Earth Etude for Elul 26 – Three Levels of Holiness
by Rabbi David Seidenberg~
In the Torah, three things are called “shabbat shabbaton” – the seventh day, Yom Kippur, and Shmitah (the Sabbatical year).
Agnon, in his book The Days of Awe, shares a teaching from Rabbi Tzvi Hakohen of Rymanov about this. The rabbi was asked, if both Yom Kippur and the Sabbath itself are called “shabbat shabbaton“, how is Yom Kippur more special? And he answered, the seventh day is called “shabbat shabbaton l’adonai” – a sabbath of sabbaths for God. Yom Kippur is called “shabbat shabbaton lakhem” – a sabbath of sabbaths for all of you. On Yom Kippur we don’t just reach toward the divine realm, we draw it into ourselves.
When Rabbi Michael Bernstein shared this teaching with me, he added: “By that logic, Shmitah, which is called “shabbat shabbaton la’aretz”, a sabbath of sabbaths for the land (Lev 25:4), draws that holiness into the land. In this way, Shmitah is even more akin to Yom Kippur than it is to Shabbat.”
There’s a midrash that can explain this idea. The essence of the Shekhinah, the divine presence, was originally in the land, in the Earth. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, breaking God’s command and sinning against the tree, the Shekhinah fled away from the Earth to the first heaven. With each successive generation, the Shekhinah fled further, until she was seven heavens away from the Earth. Then Abraham and Sarah came and drew her down to the sixth heaven, and Isaac and Rebekah drew her even closer, to the fifth heaven, each successive generation bringing the Shekhinah down, until Moses finally brought her “from above to below”. (Genesis Rabbah 19:7)
But Yosef Gikatilla, the 13th century Spanish Kabbalist, explained that this didn’t complete the process: “Moshe our teacher came and all Israel with him and they made the mishkan/Tabernacle and its vessels. And they repaired the ruined channels, and…they drew living water. And they made the Shekhinah return to dwell /l’shakhen among the creatures below, in the tent – but not in the ground /baqarqa, not in the Earth itself, as she was in the beginning of the Creation.”
This is what it means when God says to Moses, “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among/within them / v’shakhanti b’tokham” (Ex 25:8): God said that the Shekhinah would “dwell in them”, but not (yet) in the Earth. There was one more step to go.
The Shmitah year, when we are commanded to rest the land and to rest along with the land, when we share food and land not only with the poor and the stranger but also with the wild animals, bridges that last step. Shmitah is a shabbat shabbaton “la’aretz“, not just “lakhem“.
Shmitah infuses Shekhinah into the Earth itself. Of course, the Earth is already filled with Shekhinah. If we have inured ourselves to that, Shmitah can open our hearts. But first we need to make Shekhinah dwell within us, so that our hearts can meet the world “ba’asher hu sham“, at the level of holiness that is already there. That’s what Yom Kippur
Sabbath, Yom Kippur, and Shmitah represent progressive stages of bringing kedushah/holiness and Shekhinah into this world, from God, to us, to the Earth itself. May we accomplish this goal.
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org and the author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World (Cambridge, 2015), now in paperback. He lives in Northampton MA.