What Does God Have to Do with Social Justice?
The Torah addresses both interpersonal relations and the individual’s relationship with God. There are those who think the human, social realm is more important, and others who insist that the religious life is preeminent. To my mind, Judaism’s unique message is not these two aspects on their own, but rather the profound connection between them – the insight that one’s relationship with God influences one’s relationship with others, and vice versa.
Shemitta is a good example of this cross-fertilization. For six years we till the land, but on the seventh it is given a sabbatical and lies fallow. The Torah mentions the mitzva of Shemitta three times: Parashat Mishpatim expounds its social aspects, Behar gives the religious angle, while Re’eh, our parasha, blends the two approaches. Let us examine these three instances so that we can better understand the two aspects and the connection between them.
Mishpatim: Social Shemitta
And six years you shall sow your land, and gather in the increase thereof; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat. (Ex. 23:10–11)
On the seventh year, we are enjoined to relax our grasp of the land for the sake of the poor. Furthermore, we are called upon to think of the animals as well, for they claim the food that goes uneaten by the poor. Thus a parallel is drawn between Shemitta and the social vision of Shabbat, as it appears in Exodus 23:12: “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may have rest, and the son of your handmaid, and the stranger, may be refreshed.” Shabbat addresses the needs of the weaker strata of society – strangers and slaves – as well as those of the animals: the oxen and asses. It is noteworthy that the name of God is absent from the passage above – a glaring absence in comparison to the passage in Parashat Behar.
Behar: A Sabbath of the Land
And the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, ‘When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field…. But in the seventh year it shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord.’” (Lev. 25:1–4)
At the outset, the Torah emphasizes that God addresses Moses at Mount Sinai. Rashi famously asks, “What does Shemitta have to do with Mount Sinai? Were not all the commandments given at Sinai?” The question “What does Shemitta have to do with Mount Sinai?” has become an idiom used to express skepticism when someone tries to link two apparently unconnected things.
It seems, however, that the very premise of the question is in doubt. The word “Shemitta” does not appear once in Parashat Behar, and indeed, there is no special significance to Mount Sinai vis-à-vis Shemitta. Rather, the parasha says that “the land [shall] keep a Sabbath.” When we rephrase the question as “What does a Sabbath of the land have to do with Mount Sinai?” it loses its bite. Indeed, the covenant over the land is sealed at Sinai.
We already know that Shabbat is an expression of the covenant between the Jewish people and God: “Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant” (Ex. 31:16). It emerges that a Sabbath is an appropriate expression of the covenant over the land, as sealed at Sinai.
In this vein, Ibn Ezra explain that Behar and Beĥukkotai are the “book of the covenant” mentioned in Parashat Mishpatim (Ex. 24:7): “It concludes the covenant that was mentioned in Parashat Mishpatim. It appears here, out of order, to connect…the conditions under which the land was given” (Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 25:1). By relinquishing the land into God’s hands on every seventh year, we internalize the idea that the land was given by God and that its use is contingent on fulfilling the covenant. It is noteworthy that at the end of the seventh year, when the land again reverts to humanity, the people assemble for the Hak’hel ceremony, during which parts of the Torah are read. The description of the assembly (Deut. 31:10–13) is rife with parallels to the revelation at Sinai. This is an expression of its purpose: to renew the covenant between the people and the land at the conclusion of the Shemitta year.
To break the covenant, and especially the Sabbath of the land, is to forfeit the land, as we learn in Parashat Beĥukkotai. In the Book of Chronicles, the number of years the Jewish people spend in exile in Babylon is tied to the number of times they failed to observe the Shemitta year (II Chr. 36:21).
The varying meanings ascribed to the Shemitta year also give rise to practical differences. Thus, according to Parashat Mishpatim, the purpose of Shemitta is to better the lot of the poor, which is why the fruits of the field are reserved for them. In Parashat Behar, in contrast, letting the land lie fallow expresses acknowledgment of God’s ownership of it. It follows that the fruits are a gift from God to all of humanity: “And the Sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you: for you and for your servant” (Lev. 25:6).
The Midrash offers a creative explanation of the above contradiction by blending the two values, the spiritual and the social: “‘That the poor of your people may eat’ – by implication, only the poor. How do we learn that the rich [also may eat]? The Torah teaches us: ‘And the Sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you.’ Why, then, does it say ‘the poor of your people’? [To teach us that] most of it is for the poor” (Mekhilta DeRabbi Shimon 23:11).
Re’eh: The Lord’s Shemitta
At the end of every seven years you shall make a release (Shemitta). And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release that which he has lent to his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother; because the release [to the Lord] hath been proclaimed. (Deut. 15:1–2)
The unique formulation “the Lord’s Shemitta” combines the terminology found in Parashat Mishpatim with that found in Behar. As in Mishpatim, we have a “Shemitta,” meaning the emphasis is placed on the person releasing (there it is land, here it is debt), and as in Behar, the Torah notes that the Shemitta is “to the Lord.”
Parashat Re’eh links between social statutes and the religious life. There are two consequences to the demand for debt forgiveness: financially speaking, it allows borrowers to start afresh every seven years, and socially, it undoes the problematic situation whereby creditors control (emotionally as well) their debtors. In effect, it prevents the long-term enslavement of borrowers. We learn of this sensitivity from the formulation “he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother,” which means that one must not compel or pressure the other.
The purpose of Shemitta is thus social, but the explanations for it are theological:
But there shall be no needy among you – for the Lord will surely bless you in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it…. Beware that there is not a base thought in your heart, saying, “The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand”; and your eye is evil against your needy brother, and you give him nothing; and he cries to the Lord against you, and it is sin in you. You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him; because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your work, and in all that you put your hand to. (Deut. 15:4, 9–10)
It is not only the force of divine decree that compels us to help the other, but also the Torah’s conception of reality. The belief that God granted the land, and continues to direct the course of life within it, prompts us to take a different view of our property. The very notion of property rights is cast in a new light when we realize that God is the source of all that we have (“the land which the Lord your God gives you”) and, ultimately, retains ownership of it. This can be seen in the idea that people’s continued presence on the land is contingent upon their behavior (“Beware…”) and that on the seventh year the land reverts to God (Parashat Behar). The awareness that the land belongs to God can make it easier for us to share its bounty with others, for when we know that our future situation is determined by our ethical conduct in the present (“because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you”), we are more able to open our hearts to others. Helping the other is not merely a matter of divine decree; it is human nature.