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Friday, 15 May, 2015 - 7:48 am





Earlier this year, back in January, I had the great privilege of spending a couple of weeks in the Holy Land of Israel. I was the Rabbi on a “Mayanot-Birthright” trip for young adults, and we spent two unforgettable and beautifully memorable weeks together, bonding into a family. We are still in touch with one another.


This was not my first such trip, and I do not believe it was my last, either. These trips are highly charged with energy and discovery. Traveling through the Land of Jewish history, where the patriarchs and prophets lived and where the history of Judaism and the Jewish people were shaped, is inspiring. Climbing the rock of Masada, swimming in the Dead Sea, and standing on the borders of Israel are all thrilling. And, of course, standing before the Western Wall in Jerusalem is most moving and touches the depths of the soul.


This is the Land which was presented to the Jewish people in biblical times. It was given without an expiration date, and belongs to the Jewish people forever, maintaining its “holy” status throughout all time. It is, indeed, the “birthright” of the Jewish people. When the Jewish people are living on it – which, today, includes more people than over the past two thousand years – its unique and holy characteristics are there to be discovered, perhaps more than ever.


Our time there this year, as in the past, introduced all these elements to our groups.


But this year was different. This is the year of “Sh’mitah,” the Sabbatical year. Once every seven years, the Jewish people are commanded – found at the beginning of the first of this week’s two Torah portions, “B’har” – to leave the Holy Land of Israel fallow. No planting, no pruning, no sowing, and so forth.


This year, 5775, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, is one of those Sabbatical years. According to the strict adherents to the law, aside from leaving the Land to “rest,” the fields in which produce is grown are “Hefker,” or “free for all.” Anyone can walk in, including the field’s owner, and take whatever they wish. There is, however, a caveat: any product which normally grows from the ground, including fruits on trees, must be treated as “holy.” This means that: 1) one may not use these for commerce, and 2) the produce used for private consumption must be treated with great attention: Even the peels and waste, including moldy produce, may not be routinely discarded. Instead, these must be returned to the earth from which they came.


The Land of Israel is the Holy Land. Anything grown there from land which is owned by a Jew, is biblically held to a higher standard than in the rest of the world. Laws connected to tithes towards various causes, for instance, play a role in what would otherwise be normal fruits and vegetables grown in the Land. Whereas one who maintains a Kosher diet may purchase whole, uncooked fruits and vegetables anywhere around the world, in Israel, even those must be under a reliable Kosher supervision. One relies on a “Mashgiach,” a trained Kosher supervisor, to perform a relatively easy ritual, releasing the produce from its “holy” status.


The holiness element of the Land is, therefore, emphasized greatly. In any regular year, one must pause before biting into an apple or a cucumber. [Parenthetically, this rule also applies to exported produce from Israel.] This year, though, the Land’s holiness is that much more apparent. There are no rituals for the seventh Sabbatical year as there are for the other six. True, methods exist through which to supply the people of the Land with produce, but they are substantially more complicated (such as purchasing from non-Jewish farmers, or from produce grown outside of the biblical Holy Land.)


When traveling through the Land this year, then, the sense of uniqueness and holiness was much more pronounced. This was not merely in the restrictions on the produce – and my plate was filled with plenty (or empty?) of those – but also in the positive and constructive element. Sure, one can see this as a hassle, on the other hand, the more a person must contemplate before consuming a pickle, an orange, some humus, fries, or a slice of watermelon, the more one learns to appreciate the gifts bestowed upon him or her by the Almighty.


And this exercise is the intention of the Sabbatical year. While the agricultural component is relevant exclusively in Israel, the spirit of this commandment is very much relevant everywhere. This is understood best by first comparing the Sabbatical year to the actual day of Shabbos, the week’s seventh day:


On the one hand, the day of Shabbos is a physical day. It is, in fact, more physical than other days, for the level of food, drink and dress is decidedly raised to eminence. The best is left for this day. At the same time, the day of Shabbos is categorically a distinctly holy day. One rests from most mundane activities, and one is free to focus on family, community, and, of course, one’s relationship with the Almighty.


Shabbos is, therefore, an opportunity to elevate. One is even able to elevate mundane items such as food and drink. This, in turn, allows one to appreciate that everything in this world stems from a High and most Sacred source.


The Sabbatical year does not even ask one to be removed from the world like the Shabbos does; the year runs like any other year, in which the majority of the days are regular “weekdays.” By interdicting work on the earth, though, people are granted time to pause and to contemplate the Divine Source of the blessing.


If being secluded and elevated like Shabbos is that important, the Almighty would not have created the rest of the week. Each day would be a Shabbos. The majority of days are regular weekdays, for the ultimate goal is to live within the confines of the world and lead an elevated life.


And this is the greatness of the Sabbatical year: It is a regular year, with a constant reminder of only becoming involved with “earthliness” with a sacred and holy attitude.


Trips to Israel during this year require a greater focus. Ultimately, once the Messianic era is upon us, the holiness of the Land will be infinitely more pronounced with the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. Until then, this year is a good year of preparation for that awaited time.



SUMMARY: In a Sabbatical year, such as this year, one has the opportunity to live an almost normal life, but with the ultimate elevation in mind.


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