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by Pinchas Landis    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In this week's Torah portion, we are given the mitzvah to observe Shemittah, or the Sabbatical year. Shemittah is, more or less, a "Shabbat for the land".



In this week's Torah portion, we are given the mitzvah to observe Shemittah, or the Sabbatical year. Shemittah is, more or less, a "Shabbat for the land". Every seven years, we are commanded to let the land of Israel rest by not planting or harvesting anything for an entire year. Following the mitzvah of Shemittah, there are roughly forty verses (Leviticus 25:14-55) that seem to have a very strange, almost random structure covering a wide range of topics. Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, acknowledges the peculiarity and explains the logical sequence of the portion in terms of a person who greedily refuses to observe the mitzvot of the Shemittah year, as follows:

If a farmer plants and harvests his fields instead of allowing them to remain fallow, he will eventually lose all of his money and become poverty stricken ("ironically" the exact opposite of what he had intended to accomplish by working his field that year), forcing him to liquidate all of his moveable possessions (ibid. 25:14). If he does not repent from his transgressions, he will be forced to sell his ancestral possessions and his home (25-31), placing him in the desperate situation where he will have to borrow at interest. If he still does not realize the severity of his transgressions, he will have to sell himself as a bondsman to another Jew (37-43), and finally as a slave to a gentile. The lowest point that he would reach would be to sell himself and become a servant of idols (47-55).

The whole point of observing the Shemittah year is very similar to that of the weekly Shabbat. Both of these mitzvot are testimony to the fact that there is one G-d, and that we owe everything to Him. These mitzvot are two special ways to thank G-d - every week for one day, and every seven years for one year - for everything that He does for us. Failure to follow these commandments is very serious. It is as if, G-d forbid, we are saying to Hashem, "You didn't create this world, and I don't owe you gratitude for anything!"

This brings to mind a great story. The Baal Shem Tov, the saintly 18th century founder of the Chassidic movement, once encountered a very wealthy man. In his discussion with this man, the Baal Shem Tov asked him about different things in his life, and as the discussion went on, he became very troubled with the man's responses. The Baal Shem Tov first asked, "How is your family?" The man replied, "Fine." He then asked, "How are your kids?" Once again, the man said, "Fine." "Your wife?" "Fine." "Your job?" "Fine." "Your finances?" "Fine." No matter what the Baal Shem Tov asked the man about, he did not even once say "Thank G-d" for any of the things that were "fine" in his life. This greatly troubled the Baal Shem Tov.

The Baal Shem Tov asked the man if he would do him a favor by delivering a note to the distributor of tzedakah (charity) in his hometown. The man agreed, so the Baal Shem Tov jotted down a quick note, handed it to the man, and sent him on his way. The man put the note in his jacket pocket. . .and forgot about it.

Many years later, shortly after the Baal Shem Tov had passed to the next world, the man began to lose all of his wealth. First he went out of business, then he lost all of his money, and finally he had to start selling off his material possessions so that he could feed his family. He got to the point where he had nothing left except for his clothing. One by one, he sold off his suits.

The man came down to the last suit in his closet. Before he sold any suit, he would always check all of its pockets, hoping to find something of value. In this suit, he found the note that the Baal Shem Tov had given him many years before. He figured, "Better late than never," and he went to find the man who was in charge of distributing the tzedakah in the community. The man found the distributor, and gave him the note. It read: The man that has presented you with this note has become very poor. Give him whatever he needs. But, before you give him anything, you must teach him to thank G-d for everything that he has. To prove to you the validity of this note, this is your first day in your position. You just received your smicha (rabbinic ordination), and your wife just had a baby boy today. -Baal Shem Tov

Sure enough, it was the tzedakah distributor's first day on the job, he had just received his smicha, and as he finished reading the letter, another man came running in and said, "Mazal Tov! Your wife just had a baby boy!"

This story just backs up what we already learned in this week's Torah portion. We must always thank Hashem for everything that we have because He is the Creator, and we owe Him everything. Observance of Shabbat, and the Shemittah year for those who live in the land of Israel, are two of the many ways that we can show our gratitude to Hashem for everything that He does for us.


Pinchas Landis, a native Atlantan, is currently serving as the Grand Aleph Gadol (International President) of the Aleph Zadik Aleph of B'nai Brith, and will be attending Yeshiva University in the fall.

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