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How counting to 50 can heal the planet

Last week we completed the Sefirat Ha-Omer, the counting of the 49 day period between Pesach and Shavuot, culminating with the celebration of Shavuot, which falls on the 50th day. In agricultural terms, this is a period of waiting in between the barley harvest and the wheat harvest in Israel. In religious terms, this period is a time for preparation and transformation that preceeds Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Sefirat Ha-Omer is very similar to the mitzva of Sefirat Ha-yovel, whereby we are enjoined to count 49 years and consecrate the 50th year as the yovel (Jubilee). This similarity is expressed both in the verses themselves (compare Vayikra 23:15-16 to 25:8-10) and in the laws relevant to the actual counting. For example, with regard to Sefirat Ha-Omer, we are commanded to count seven sets of seven days – each set comprising a week; with regard to Sefirat Ha-yovel, we are commanded to count seven sets of seven years – each set comprising one shmita cycle where the ground is worked for six years and left untouched in the seventh year. In both cases it is a mitzva to count each day or year AND each individual set. It is clear that the similarity between the two is not accidental. By taking a closer look at the concepts of Sefirat Ha-yovel, and Sefirat Ha-Omer, it will be shown that both share the ultimate goals of liberation, freedom and redemption.

Throughout Jewish liturgy, the number seven represents the natural cycle. Thus, the week is composed of seven days, and many Jewish holidays are seven days long. By counting seven periods of seven, we are reminded that the natural order of the universe is based on a base of seven. However, by marking the 50th as the pinnacle commemoration beyond the seven periods of seven, we recognize Hashem as the ultimate power above and beyond all of nature. This 50th day is celebrated as the holiday of Shavuot, and the 50th year as the Yovel year. These holidays mark the primacy of G-d over the natural world.

Torah requirements for the yovel year

1) We perform no agricultural work in Eretz Yisrael in the last year of every seven years, that we consider all produce which grows (by itself) that year ownerless and allow the poor and the animals to take it;

2) We cancel all loans between Jews in this seventh year;

3) We treat the last year of every fifty years just like we treat a seventh year, abstaining from agricultural work etc.;

4) We free all Jewish slaves in this fiftieth year;

5) We return to the original owners all land which has been sold in the past forty-nine years.

Lets look at the effect of these mitzvot on us: they shatter the illusion we might otherwise begin to believe that the 'reality' of earning our bread is the real reality and that worshipping HaShem is a nice addendum but is not part of the hard-nosed real world. There is perhaps nothing more hard-nosed and real than shmita and yovel. Imagine if this were to happen next week, the government announces that all work is to stop for the next year, all food which grows is deemed ownerless, all debts are canceled, all land returns to the people who owned it half a century ago. Sound like a recipe for economic chaos and disaster? Exactly! By mandating this behavior, the Torah punctures our illusion of reality and shoves it aside before a more real reality: we are forced to recognize that we own what we do only by the generosity of HaShem and that the economy is completely instrumental; it is not at all important in any axiological sense, it is there only to facilitate our service of HaShem.

This lesson is so important that it is followed by a series of warnings about what will happen if we do not keep the mitzvot of shmita and yovel: the blessings and curses[105]. The fact that the blessings and curses is aimed primarily at reinforcing our observance of shmita and yovel is supported by several features of the text. Most basically, the Torah's placing the blessings and curses immediately after the mitzvot of shmita and yovel intimates that the warnings apply most directly to these mitzvot.

The connection between shmita / yovel and the blessings and curses is strengthened further by the 'bookends' with which the Torah surrounds the section on shmita and yovel and the blessings and curses. We note that the Torah begins the parasha with the news that what we are about to learn was delivered by HaShem to Moshe at Sinai. Then come the mitzvot of shmita and yovel. Then comes the, and just after the blessings and curses, the Torah places another bookend, reporting that what we have just read was what HaShem communicated to Moshe at Sinai. (Another such bookend appears at the end of Parashat BeHukotai, sealing Sefer VaYikra.) What the Torah may be hinting again by placing bookends before shmita / yovel and after the blessings and curses is that these warnings are aimed at neglect of these mitzvot in particular.

