You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh year, you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave, let the wild beasts eat of it. You shall do the same with your vineyards and olive groves. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in order that your ox and your ass may have rest, and that your bondsman, and the stranger, may be refreshed.
- Shemot (Exodus), 23:10-12
Why is the first occurrence of Shmita in the Torah preceded by the commandment to not oppress the stranger, having ourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt? One answer stems from understanding this question in the larger context of the development of agriculture and all of its implications. Our matriarchs and patriarchs were not farmers-they were shepherds. It was not until the Israelites settled in the land of Egypt, and were ultimately enslaved, that they engaged in the large scale cultivation of crops. Egypt, historically, was one of the main centers of agriculture in the ancient world. Anthropologists note that when humans began farming, several things happen. First, farming allows for a division of labor; some people can grow food for many, which frees up the masses to occupy themselves with things other than the production or procurement of food. Agriculture also creates a surplus (in a good year) which is essentially the origins of wealth. So it is in agricultural societies that we begin to see social and economic hierarchies emerge. The people who control the surplus have enormous power, and are able to employ armies to protect that surplus (and therefore their power) and also go out and conquer more land to put into cultivation.
Egypt was a prime example of this. It was a society built on the backs of slaves and oppressed people. Because of the Nile, and its regular flooding, Egypt became one of the centers for food, even in times of scarcity. We see this in the story of Joseph and the seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. It was during the seven years of famine when Egypt was able to build its masses of slaves.
So our ancestors were only familiar with this one model of agriculture-one built upon oppression. And when they left Egypt and made their way to the land of Canaan, they knew that many of them would soon become farmers. So to combat this, we are given a whole set of agricultural laws that require that we design our food system with a different set of goals. Instead of focusing exclusively on endless production and growth, we are required to take steps, through the practices of Peah and Leket among others, to ensure that needs of all members of our community have access to food. The weekly Shabbat guarantees that all members of the society, rich and poor, receive time off. And finally, and most radically, the Shmita transforms our community to one in which, for one year, all resources are shared equally by everyone, including the animals. In fact, one way of understanding the Shmita is that it is a year in which we revert to a pre-agricultural, (or Eden-like) way of life. And so therefore it is essential for us to understand Shmita as part of a response to the oppressive nature of Egyptian agriculture, and perhaps, one of our main goals in leaving Egypt.