One of the main themes of this week’s Torah reading is the Yovel. Following seven Sh’mita cycles of seven years each the fiftieth year is set aside as Yovel, an additional year of rest for the land. This is also a time when all land must revert back to the original family who inherited it when the Jews first came into the land of Israel. Furthermore, it is a time when all slaves must be set free, even those who refused their freedom in the Sh’mita year.

Rashi1 and Ramban2, the two foremost medieval Biblical commentators, disagree as to the grammatical derivation of the word Yovel. Rashi understands that it is named after the Shofar that is sounded at the beginning of that year. He bases his understanding on the verse at the giving of the Torah “When the Yovel (ram’s horn) is sounded with a long blast” (Shemos 19; 13) and “.. upon an extended blast with the Yovel (ram’s horn....)” (Yehoshua 6; 5). The essence of this year of freedom and returning to roots is contained within the blast of the Shofar.
The Ramban contends that the Yovel is derived from the word Hovil, to bring or to move, because it is a time when every slave is free to move and to live wherever they wish. Similarly the original owner moves back to his or her land. We find the word having this meaning in the verse “At that time an offering will Yuval (be brought) to G-d...” (Yishiah 18; 7).

Perhaps we can delve deeper into the underlying point of disagreement between these two commentators. What is the theme of the Yovel year that they wish us to understand?

The Shofar blast signifies G-d’s interaction and concern with the world. There are many examples of this. At Mount Sinai the Shofar blast showed G-d’s special relationship with the Jewish nation. When He gave us His Torah He showed His intimate connection with us. This event is described as a wedding between G-d and the Jewish nation, with the Torah given in place of a ring. Similarly, when G-d gave us the land of Israel the first conquest, the fall of Jericho, was accompanied by the blast of the Shofar.

Each year on Rosh HaShana we sound the Shofar, both as a reminder of these events, and to symbolise G-d’s judging of the world. Divine involvement with, and judging of, each person on earth is a concept which defies logic. The fact that He does so demonstrates His love and concern for our well-being. Similarly we conclude the Yom Kippur service with the sound of the Shofar, showing the extent of G-d’s connection to us, giving us atonement and forgiveness for past transgressions.

The blowing of the Shofar to begin the Yovel year also shows us G-d’s continued involvement with the world. We accept that He is the real master over all the land and all its inhabitants. He is concerned that the land return to its original owners and that all slaves be freed. We mark this by sounding the Shofar and acknowledge G-d’s involvement with the running of the world. According to Rashi’s translation of the word this concept of Divine intervention, called Hashgacha in Hebrew, is the main message we are to learn from the Yovel.

Ramban tells us to look at our own human frailty. The very word Yovel tells us that we are transient. We do not actually own or control anything or anyone; everything that we have is a gift from the Almighty. We recognise and acknowledge this gift every fifty years by returning all purchased property, and freeing all slaves. No matter how hard we work, or what we think that we have achieved in material gains, everything ultimately belongs to the Creator of the Universe. We are dependent upon Him for any success we may have, and conversely for any hardships we may suffer. The knowledge that anything we own or earn is purely a gift from G-d is called in Hebrew Bitachon. We are certain that G-d will look after us, and have faith that He will provide us with our needs. We know that we do not deserve anything by right, but trust that G-d will help us to attain whatever we need.
Ultimately we are all merely transients in this world; nothing we have lasts forever and after death we can’t take any of it with us. Through the Yovel year we show that we are not the ones in charge of this world, but are only here to make the most of the physical and spiritual gifts and opportunities that G-d gives us.


Behar - Bechukotai

This week's Torah reading contains the commandment of Sh'mita, allowing the land to lie fallow in the seventh year. The Midrash (Yalkut Tehillim 103) says about this mitzvah, "Bless the L-rd, you angels of His, you mighty ones who perform His bidding, hearkening to the voice of His word" (Psalms 103; 20). Rav Yitzchak Nafcha says that this refers to those who observe the Sh'mita laws. The normal course of the world is for a person to perform a mitzvah for a day, or a week, or even a month; is it possible to keep something for a whole year? Yet these farmers watch their fields become destroyed, and their vineyards ruined, and they remain silent.
A person can refrain from something for a single day, with extra strength of character they can continue for a week or a month, but to remain observant of this law of Sh'mita for an entire year, slowly watching years of hard work falling into ruin and seeing other people come in and treat the field as ownerless, is almost beyond the capability of a normal person. All of a person's resolve and determination to observe this law is worn down day by day. Therefore the Midrash refers to such people as "angels, the mighty ones".
The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) learns out from the same verse in Psalms the greatness of the Jewish nation as they received the Torah. "At the moment that the Jews said 'We will do' before 'We will understand' a voice came out of heaven saying 'Who revealed to My children this secret that the angels use, as the verse says, "You mighty ones who perform His bidding, hearkening to the voice of His word". First they obey, and then they understand. This ability to accept G-d's will unquestioningly, and only afterwards to attempt to understand it, is the secret of the Jews' strength as a nation. It is the phrase that they used at Mount Sinai, the phrase that the angels use, and it is also the only way that the nation can observe the commandment of Sh'mita. The people don't ask how they will be able to eat in the seventh year; they first observe the commandment, and then have faith and trust that G-d will provide for them.
We see that this commandment is almost beyond human capability to perform, being in the realm of the angelic. However, in the second of today's readings the Torah describes a severe punishment for not keeping the mitzvah of Sh'mita. "Then the land will be appeased for its Sh'mitot during all the years of its desolation, while you are the land of your enemies. Then the land will rest, and it will appease for all its Sh'mitot" (Leviticus 36; 34). The Talmud derives from here that exile results from Israel's failure to observe Sh'mita. Because of the seventy Sh'mitot that they had violated prior to and during the First Temple period, the Babylonian exile lasted for seventy years, during which time the land made up for the rest of which it had been deprived.
This shows the tremendous spiritual level of which the Jewish nation is capable of achieving. G-d demands that we achieve the status of angels, otherwise we are severely punished with exile and suffering. Being a nation like all other nations is not an option for the Jews; there is no middle ground. Either we reach almost inhuman spiritual heights, and receive the blessings detailed in Bechokosai, or we fail and incur the punishments and curses listed there.