Further and more explicit evidence of the connection between the blessings and curses and shmita / yovel can be found in the text of the blessings and curses itself. As the blessings and curses begins, it sounds like a general warning about neglecting any of the mitzvot: (26:14-15) "If you do not listen to Me, and do not do all of these mitzvot; if you despise My laws, and if your souls revile My statutes, by not doing all of My mitzvot, thereby abrogating My covenant . . . ." However, as we move toward the end of the blessings and curses, it seems clearer that the phrase "all of these mitzvot" refers not to the mitzvot as a whole, but to "these mitzvot" which have just been discussed: shmita and yovel. After the Torah describes how the rebellious nation would be driven out of its land:

"Then the land will enjoy its Sabbaths [=shmita years], all the days of its abandonment, with your being in the land of your enemies; then the land will rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths! All the days of its abandonment, it shall rest the rests it did not rest during your Sabbaths [i.e., during the years that were supposed to have been shmita years], when you lived upon it!" (26:34-35).

"The land shall be abandoned of them, and it shall enjoy its Sabbaths in its abandonment from them, and they [the nation] shall expiate for their sin, since they despised My statutes and their souls reviled My laws" (26:43).

We commit sins, unnamed at the beginning of the blessings and curses, but by the end it seems apparent that the abandonment of the land and the consequent cessation of its cultivation through agriculture atones for the sins. The best conclusion: the sins referred to by the blessings and curses are the neglect of shmita and yovel. Our not ceasing working the land during shmita requires our exile from the land so that it can rest on the Sabbaths we have denied it; our not canceling loans during shmita requires that we become impoverished and powerless; our not returning land to its owners during yovel requires that we be denied ownership over even our own land; our not freeing Jewish slaves during yovel requires that we ourselves be taken captive and sold as slaves by those whom HaShem sends to conquer us; midah keneged midah, measure for measure.

MEETING THE CHALLENGE:

The Torah knows how difficult it is to keep shmita and yovel. It is certainly a tall order to take a forced sabbatical, to resist the urge to try to make the maximum profit by planting during this year, and to trust that HaShem will provide enough food to compensate for this year's lack of harvest. It is a tremendous challenge to forgive all loans to Jews every seven years. It is certainly no simple matter to release one's hold on one's real estate empire and return the parcels of land to their owners, and in a society which accepts slavery, it is almost 'unrealistic' to expect that slave owners will release their Jewish slaves in response to a Divine command. But this is what shmita and yovel demand.

The Torah prepares us for the challenge of shmita and yovel in various ways. One way is the blessings and curses, a warning of the dire consequences of neglect: disease, destruction, disaster, death. Other indications that the Torah expects these mitzvot to run into resistance, and other ways in which the Torah tries to strengthen us, are amply provided by the text itself. First, the Torah anticipates our fear that if we do not plant in the seventh year, we will starve:

Vayikra (Leviticus) 25:20-21 If you shall say, "What shall we eat in the seventh year? After all, we shall not be planting or gathering our produce!" I shall command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will provide produce for three years.

Next, the Torah anticipates that canceling all loans to Jews will prove a very unpopular mitzva, and duly warns and encourages us:

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 15:7-10 If there shall be among you a pauper, from among your brothers, in one of your gates, in your land, which HaShem your God is giving to you–do not harden your heart and do not close your hand to your poor brother; instead, completely open your hand to him and lend him enough to provide whatever he lacks. Beware lest there be an evil thought in your heart, saying, "The seventh year, the year of shmita [literally, 'cancellation'] is approaching," and your shall look ungenerously upon your poor brother, and you shall not give to him, and he shall call out against you to HaShem, and there will be sin in you. You shall surely give to him, and let your heart not be bitter when you when you give him, for because of this thing HaShem, your God, shall bless you in all of your works and in all of your efforts.

Yovel hints to the geulah (redemption). In the 50th year, the shofar is blown and all slaves are set free. In the same way, the Bnei Yisrael will be set free from our slavery in galut (exile). There is a second way that yovel hints to the geulah. The word yovel is just like the word yovilu. The word yovilu is written in Tehillim (76:12): all the nations "yovilu shai" — will bring gifts to HaShem when the geulah comes. Thus, the mizvah of Yovel has the potential to bring about the redeption of the world.

As our environmental, political, and economic situation seems to be rapidly deteriorating, our tradition provides the recipe to repair these broken systems and create a radically new relationship between humankind, G-d, and the world. On a daily basis, we are reminded of the world’s growing “Debt Crisis” and fed false political solutions such as “Austerity Measures” that are met with growing protest by people who would be harmed by such actions. It is high time we remember that other solutions are possible. The counting of the Omer with its culmination in Shavuot on the 50th day and the counting of seven groups of seven years with their culmination in the Yovel year provide the prototypes for how we can heal the various ailments afflicting us in order to attain the ultimate fulfillment of the world. It is my sincere hope that we may merit to fulfill these mitzvot speedily and in our days, thus liberating humanity from its current state of galut (exile).

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