by Rabbi David Seidenberg
The book of Numbers begins, “YHVH spoke to Moshe in the Sinai wilderness.” The midrash asks, why does it specify “in the Sinai wilderness”? Because the wilderness is ready to receive all people and belongs to no one. Just so, the Torah receives all people and belongs to no one, not even to the Jewish people. In the Shmitah year, we are similarly reminded that the land of Israel/Canaan/Palestine belongs to no one – that we are just “sojourners and temporary settlers” (gerim v’toshavim) on the land (Lev 25:23).
The rabbinic word for belonging to no one is hefker. At the beginning of Passover, we declare that any chametz we still have in our dwellings is “hefker, ownerless, like the dirt of the ground.” Wilderness is by definition hefker. In the Shmitah year, all produce, everything growing from the ground, is automatically hefker. And the midrash also teaches that the way to receive Torah is to “make oneself hefker” (Tanchuma).
Rashi explains a strange paradox concerning Shmitah-year produce in his commentary on Leviticus 25:5. The verse says, “your set-aside grapevines n’zirekha you may not store or hoard t’batzer.” According to Rashi, this means that even though anything in the field can be harvested by anyone – including the owner of the field – if the owner intends in their mind to set aside particular grapevines for their private use, they are davka not allowed to eat any grapes from those vines. This is also like the words of Torah: if you learn them to share them and teach them and do them, they can become yours, but if you “hoard” them and don’t put them to use for the benefit of others, they are not yours either.
Rambam (Maimonides) also tells us that it is a violation of the Shmitah year to lock up or fence in one’s fields (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shmitah 4:24). That’s because they need to be accessible not just to any person, but to any wild animal, because, the Torah says, “all her produce will be for you for eating, and for your servants and for your hired worker and your stranger and for your domesticated animal and for the wild animal of the field” (Lev 25:6). This is one giant step toward the covenant between God and all the animals described by Hoshea: “I will break bow and sword and war from the land and they all will lie down in safety” (Hoshea 2:20).
Maharal explains that Torah is given in the wilderness to show that Torah in its essence is separate from humanity and its materialism, just as wilderness, in order to remain wilderness, must remain separated from human greed and materialism (Tiferet Yisrael 26:5). But also, he teaches that Torah represents the highest fulfillment of what humanity can become, and contains exactly what each person needs in order to reach their own perfection, just as the wilderness contained what was needed for every single person among the children of Israel (Tiferet Yisrael, 16:8).
Since our fields become a direct extension of wilderness in the Shmitah year, Shmitah puts us all in a state, literally and figuratively, to become hefker and to receive revelation, to receive anew the covenant. As we are approaching the end of the Shmitah year, we can ask ourselves, what revelation might we receive from living in Shmitah consciousness? Can Shmitah reveal to us how to fulfill the Torah’s mission to create a sustainable world, a world where we “choose life”?
If we become like the wilderness, we become the very place in which Torah is revealed, and not just the subjects to whom Torah is revealed. If wilderness first means a place where one can venture off alone and separate from society, and if secondly can mean seeing all people as equal in relation to Torah (and to the land), in its fullest expression, it will mean welcoming the diversity of human beings that make up society, the vulnerable, the poor, the stranger, into one’s life, and the diversity of species that make up this world, into the circle of revelation, into the home of one’s spirit.
May we be so blessed to travel those stages and reach those levels, so that when Hashem seeks a partner in revelation, the One will look upon us and say, “you are My people”, and we will say, You are my God” (Hoshea 2:25).
Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org, author of Kabbalah and Ecology (Cambridge U. Press, 2015), and a scholar of Jewish thought. David is also the Shmita scholar-in-residence at Abundance Farm in Northampton MA. He teaches around the world and also leads astronomy programs. As a liturgist, David is well-known for pieces like the prayer for voting and an acclaimed English translation of Eikhah (“Laments”). David also teaches nigunim and is a composer of Jewish music and an avid dancer.