We are familiar with the mitzvah of shemittah, which will begin in about five months. We are not allowed to work the land of Eretz Yisrael for the entire seventh year of the seven-year cycle. We observe the mitzvah in our day. However, from the text of this week’s haftarah, it appears that Bnei Yisrael failed to keep this mitzvah during the time of the Beis HaMikdash.
The pasuk states that when Klal Yisrael does not follow in the ways of the Torah, “V’shamatita u’becha mi’nachalasecha asher nasati lecha veha’avaditicha es oyvecha ba’aretz asher lo yadata ki aish kedachtim b’api ad olam tukad – You will be forced to remove [(yourselves] from your ancestral land that I have given you and I will subjugate you to your enemies in a land that you did not know for you have set alight a fire in My anger and it will burn continually [until you repent]” (Yirmiyah 17:4).
The first word used, v‘shamatita, you will be forced to remove, is derived from the word shemittah, ceasing to work. Rashi on this verse sees a link between Klal Yisrael’s lack of observance of shemittah and the obliteration of their presence as a nation in Eretz Yisrael. Rashi (Bechukosai 25:18 and 26:35) says that since Klal Yisrael did not observe shemittah during the 70 cycles from the time of Yehoshua, they were exiled for 70 years after Churban Bais Rishon. The rest of the haftarah continues to discuss the lack of observance of shemittah and blesses one who has bitachon in Hashem, “Baruch hagever asher yivtach b’Hashem,” (ibid. 17:7) despite not working the land, and curses one who does not trust in Hashem but rather trusts in man’s abilities as in “Arur hagever asher yivtach b’adom” (ibid. 17:5).
The question begs: how in the world can we accept that Bnei Yisrael en masse did not ever keep the mitzvah of shemittah? Would they simply ignore one of Hashem’s mitzvos? This question is also asked by Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky in Iyunim BaMikra (Bechukosai 26:34). Let us add a few more questions. Throughout Nach we never read of a leader instructing and warning Klal Yisrael about this mitzvah. Why not? If no one kept it, wouldn’t it be one of the first things a navi or shofet would mention? Furthermore, already in this week’s parsha, the pesukim allude to the potential lack of shemittah observance as a reason for the churban. Why then didn’t Klal Yisrael get the message, heed the warning, and make sure to observe shemittah properly?
Rav Yaakov explains that when the pesukim and Chazal say that the shemittah was not kept they do not mean that the actual halachos were not observed. The halachos were indeed observed 100%. What was not fulfilled 100% was the purpose and spirit of the sabbatical year. At the beginning of Parshas Behar (25:2), the pasuk says that the land should rest during the shemittah year and it should be Shabbos L’Hashem. The Seforno says that just as refraining from work on Shabbos should remind us of the Borei Olam, the world’s Creator, refraining from working the land during the seventh year must do the same. Just as Shabbos is designed to be a day to focus on spirituality, closeness with Hashem and Torah study, the shemittah year is similarly designed by Hashem to be set aside for ruchniyus growth. This is why Rashi in Parshas Bechukosai begins by saying that Bnei Yisrael must be ameilim baTorah, immersed in Torah study, if they are to properly follow in Hashem’s ways. This is applicable at all times but especially during the shemittah year, when Klal Yisrael’s only job as a nation is to seriously toil in Torah.