the majority. There is no future for a country wherein members of the armed forces are told - by religious leaders no less - to resist orders, however unpopular they may be. There is no future for a country where settlers reserve to themselves the right to alter its borders by expropriating for themselves areas and hilltops, and furtively, and in the dead of night, establishing ‘facts’ there. Not only is this anarchy, but it also brings Israel down to the level of the lawless brigands that confront her, thus fanning anti-Semitism and helping to strengthen the hand of those who would make Israel a pariah among the nations.
The argument that we dare not surrender an inch of land in Israel is not based on halachic reality. The future security of the people of Israel is of paramount importance. Life, survival and security, from a halachic perspective, override every other consideration. And those who pursue their own agendas, their own theologies and their own political philosophies may only do so without jeopardising the life and future security of the majority of Israel’s citizenry.
No argument that makes land a greater consideration than life has any halachic or Jewish moral authority. And the rationale of the biblical law of Shemittah underscores this. This institution seeks to curb the growth of any obsession with land. It seeks to put land into perspective, and to remind us that, at the end of the day, we have no ‘ownership’ over it. It belongs to God, and we will survive – and, indeed, have survived for 2000 years – no matter how much or how little land we have to call our own.
Israel will survive, and will thrive and flourish, within whatever boundaries her democratically elected leaders feel they need to draw. If the settlers are truly religious and have bittachon, faith, they must believe that. And if the sovereign government of Israel concludes that it is not prepared to risk the lives of countless Israeli soldiers defending a minute enclave of settler land, then not only is it within its own Israeli law and constitution, but also within that of the halachah.
Significantly, a passage in the Talmud (San.26a), relating to the observance of Shemittah, also underscores the overriding priority that has to be given to the security, safety and survival of the Jewish citizenry over considerations of land.
The Talmud relates how, during the first few centuries of the Common Era, the Roman authorities displayed a measure of sympathy for the Jewish farmers’ plight, and the financial hardship they confronted as a result of their observance of the regulations of the seventh year when no agricultural benefit could be obtained. The Romans consequently drastically reduced the amount of tax the farmers had to pay for that year.
However, during the period of the 3rd century scholar, R. Yannai, a new Roman edict was issued cancelling all those concessions, and reinstating the harsh penalties for non payment of tax. Defaulters could be expected to be arrested and sold as a slave at the market, and even executed.
Greatly alarmed, and fearful for their lives, the farmers came as a delegation to R. Yannai, and related to him the terms of the new edict. His answer was courageous and categorical: Notwithstanding that they were dealing with a biblical institution, he immediately responded, Puku vzir’u bishvi’it mishum arnona, “Off you go, and sow your land in the seventh year, on account of the tax imposition.”
Yannai had no doubt in his mind that the safety of the Jews in their land, and the necessity to find a solution to a burning political, as well as financial problem, took priority over everything, even over a biblical law relating to the land of Israel. In the struggle between life and land, life must always win out.
That having been said, our hearts go out to those of our brethren who will have to be re-located, and who will have had their dreams shattered, and so much of their physical, emotional and financial investment frustrated. Let us hope that they and their families can demonstrate the same resilience, courage and resourcefulness that they have hitherto invested in their pioneering activity, and rebuild their lives and communities successfully and happily, and for the greater glory of Medinat Yisrael. And let us fervently pray that their sacrifice will not be in vain, and that the concessions Israel is about to make will find a reciprocal change of heart on the part of her neighbours, to usher in a lasting peace for our people and a calm and prosperous future for the entire region: Veshakat v’sha’anan v’ein macharid, “so that Jacob may enjoy peace and security, with no one to make her afraid.”