Behar begins with a detailed explanation of the Mitzvah of Shemitta. Every seventh year the land in Israel must lie fallow. It may not be tilled or agriculturally developed by its Jewish owner. This Mitzvah is discussed in detail here. The commentaries are struck by this anomaly, since most other Mitzvot were not framed in great detail in the context of Mt. Sinai. There is something about this Mitzvah that is fundamental to our attitudes.
We have a strong sense of ownership, from the time we are babies. One of the first words a toddler learns to express is the word “mine.” Possessiveness is the religion of children. We have a document called The Toddler’s Creed. It spells out what defines a child’s possession. If I see it, it’s mine; if I want it, it’s mine. If I gave it to you and now I want it back, it’s mine. etc. There is a long list of situations in which a child feels the object is “mine.” And virtually every child lives by that code. Just try and take a toy away from a child.
As adults we learn to moderate our possessiveness. We learn to respect the property rights of others, but mainly because we want our own property rights to be acknowledged. If something is taken or stolen from us we get all worked up and upset, not so much because we are bereft of the item – rather we are hurt that our ownership has been disrespected and trampled. It’s mine!
One expression of ownership is exploiting that which is ours as we like. I can use it or not, as I prefer. If it’s my toy, my bicycle, I will use it if I want but I will dictate whether you can use it, even if I’m not interested in using it myself. Calling the shots is part of being “mine.” The new ipad (or tablet, depending on your loyalties) will be used or not, shared or not, based on its owner’s whim.
The Torah comes along and says, “For six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyard; and you may gather in its crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for Hashem; your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune.” (Leviticus 25:3-4)
The Torah dictates to us when we may benefit from our own properties; when we can plant, enrich or harvest the yield of our fields. There is something shocking about this concept – a limiting of possession. If I don’t make all the rules, if I can’t use it when I wish, then it is effectively not truly mine!
And that is precisely what the Torah wishes to relay to us. That we are not the boss, that we are not, in fact, the owners of our property.
Reichman, a wealthy real estate developer, died at 80 years of age in Jerusalem. He left two wills, one to be opened immediately and the other to be opened only 30 days after his death. Included in the first will was a demand that he be buried with a particular pair of his socks. His children did not understand why he would want to be buried with those socks, but “the will of a man is his honor,” and they took that petition to the Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society). Alas, the chevra kadisha flatly refused to comply with that wish. The halacha is that a Jew is buried with nothing but the traditional white shrouds and they would not be swayed. The family argued with the Chevra Kadisha. Their father was an observant Jew and surely he knew well what he was asking for. The matter was referred to the Beth Din (Rabbinical court of law) and they ruled that although their father had written that he wished to be buried with his socks, now that he was in the World of Truth he surely no longer desires for any traditions to be broken.
The burial proceeded without the socks and the children, having accepted the ruling of the Beth Din, returned home to sit Shiva and mourn. After 30 days they opened the second envelope. There was just a short letter inside. It read: “My dear children, by now you must have buried me without my socks. I wanted you to truly understand that a man can have 1 billion dollars, but in the end, he can’t even take along one pair of socks!”
We live in this world, each in our own circumstances. We all have access to various assets, some fewer and some more. Some of these assets are material, such as property and other valuables – even a well lined bank account. Some of these assets are part of who we are – skills, talents and other capabilities. The Torah teaches us that we are stewards of these assets rather than owners. The Almighty wishes for us to use them according to the dictates of the Torah and the values expressed therein. This applies to everything we have. How do we use our time? How do we manage our home? The laws of Shemitta are the ultimate expression of the limitations of ownership. There is an agenda to everything, and we need to constantly examine whether our agenda in in compliance with the broader Agenda.