The Shmittah – Sabbatical Year – is now over, and we are beginning a new cycle of seven years which will conclude with another Sabbatical Year (the seventh year). In this letter, I would like to discuss a special mitzvah which we are to fulfill at the end of each Sabbatical Year – a mitzvah of national renewal which applies when most of our people are living in the Land of Zion:
In the parshah – Torah portion – of this Shabbos, Moshe conveys to our people that we have a mitzvah to have a national gathering of spiritual renewal after the close of the Sabbatical Year, during the Festival of Succos, when we make a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary. Moshe then states:
“When all Israel comes to appear directly before the Presence of Hashem, your God, in the place that He will choose – you shall read this Torah before all Israel in their ears. You must assemble for this purpose the people – the men, and the women, and the small children, and the stranger (convert) who has entered among you – so that they will hear and so that they will learn; and they shall revere Hashem, your God, and be careful to fulfill all the words of this Torah. And even their children who do not yet understand will hear and learn to revere Hashem, your God, all the days that you live on the land to which you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of it.” (Deuteronomy 31:11-13)
I have both attended and organized Jewish retreats which enabled Jewish men, women, and children to discover or renew their bond with Torah. I recall the emotional and spiritual elevation which many people experienced at these gatherings. I therefore can begin to imagine the tremendous emotional and spiritual elevation that our people experienced at this unique national gathering of Torah study during the joyous Festival of Succos after the Sabbatical Year.
What portions of the Torah were read at this national gathering of spiritual renewal? The Talmud explains that portions from the Book of Deuteronomy were read (Sota 41a). A major theme of these portions is that our fulfillment of the Torah – the Divine Teaching – is the reason why we were given the Land. For example, the reading contains the following message:
“See! I have taught you statutes and social laws, as Hashem, my God, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it.” (Deuteronomy 4:5).
A related theme of these portions is that our prosperity in the Promised Land depends on our fulfillment of the Torah. For example, the reading contains the following message:
“And it will then be, if you hearken diligently to My mitzvos which I command you today, so that you love Hashem, your God, and serve Him with all your heart and soul; then I will given the rain of your land in its season – the early rain and the late rain – so that you may gather in your grain, your new wine, and your oil.” (Deuteronomy 11:13,14)
The reading includes a passage which reminds us that we were given the Land in order to serve the elevating and life-giving purpose of Hashem with love. This passage mentions that we were given “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 6:3), and in the very next verse, it states:
“Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!” And you shall love Hashem, your God, with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your possessions.” (6:4,5)
The reading also mentions mitzvos which remind us that serving the elevating and life-giving purpose of Hashem includes the sharing of our resources with those in need. For example, the reading mentions the following mitzvah:
“If there will be among you a needy person from among one of your brethren in any of your cities, in your land that Hashem, your God, gives you, you shall not harden your heart nor shall you close your hand against your needy brother. Rather you shall open, open your hand to him…” (Deuteronomy 15:7,8).
In the altruistic spirit of the above passage, the reading has reminders that when we journey to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals, we should include the needy and the lonely in our family celebrations, as this too is serving the elevating and life-giving purpose of Hashem. For example, the reading has the following passage regarding the pilgrimage festival of Succos, which also celebrates the culmination of the harvest:
“You shall rejoice on your festival – you, your son, your daughter, your male servant, your female servant, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow who are within your cities.” (Deuteronomy 16:14)
Why, however, are the above passages from the Torah and other related passages read to our entire people at the end of the Sabbatical Year? During the Sabbatical Year, we did not work the land, and loans were canceled at the end of the year. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out, at the end of the Sabbatical Year, following the Festival of Succos, a new period of agriculture and business begins in the Land of Zion. I would therefore like to suggest that these passages from the Book of Deuteronomy are to inspire us to begin this new period of economic activity with the consciousness that our prosperity and success in the Land depend on our fulfillment of the Torah.
The mitzvah to have this national gathering of renewal at the end of the Sabbatical Year will be renewed when most of our people will once again be living in the Land of Zion. According to our prophets, this ingathering of our exiles will take place at the dawn of the messianic age. In the meanwhile, we can hasten the arrival of this new age through increasing our awareness that the fulfillment of the Torah is the goal of our living in Zion. Let us therefore ensure that all our present activities in Zion, including our political activities, are in the spirit of this goal. This is the deeper meaning of the opening proclamation from the haftorah – portion from the prophets – which we chant on the Shabbos before Yom Kippur:
“Return O Israel, to Hashem, your God!” (Hosea 14:2)
Have a Good and Renewing Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen