Through a Mussar Lens: The Spiritual Benefits of Release
This past Rosh Hashana ushered in not just any new year but a Shemitah year. Just as the Torah marks the seventh day as a day of rest, every seventh year is designated as a Sabbath year. Like Shabbat, the Shemitah year embodies a theme of rest—only in the case of the seventh year, it is not people but the land that is given a break, from cultivation. Additionally, some debts are remitted and certain slaves are entitled to go free.
The laws and observance of Shemitah apply only in the land of Israel, and even then under some specific conditions. But the theme and notion that underlie the laws apply to all of us at all times. The word “Shemitah” is most often translated as “the release” or “the remission,” and we can see this idea embedded in the release of the land from agriculture, and the slave from indenturedness and the borrower from debt. These bring us to the theme for this edition of Yashar, which is “release.”
Grasping the essence of many of the biblical commandments requires a real act of imagination for most contemporary people, especially in regard to those mitzvot that reference the life of agricultural or pastoral people. Today, most of us live far removed from flocks and herds, orchards and fields. To appreciate what spiritual growth the Torah meant to assign through some of the actions it prescribes, we need to stretch our imaginations to put ourselves in the sandals of a farmer or herder.
Take animal sacrifice, for example. Since the destruction of the Temple, we no longer offer up animals on the altar. But does that mean that there is nothing for us to learn from that ritual practice?
Before we can begin to answer that question, however, we have to stretch our minds to imagine what sheep, goats and cattle would have meant to the people who were being asked to offer these animals up as sacrifices. A herder’s animals are the very life and sustenance of this family. There is no other. The life of the people was inseparable from the condition of the flocks, which were ever vulnerable to drought, diseases, predators and marauders. There was no insurance policy to fall back on. The condition of the family directly mirrored the condition of the herds.
The Torah was telling the people to send up in smoke their primary source of food, health, wealth and security. Your life and the life of your children depended entirely on the milk, meat, hide, hair and other aspects of the animals, and you are being told to burn it all up to create a pleasing odor for God. Imagine the inner stretch that was being demanded of them.
The same exercise of imagination is necessary to understand the Shemitah. A farmer depends on his crops for life itself. And perhaps just as much on the labor that works the farm. In the Shemitah year, the farmer has to let go of both. The land is allowed to go fallow and the slave to go free.
Similar and related is the Torah’s injunction to do no labor on Shabbat. Once again, our livelihood and security are being compromised by a commandment to separate ourselves from productive endeavors.
Running through this string of major commandments is an evident theme of giving up material possessions and pursuits. Take your precious lamb that has years of productivity ahead of it and send it up in smoke or give it to the priests to eat. Instead of farming that field that could provide a year’s crops to sustain your family, lay down your tools. And when Shabbat comes around, turn off all productive activity.
What’s the point? What is it about the smell of the smoke that is pleasing to God? Why leave the land alone for a year? Why leave off your work and toil on the seventh day every week?
The short answer is that in all of these cases, we are being asked to give up the material in favor of gaining the spiritual. Today no less than in the past, we live so deeply attached to the material plane, and the challenge in life is not to walk away from the material in favor of the spiritual, but to convert the material into the spiritual. We make that conversion primarily through the act of letting go.
We find it hard to let go of the material, and yet that’s a precondition to gaining the spiritual. The commentators acknowledge that the Shemitah year caused worry to the people, and they actually debate at what exact point fears of a famine will set in. Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, the great Mussar teacher of the Mir Yeshiva, in Sichos Mussar, points out that the midrash says that the people who keep Shemitah are called “גיבורי כח,” which translates as “powerful heroes.” A typical mitzvah is done in a moment, or a day, or perhaps for a period of days, but it is heroic to perform a mitzvah for an entire year, especially one that compromises your livelihood.
How can we apply this lesson to our lives today? One answer is conveyed in the fact that the verses in the Torah that describe the Shemitah are followed immediately with numerous laws that pertain to the poor. What connects the subject of Shemitah to the laws of charity is that giving charity also involves letting go of the material to gain the spiritual. Our lives depend on our money in exact parallel to how the lives of the people in biblical times depended on their wealth in animals. When we open our hand to give tzedaka, we are giving up the material to gain the spiritual. And in case you were wondering what spiritual benefit the donor gets, the Talmud (Bava Batra 9b) tells us that it is blessings. The person who gives to the poor lets go of some wealth and in return gains blessings in his or her life.
Observing Shabbat is also relevant to people who are not engaged in agriculture or herding. We depend on our work for income but also for psychological and social benefits. What does Shabbat ask us to do? Let it go. Let it all go. Put it down. Turn off the iPhone.
No, the Torah doesn’t tell us directly that we should hit the off button on our devices on Shabbat. But if you don’t have sheep and goats to bring to the altar or a field to let lie fallow, and you still want to grasp what the Torah is offering you in its lessons about letting go, you have to sacrifice something that is primary to your identity and your material lifestyle. Give up the phone.
These days, no matter where I am teaching or visiting in the Jewish world, I encounter phones being used on Shabbat. On Passover I was at an Orthodox synagogue and went to use the bathroom, only to be kept waiting while someone had a phone conversation while hiding in the cubicle. Phones regularly ring during prayer services, and that only represents the small percentage of people who forgot to set it on vibrate.
The more addicted people are to their phones, the more giving them up is a sacrifice, but it is literally sacrifices we are talking about. When you disconnect from electronics on Shabbat, you give up a primary form of connection to the material world, and into that newly opened space come peace, quiet, reflection, settledness, and contentment, even joy. As long as the space is cluttered with commerce and noise, it is fully occupied. It takes an act of letting go of the material to make it possible to experience the spiritual on a weekly basis, to be reminded, so those lessons stay with us the other days of the week.
You may already not use electronics on Shabbat, so you will know what I am talking about. But if you feel that your attachment to your device and your network of communication is so powerful that it seems almost impossible to take the step to give it up, even for one day, then you know exactly how the herder must have felt about bringing his goat or cow to the altar. And you know that the midrash is not using the term “hero” lightly. The Torah is not asking you to take a loss: it is offering you a way to make the spiritual gain that comes from the sacrifice.
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