Parshat Re’eh: What Does God Have To Do With Social Justice?

The Torah deals with two primary subjects: Our relationship with G-d, and our relationship with others.

There are some who see the Torah’s social and human aspects as its primary message, while others claim that its essence is the religious experience. In my eyes, Judaism’s unique contribution is not either of these two aspects in and of themselves; it is the understanding that these two worlds are in fact inseparable from each other, that a person’s relationship with G-d enriches his relationship with people, and vice versa.

The mitzvah of shemita is an example of this mutual enrichment. Man works his field for six years, and during the seventh, the land rests. Shemita is mentioned in three separate instances in the Torah: in parshat Mishpatim the Torah relates its social components, in parshat Behar it conveys the religious aspect, and in our parsha, parshat Re’eh, the two elements are combined. Let us examine each of these parshiot in order to understand the different aspects and the way in which they are connected.

Mishpatim – Social Shemita

For six years you shall sow your field and gather in your produce. But on the seventh you shall let it rest, you shall withdraw from it and the poor of your nation shall eat, and whatever remains the animals shall consume (Shmot 23:10-11).

During the seventh year Man relinquishes his ownership of his field for the benefit of the poor. He is not only called on to consider his less privileged brethren, he must even leave the remaining crops for wild animals to eat. This is similar to the social vision of Shabbat, “Six days you shall do your work and on the seventh you shall rest, in order that your ox and your donkey can rest, and your maidservant’s son and the stranger will be refreshed” (Shmot 23:13). Shabbat is concerned with the weaker levels of society. The maidservant and the stranger – even the animals – rest on Shabbat.

This description of shemita is notable in that G-d’s name is absent. This especially stands out when compared to the description of the seventh year in parshat Behar.

Behar – The Land’s Shabbat for Hashem

And G-d spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai: “Speak to the People of Israel and tell them: ‘when you come to the land which I am giving you, the land shall rest, a Shabbat for Hashem. Six years you shall sow your fields…and the seventh year shall be a sabbatical of rest for the land, a Shabbat for Hashem’” (Vayikra 25:1-4).

This parsha opens by pointing out that this instruction was given on Mount Sinai. Rashi famously asks “What does shemita have to do with Mount Sinai? Were not all the mitzvot related at Mount Sinai?” This question has become a general expression of confusion as to why two seemingly unrelated things are linked.

Happy Man in Wheat FieldBut it seems that in this case, the underlying premise of the question is flawed. In parshat Behar, the word “shemita” does not appear at all, and indeed, shemita is not particularly relevant to Mount Sinai. In parshat Behar the term used is “shabbat ha’aretz” “the land shall rest,” and when the question is “What does the resting of the land have to do with Mount Sinai?” it loses much of its strength. Just as Shabbat is the sign of the covenant between G-d and Bnei Yisrael, “And Bnei Yisrael kept Shabbat, making Shabbat for all generations – an eternal covenant” (Shmot 31:16), it is fitting that the covenant between the Land and People of Israel, sealed at Sinai, should be marked by “shabbat ha’aretz,” the resting of the Land.

In this spirit, the Ibn Ezra postulates that the “book of the covenant” mentioned in parshat Mishpatim (Shmot 24:7) is Parshiot Behar and Bechukotai. By returning the Land to G-d one out of every seven years, a person internalizes the understanding that the Land is a gift from G-d, and his use of it depends on his upholding of the covenant. Significantly, at the end of the seventh year, when the Land returns to the people, the nation gathers for the “Hakhel” ceremony, in which sections of the Torah are read publicly. The Torah’s description of the ceremony (Devarim 31:10-13) recalls the descriptions of the nation’s assembly at Har Sinai, and this hints at its purpose – a renewal of the covenant between the people and the Land and the close of the sabbatical year.

Violating the covenant, and in particular not respecting the Land’s rest, is liable to cause the Land to be lost altogether, as is seen in parshat Bechukotai. Later, in the end of Divrei Hayamim, the number of years of the Babylonian exile is tied to the number of years that Israel failed to uphold shemita (Divrei Hayamim II 36:21).

The different paradigms behind the meanings of shemita also have practical consequences. According to parshat Mishpatim, shemita is meant to support the poor, and only the poor are permitted to eat from the fields. By contrast, in parshat Behar, the relinquishing of the Land is a symbol of the acknowledgment that the Land is G-d’s, and thus the fruits of the field are G-d’s gift to all humanity, “And it shall be a rest for the land, [but what grows] shall be for you to eat, you and your servant” (Vayikra 25:6).

Re’eh – Shemita unto G-d

At the end of every seven years you shall make a shemita. And this is the shemita: Every creditor must release (“shomet”) his neighbor’s debt to him, he shall not approach his neighbor or his brother, for a shemita unto G-d has been proclaimed (Devarim 15:1-2).

The unique phrase “shemita unto G-d” combines the terminology of parshat Mishpatim with that of parshat Behar.

Debt settlement - approvedSimilar to Mishpatim, the word used is “shemita,” meaning the emphasis is on the person who is “shomet,” releasing (both his land and debts owed him), but as in Behar, the verse points out that it is a shemita “unto G-d.” Parshat Re’eh connects the social decree with the religious awareness. There are two consequences to the command that creditors must relinquish the debts owed them: economically, it allows debtors to have a new start once every seven years, and socially, it overcomes the debilitating rut in which creditors rule over their debtors, practically and psychologically, by releasing the borrowers from the subjugation of their creditors. This sensitivity is learned from the verse “he shall not approach his neighbor or his brother,” meaning he must not attempt to pressure or harass his neighbor.

The goal, then, of shemita is a social one, but its reasons are rooted in a religious understanding:
There will not be any poor among you, for Hashem will certainly bless you in the Land Hashem your G-d has given you, an inheritance to receive… Be careful to avoid the wicked thought in your heart, to think, “the seventh year, the shemita year, is approaching,” and your impoverished bother will not find favor in your eyes, and you will not give to him. When he calls out to G-d because of you, you will have a sin. Certainly you should give to him, and let your heart not fear that you give him, for it is because of this that G-d will bless you in all your actions and all of your handiwork (Devarim 15:4, 9-10).

Helping others is not merely a fulfillment of a divine command, it is a natural consequence of the reality the Torah presents. The belief that the Land comes from G-d, and that He continues to direct life and livelihood within it, causes a person to view his personal property through different eyes. The concept of ownership must be taken with a grain of salt once a person acknowledges that everything he has is from G-d (“in the Land Hashem your G-d has given you,”) and really, remains His. This understanding is expressed by the fact that Man’s existence on the land is conditional (“Be careful…”) and by the fact that one year in seven the Land returns to G-d (Parshat Behar). The realization that the Land is not ours but G-d’s makes it easier to share its produce with others and the awareness that our future state of affairs follows from the morality of our actions today (“for it is because of this that G-d will bless you”) directs us to open our hearts to those in need. Helping others is not merely a command from G-d, it is human nature.

Rav Yaakov Nagen
Yakov Nagen (Genack) is a Rom at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and a member of “Beit Hillel”.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir


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