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Everything is on Loan, and We're Going to Have to Give it Back

Having worked for 23 years for Hillel on college campuses, I learned the value and power of a sabbatical. Not that I ever got one, but professors love them and await them with great anticipation. A sabbatical usually lasts from 6 months to a year. It can provide an opportunity to enhance one’s academic qualifications, pursue new interests, do volunteer work, travel, or re-energize to get back to work refreshed and rejuvenated. So, to everyone in academia or any profession where a sabbatical is a norm or expectation, I say…. “You’re Welcome!” Yes, you’re welcome. Because this week’s Torah Portion, Behar-Bechukotai, first presented the concept of the Sabbatical. Indeed, the word “sabbatical” comes from the word “Shabbat.”

a field that is plowed, during shemitah the field lies fallow

The Shemitah

In the Parsha however, the Sabbatical (in Hebrew, it’s called Shemitah ( שְׁמִיטָה) speaks about a Shabbat for the land. Leviticus 25:3-5 says, “Six years shall you sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce. But the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the LORD; you shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard. That which grows by itself of your harvest you shall not reap, and the grapes of your undressed vine you shall not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.” Interestingly, the Mitzvah of the Shemitah is only binding in the Land of Israel, and among many, it is still observed there today. In fact, last year was the most recent Shemitah (Sept. 7, 2021-Sept. 25, 2022).

The wisdom of this Mitzvah is profound. Long before science told us that soil could be depleted of its nutrients if overworked, the Torah told us to let the land lie fallow for a full year in order to rejuvenate itself. In this age of sustainability and environmental awareness, we can look to the Torah to teach us how to interact with the land in a healthy and sustainable way. In this age of synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified seeds, the Torah tells us that our relationship with the land should be based on respect, not revenue. The Torah tells us the Shemitah is a “sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the Lord.” To let the land lie fallow is not just good farming. It’s holy. But it doesn’t end with the Shemitah. The Torah continues, “And you shall number seven sabbaths of years, seven times seven years; and there shall be unto you the days of seven sabbaths of years, even forty and nine years. Then shalt you make proclamation with the blast of the shofar on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement shall you make proclamation with the shofar throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. It shall be a jubilee (יוֹבֵל) unto you.” (Leviticus 25:8-10). The fiftieth year, the Yovel, is even greater than the Sabbatical. Like the Shemitah, fields must lie fallow, but debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and land was returned to its original owners because, as the Torah said, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is Mine.” (Lev. 25:23) By not allowing land to be sold in perpetuity, it ensured that land ownership didn’t end up in the hands of just a small number. It was a safeguard against vast inequality and a spiritual reminder that, ultimately, everything belongs to God and is only given to us on loan.

What About the Water?

The Torah goes to great lengths to show the sanctity of the land and our responsibility as stewards of it. Yet when it comes to the water, no such restrictions and no such mitzvot exist. With no limitations, humans are free to treat the Ocean with neither the respect nor sanctity that is applied to the land. While every seven years, we are commanded to let the land lie fallow, every year without fail, the Ocean is pillaged and plundered with reckless abandon. For example, in 1992, after centuries of unlimited fishing, the North Atlantic Cod Fishery collapsed to 1% of its historical levels. In an effort to restore the cod, the Canadian Government issued a five-year moratorium on cod fishing. Three decades later, and despite the moratorium still being in effect, the North Atlantic Cod fishery still has not recovered. This is just one example. Around the world, fisheries are collapsing because of overfishing. Suffice it to say, if we treated the Ocean like the Torah commands us to treat the land, we would have a very different situation.

We know that in many cases, unless there is a catastrophic collapse like the North Atlantic Cod fishery or massive coral bleaching, the Ocean has an incredible power to heal itself, but not without some help on our part. Imagine what would happen if we had a Shemitah for the Sea. Imagine if the 4 ½ million fishing vessels on the Ocean today let the Sea lie fallow for a year. Imagine what it would be like if they didn’t leave their ports, and the trillions of fish they remove from the water in a year could replenish themselves. We know that a field that has been fallow yields more produce the following year. Imagine what the Sea could do if given “a solemn rest… a sabbath unto the Lord.” Just imagine what could be.

The Power of the Individual, Together

I know I can sometimes be a dreamer, but I’m not naïve. I know this is a pipe dream because too much money is made by pillaging the sea and desecrating the water. Too many corporations are involved. It will never happen. But I am a believer in the power of the individual. Imagine if every one of us stopped eating fish for a year. Sure, they’d keep harvesting fish from the Sea, but if enough individuals made this choice, we could have an impact. If you go to a restaurant, instead of ordering fish, order vegetarian lasagna. It’s delicious. Don’t buy fish at the grocery store or fish market. OK, so you won’t have gefilte fish on Pesach, but matzah balls with horseradish is a suitable alternative and smells better. Don’t buy pet food made from fish. Don’t buy fish oil supplements. Yes. I am a dreamer, but Margaret Meade said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever does.” There are only 14 million Jews in the world, but if every one of us made a Shemitah for the Sea, we could have an impact and make a difference. But it requires the will to do it.

As for the Yovel, the Jubilee year when we acknowledge that everything, in fact, belongs to God and is just on loan to us; we count seven times seven years and the 50th year is the Jubilee. It’s worth noting that 50 is the same numerical value as the Hebrew word ים - the Sea (י=10 =ם40). It’s the same word I like to quote from Psalm 95, אֲשֶׁר־ל֣וֹ הַ֭יָּם The Sea is God’s. The Shemitah and the Yovel teach us that ultimately, everything we have is on loan to us from God; the land and everything that comes from it, and the sea and everything that is in it. In the end, we have to give it back. If we don’t change our practices in the Ocean, we might just find out in the end… there will be nothing to give back. Then What?

1 A bit of Torah trivia… “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” is the biblical passage engraved on the Liberty Bell at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.



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