"For the Land is Mine"
Summarized by David Silverberg
At Mt. Sinai, the Jews eagerly anticipated their entry into Eretz Yisrael, which was to have been a mere eleven days away. They anxiously awaited the opportunity finally to establish their lives in their new land, to cultivate the fertile soil and to yield the potential abundance of produce from the land flowing with milk and honey. How startling it must have been to be suddenly confronted with the laws of shemitta (the sabbatical year)! For an entire year out of every seven, the Halakha binds the farmer's hands, stows away his sickle and plowshare, and leaves him in a panic, worrying about the following year's crop. Wherein lies the true message of shemitta?
The significance of this mitzva relates to a fundamental precept regarding the relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. As history ran its course, every other nation found itself a habitat. In Parashat Noach (Bereishit 10), the Torah lists scores of nations who managed to settle throughout ancient Mesopotamia. Similarly, Esav left Canaan and established the nation of Edom in Mt. Se'ir (Bereishit 33:16). Am Yisrael, by contrast, was handed their land from God directly. Unlike any other ethnic group, Benei Yisrael carries with it the Brit Bein Ha-betarim, by which God guarantees them Eretz Yisrael (Bereishit 15). Thus, the Jews' relationship to their land transcends the very fact of their geographic location. Eretz Yisrael is not simply where Jews live - it is the region specifically allocated and handed to them by the Almighty Himself.
According to the very first lines of Rashi's commentary on the Chumash (Bereishit 1:1), this comprises the primary purpose of Sefer Bereishit.
"For should the nations of the world accuse the Jews, saying 'You are thieves, having stolen the land of the seven nations [of Canaan],' they could answer, 'The land belongs to God. By His will He offered it to the nations, and by His will He seized it from them and bequeathed it to us.'"
Indeed, this charge against Am Yisrael has been raised throughout our history. Rav Yaakov Herzog zt"l fought arduously to discredit this accusation; he would observe a fast before "facing off" against those historians who attempted to undermine the Jews' right to the land of Israel. Sefer Bereishit offers us the correct response: Am Yisrael didn't simply settle their land; it was given to them directly from God.
Thus, by letting the land lie fallow during the shemitta year, the farmer reinforces his awareness of the source of his connection to his crop. The Torah underscores this theme at the closing of this section:
"And the land shall not be sold for eternity, for the land is Mine - for you are strangers and temporary dwellers with Me." (Vayikra 25:23)
God's assertion that Benei Yisrael are "gerim ve-toshavim" (strangers and temporary dwellers) is not meant to disparage them. On the contrary, it is among our most treasured and sacred privileges. We have the opportunity to live as a "ben bayit" with God, a member of His household, simply by inhabiting His land. By observing shemitta, we reaffirm our recognition of God's unique role in our dwelling in Eretz Yisrael. The land really belongs to Him, and we are its custodians.
Unfortunately, this message has been lost among many people in Israel today, even those in the "national camp." Jewish nationalism has been progressively focusing on the nation, not on God. The pride in Israel felt by many Jews evolves from a pride in the Jewish people, not from a deep-rooted awareness and internalization of "for the land is Mine."
Earlier this century, Achad Ha'am suggested that secular Jews are more nationalistic than Torah-observant Jews. Whereas the religious community relates to their nation strictly with regard to traditional Judaism's religious quality, secular Jews take pride in their nation for what it is, regardless of traditional observances. Achad Ha'am was absolutely right, according to his secular definition of nationalism.
For us, however, as Benei Torah, our pride in our country must stem from a firmly-established consciousness and cognizance of the true quality of Eretz Yisrael, the land handed to us personally and directly from God. "For you are strangers and temporary dwellers with Me" reminds us that our connection to Eretz Yisrael extends well beyond the physical reality of our residence here. Our relationship to the land must be bound intrinsically with our relationship to its true owner: "for the land is Mine!"
(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Behar 5755 .)
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