We know that all of the 613 commandments of the Torah were relayed to the Jews three times. Once at the time of the Revelation at Sinai, once at the Ohel Moed (the tabernacle), and a third time in the plains of Moav (Devarim 1-5). Each repetition came with a different focus. The focus of the repetition in Devarim was on the laws that pertain to the Land of Israel, which the Jews were about to enter. One of these laws is the law of Shemittah, which only became effective after the Jews settled in Israel.
Why then does Moshe focus on the laws of Shemittah so soon after the revelation at Sinai when the Jews were still in the desert?
In addition to Rashi’s answer to this question (Vayikra 25:1) in this week’s parsha, another answer could be that the Jews needed plenty of time to prepare themselves for the concept of Shemittah. On the one hand, the Torah commands us to work hard in our fields for six years (25:3). On the other, the Torah commands us to relinquish ownership over the produce we have worked so hard for during those six years and allow all and sundry to help themselves to the fruits of our labor, as if they never belonged to us (25:6). Charity, which applies to a small percentage of ones revenue, is one thing. But to give away one hundred per cent of one’s revenue of the entire year is entirely different. So this concept of Shemittah had to be introduced early on in the Jews trek towards nationhood to give it plenty of time to sink in. That is why the laws of Shemittah rose to the top of Moshe’s agenda, even though they were only to be applied after they settled the land of Israel.
Another answer is that fulfilling the unimaginably difficult request of laying down one’s tools of trade for a whole year, so shortly after launching a national economy in the newly arrived land of Israel and relying entirely on G-d for ones living, required a level of faith that could only be drawn from the era of Sinai. It would be tempting to argue that whereas it was appropriate to rely on the miracles of mannah from heaven, water from Miriam’s well and clothes that never wore out while in the desert, once we established a national economy in the Land of Israel, we would have to rely solely on ourselves. It is to counter this argument that the laws of Shemittah are juxtaposed to the experience of Sinai. Just as it was clear to the Jews that they could not have existed in the desert without G-d’s support, so too it needed to be made clear to them that they could not exist anywhere, including the Land of Israel, without G-d’s help.
Indeed, the only way to be convinced that our existence depends on G-d’s help and not solely on our own efforts, is to try it out. Let the fields lay fallow for one whole year and let’s see what happens. We are told what will happen: “The land will give its fruit and you will eat to satisfaction and you will dwell securely upon it” (25:19). That is a promise given by G-d, so why not bank on it? But we are skeptical and question it. “If you will say, What will we eat in the seventh year, behold we will not sow and we will not gather our crop?” (25:20)
This is a question that shows lack of trust and should never have been asked, because the danger is that the answer will not be believed. And so we see that despite G-d’s promise that “I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year and the land will yield crop sufficient for three years,” the Jews in the temple era, refused to rely on that promise and worked the land during Shemittah. It was that lack of trust that eventually led to the exile, because lack of trust undermines even the most special of relationships. The result of that skepticism was that the land enjoyed its periods of rest without the Jews who were exiled “the land will be bereft of them and it will be appeased for its Shemittah years, having become desolate of them” (26:43).
“And the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for G-d” (25:2). The word Shabbos is used both for the seventh day of the week, which acknowledges G-d’s creation of the world, and for the seventh year, which acknowledges G-d’s continued involvement in sustaining His creation.
Vesafarta lecha – “And you shall count for yourself seven sabbaths of years, seven years seven times, and the days of the seven sabbaths of years shall be for you forty-nine years” (25:8). Why does the Torah need to tell us that seven times seven is forty-nine? It is because there is something unique about the forty-ninth year in that two consecutive years of Shemittah had to be observed, one in the forty-ninth year and one in the fiftieth year (Rashi to 25:11).
Now, if one would ask someone at the first of the seven Shemittah cycles, do you think you could keep Shemittah and rely solely on G-d for your livelihood for two consecutive years, the answer would likely be, “Well it’s hard enough to do that for one year, let alone two.” If you would ask the same question at the beginning of each of the second, third and fourth Shemittah cycles, the answer might be the same, although with increasingly less skepticism. And if one would ask it at the beginning of the seventh Shemittah cycle, the answer might be, “Well, you know, I don’t quite understand how I made it through each of the last forty-two years on my own. How did I manage to feed my family, pay the rent, the tuition and the medical bills? Yet I did make it through. I must have been helped by G-d.”
So, at each Shemittah cycle, our trust in G-d grows based on our experience until we understand that we have been supported by G-d all along. So now, at the beginning of the seventh Shemittah cycle, it is not such a stretch to put our faith in Him for two consecutive years. That is why the Torah mentions the number forty-nine, the number which precedes the number fifty, which represents the number of years of life during which we are expected to be breadwinners. Up to the age of twenty, we are often supported by others. The average life expectancy, King David tells us in Tehillim, is seventy years, which means that we have to carry the financial burden for at least fifty years. By counting our blessings each seven years, our faith in G-d grows until we reach the forty-second year in which we have accumulated enough trust in G-d to be able to take the leap of faith into two consecutive Shemittah years. The word “lecha” has the numerical value of fifty, equal to the number of years during which we need G-d’s help to carry the financial burden.
“You shall sound a broken blast on the shofar in the seventh month on the tenth of the month on Yom Kippur … and you shall sanctify the fiftieth year” (25:9). We know from other verses of the Torah that Yom Kippur is on the tenth of Tishri (23:27), so wouldn’t it have been enough for the Torah to tell us that the shofar is to be sounded on Yom Kippur of the fiftieth year or on the Tenth of Tishri of the fiftieth year, instead of mentioning both? The message here is that this Yom Kippur of Yovel is different from the Yom Kippur of other years in that atonement on this Yom Kippur is contingent on ones freeing one’s servants and returning hereditary properties to their original owners. For, if on this Yom Kippur of Yovel we are asking G-d to waive His rights and act leniently with us, we must first demonstrate to Him that we have done the same to our fellow men, in the spirit of “Kol hamavir al midosav, ma’avirm lo al kol pesha’av”: G-d pardons the transgressions of those who overlook injustices committed against them (Rosh Hashanah 17a).
“If you follow my decrees and observe my commandments … I will place my Tabernacle among you and my spirit will not be disgusted with you (26:3 and 11). The pure spirit of G-d cannot mix with the spirit of man unless the imperfections of the human spirit have been purged by the fire of G-d’s commandments and the pungent odor of man’s sins has been sweetened by the fragrance of the mitzvot (Shir Hashirim 1:12).
“They will stumble, each man over his brother as if from before a sword, but there is no pursuer; you will not have the power to pursue your foes” (Vayikra 26:37). The sword referred to here is the dagger of the tongue (Yirmiyahu 9:11). The second temple was not destroyed by the force of an outside enemy, but by the force of sinat chinam, needless hatred with which one Jew undermined the other (Yoma 9b). Even King Achav, whose reign was rife with idolatry and immorality, was able to overcome his enemies because in his time there was love and peace among the Jews.