That’s one of the questions one might ask after reading this week’s double parasha, Behar-Bekhukotai,which describes an agricultural and financial system so lofty only God could conceive of it. The mitzvah of shemitah (literally release) given in its opening verses requires that land lie unplanted and debts be forgiven every seven years. And, once every 50 years, the yovel calls for a return of all Israelite land to its original owners and an additional, consecutive year of relying on God’s grace rather than human efforts for a sufficient supply of food.
The Torah asserts that such radical ideas are not radical at all if one has faith that “God will provide.” Yet, our ancient sages, whom no one would accuse of atheism, found very human compromises for both of these divine decrees of shemitah and yovel, creating “loopholes” that allow us to fulfill the spirit of the law, if not the letter of the law.
I spent my first full academic term in Israel during a shemitah and noted with reverence and some humor how each fruit and vegetable stand in the shuk had a certificate attesting that the produce sold there had been grown either on “ownerless” Israeli land, or land that had been “sold” to non-Jews not obligated to observe the sabbatical year.
Every time I teach about the rabbinic edicts that annulled the severity of God’s decrees in these parshiot, I invariably elicit a wry smile or two from my students. “But Rabbi,” they ask, “what’s the point of making a rule if you’re just going to find a legal way to break it?”
Putting aside, for a moment, the perfectly valid argument that many Jews hold that biblical and rabbinic law were given simultaneously as complementary, not contradictory, sources of authority, I ask them if they’ve ever heard of an eruv.
“Yes, of course,” they answer. “Another loophole the rabbis instituted to avoid following a practice they themselves derived from the Torah — of not carrying on Shabbat.”
“True. But think about it. What is an eruv? It’s an imaginary boundary that imposes a reality altogether different and more sacred than any in the physical world as we know it. Because the Torah forbids us from walking outside our houses on Shabbat, the eruv draws a spiritual boundary around a neighborhood of Jews joining many houses together into one. Where there is an eruv, there is no need to carry outside our homes on the most sacred day of the week because, thanks to its magic, for 25 hours, we all live in the same ‘home.’
“Now, that powerful idea, one that unifies and elevates our community on Shabbat, wouldn’t exist without this so-called ‘loophole.’”
So it is with shemitah. I remember my rosh yeshiva carefully and lovingly disposing of the uneaten remains of his salad in a special container. Whether this particular mix of his favorite leafy greens that he ate every day for lunch came from “sold” fields or “unowned” fields, Jewish law required him not to simply throw his leftovers away as if they were trash, but to compost them, allowing them to decompose naturally. For just as we, with lovingkindness, return human vessels to their earthly source with dignity, so too must this most sacred of sacred products from the land of Israel, gifts which give sustenance to God’s partners in creation, be treated with the same respect.
Is Judaism impossible? No.
I rather like to think of our ancient customs as the pathway to making the impossible possible — thanks to the creativity, flexibility, and ingenuity of those who’ve been walking it for 4,000 years.
Rabbi Adam Roffman has served at Congregation Shearith Israel since 2013. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.