Shabbat VaYelekh: Beginning the Shemitta Year

On this Shabbat VaYelekh we have come nearly to the end of the Sefer Torah. Most of the parchment is rolled up on one side of the two atzei hayim, the two “trees of life” upon which the scroll is rolled. It’s a lot of parchment; a lot of text, of reading and studying and learning, has brought us to this point.

Every year we reflect upon the entirety of the gift of our Torah at Simkhat Torah, which we will celebrate at the end of Sukkot. But this year, as once every seven years, we also find ourselves marking the ancient cycle of the shemitta year. From time before time until this year, Jews are to observe a cycle of seven. Just as we observe the seventh day, so too do we mark the seventh year. 

By something other than coincidence, then, we find in this week’s parashah:

וַיְצַ֥ו מֹשֶׁ֖ה אוֹתָ֣ם לֵאמֹ֑ר מִקֵּ֣ץ ׀ שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֗ים בְּמֹעֵ֛ד שְׁנַ֥ת הַשְּׁמִטָּ֖ה בְּחַ֥ג הַסֻּכּֽוֹת

Moses taught them saying: Every seventh year, the shemitta year, at the Festival of Sukkot,

בְּב֣וֹא כׇל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל לֵֽרָאוֹת֙ אֶת־פְּנֵי֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בַּמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִבְחָ֑ר תִּקְרָ֞א אֶת־הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את נֶ֥גֶד כׇּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּאׇזְנֵיהֶֽם

when all Israel comes to appear before HaShem Eternity in the chosen place, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. (Devarim 31.10-11)

This year we have just begun, this year of 5782 which is five days old on Shabbat VaYelekh, is a year of remission, a shemitta year. This week’s parashah reminds us: during the week of Sukkot – ten days from now, starting on Monday September 20 – we are to gather, and hear the Teaching, the Torah. I imagine it as a cross between a Shabbat in the Park and a public reading of Ulysses – beloved and somewhat incomprehensible.

At any rate, our lives have changed radically since those ancient days, and Sukkot has paled in significance next to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s too bad, really, because the harvest has not lost its significance; only many of us, distanced by production lines, consumer advertising, and grocery store packaging, have lost our connection to it.

What will the year of shemitta mean to us? The “year of remission,” is the year of forgiving debts, the year of letting the land rest, and the year of contemplating the entirety of the Torah. 

1.  Who owes you? In the spirit of the season in which we find ourselves, Sukkot is a chance to finish the work of Yom Kippur. Does someone owe you an apology, a rectification, a debt? Forgive it.

2.  In the ancient world, land was both the source of sustenance and of inequality. Regardless of the source of your sustenance, if every seven years we are to level the playing field, what can you do to address systemic inequality in your community? How can you take whatever you have in abundance and share it? It may be finances, but in our relationship-starved days, it may also be love.

3. The third mitzvah of the year of Shemitta is the obligation to hear the Teaching. There is an ancient teaching that the entire Torah (which used to be written without spaces between words)  is one long word: the unknown, unpronounceable, ineffable Name of G*d. 

On this Shabbat, as you contemplate all the Teaching that is to come, listen for the bat kol, the still small voice, in your acts of forgiving and leveling. That Name is there in all we do and all we are, when we do it with compassion, in love.

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