The Torah often lays out ideals that seem unachievable in practice, for which we must nonetheless strive. Shmitah and the Jubilee are two such unachievable yet brilliant ideas. They are worth exploring in greater depth, as they make counter-cultural demands of us in how we live ecologically, economically, and as a society.
(1) Ecological: We are to let the land lie fallow every seventh year, and every fiftieth too. We’re counting on being able to live off what we’ve stored ahead of time and what we can gather from the land’s wild growth.
(2) Economic: Every fiftieth year, property is returned to its original owner (or tenant, since the land is God’s!), with everyone, once in every generation, starting not only with their debt wiped clean but on an even plane with everyone else. Everyone gets to start over, every fifty years, debt-free, on land by which they can support their families. No one gets to continue to hold others accountable for debts after fifty years.
(3) Humanitarian: Slaves are simply people who have fallen on hard times, and once a generation, no matter what, they are to go free.
Imagine if we were actually to behave according to these ideals today. What would the world be like if we all had to stop producing and consuming once every seven years, relying on what the earth produced left to its own devices? Would we have the climate crisis we face today? What would America look like if we took this to heart and gave every human being within our borders a fresh start with enough assets to build a life, once every generation?
This year has been one with everything we know upended. Nature has responded to human hubris, reminding us that we are not owners of creation, nor do we have complete control over our fates. This year has exposed every crack in our society, making so very clear how many have been suffering due to economic, social, and legal inequalities going back generations.
Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the Izhbitzer rebbe, teaches that this parashah reminds us that we cannot automatically put our trust into anything that appears trustworthy at face value. We cannot count on our assets to always provide, and we cannot rely on human beings, left to their own accord, to automatically care for those around them. We can count on God and Torah, and Torah tells us: we cannot be satisfied with the world as it is. We cannot be content in the face of inequality, of exploitation of land and people, of hubris. To be God’s partners, to be in holy covenant, is to strive for the Shmitah and Jubilee ideals, to be partners with the natural world and each other, and to lift everyone up to be in service of all that is Holy, together.