On Pesach we ask ourselves: What is the meaning of the Exodus? On this Sabbatical or Shmitta year, our perspective shifts to reveal that one answer is: our relationship with the earth.
Let’s look first at Shmitta. The main biblical text introducing the Shmitta year is in Leviticus 25. It starts out saying, “The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord…”
The ancient rabbis asked a very textual question, “What does Mount Sinai have to do with Shmitta?” That is, why here, out of all the laws in the Torah, does the text mention “on Mount Sinai?” Is there a connection that is being hinted at? I suggest looking at one of the culminating verses of the whole idea of Shmitta. In Leviticus 25:23, talking about the Jubilee, a kind of Shmitta² (Shmitta squared) it states, “The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine (ki li kol ha’aretz); you are but strangers resident with Me.”
This is the essence of Shmitta: We are not the ultimate owners of the land. We are given the gift of good land to be stewards. To, as Wendell Berry says, make “kindly use” of the land. The land is not a commodity to be exploited or sold for a quick profit.
If we now turn to the dramatic introduction to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, we see that same phrase “ki li kol ha’aretz” – “the whole earth is Mine …” (Exodus 19:5). The prerequisite for receiving the Torah is knowing that the earth is not ours to do with as we want, but is a sacred gift from The Source of Life. Shmitta, like its cousin the weekly Shabbat, expresses the essence of the message of Mount Sinai: we are not the masters of the world; all this goodness comes as a sacred trust and a gift.
And, Mount Sinai is but the culmination of the process of emancipation that was started in Egypt. That same phrase, this time in the third person, is spoken by Moses after the plague of hail. Moses says to Pharoah: “…the hail will fall no more, so that you may know that the earth is the Lords.” (Exodus 9:29)
The plagues of Egypt are a lesson in what happens when people consider themselves lords over the land— arrogantly disposing of the world to satisfy greed. The Israelites were themselves in danger of being caught up in the destruction that had come upon Egypt. But they were given a gift of life. When the Israelites are freed from Egypt they emerge like infants from the birth canal of the Red Sea. This is story we can tell this Pesach: life is a gift. Real freedom is understanding that the earth and all its bounty come from the Sources of Life.