This is part 2 of “For the Love of Shmitah.” For part 1, click here.
When Business Instincts Win Out
Now the shmitah debt cancelation became too hard for the people of Israel to employ and they took a prudent business approach, if not a spiritually healthy or charitable mindset. Generally, they became cautious not to lend to their friends and neighbors when the year of cancelation was coming closer, even though Moses warned against this. So the great sage Hillel, who lived mainly in 1st century BCE, enacted a takanah (ordinance) that circumvented shmitah. He had the right to do this by virtue of his standing as a sage in the community. It was called the prosbul.
The prosbul was a way of getting around the problem of reluctance to loan money to the needy. In effect, the debt was transferred to the court so that it was a public debt and not owed to a person. The court agreed to honor the transfer of the proceeds from the repayment to the original creditor. That way the creditor was assured that the loan would not be discharged, and the debtor was able to get the interest-free loan from his neighbor. This reminds me of an occasion in Israel many years ago when my wife and I found ourselves stranded with our airline refusing to honor the ticket that our travel agent in B’nei Brak had written for us. We were frantic since we had other obligations out of the land, Shabbat was approaching, and we had been in Israel for over five months. We were finally able to reach the travel agent through a Gentile who picked up the phone at the agent’s home on Shabbat. After some tense conversation our agent explained how he was able to get a better ticket by some manipulation and deceit he perpetrated upon the airlines. He told us to just go to the airport but whatever we do, don’t contact the airlines by phone. I asked how can he, a Jew who keeps Torah and Talmud, can justify ripping off the airlines. He said that the airline is a corporation and the Torah and Talmud are silent regarding treatment of such an entity. What he failed to see is that corporations are made up of people who are hurt when the corporation is defrauded. (I am certainly not suggesting that this is a common practice among Jews.) Similarly, in their desire to be reimbursed for any loans given out, the people of Israel within the “corporation” (the court where the debt was transferred) and by extension the whole community was hurt due to the compromise of prosbul. The Torah sets out its principles so that they are applicable to the modern age, even if corporations did not exist in ancient Israel. Let’s not look for ways around the Torah but order our life in accord with the intention of the principles contained within it, like “love your neighbor.”
Rest for the Land
Another requirement under the law of shmitah is that the land is to remain inactive, unplanted, for the year. This is to permit the re-enrichment of the soil. In order to do this it takes planning. Remember when Joseph had a dream about the seven years of plenty and the seven years of lean? Well, as chief administrator of the storehouse of bread, he had to plan ahead and store up the wheat in the good years so that there would be plenty for the lean years. This gives everyone involved in the industry of land development and use a year’s rest—a sabbatical—while the land gathers needed minerals and readies to be enriched to become more fertile. It makes us realize that God owns the cattle on the thousand hills and that the land does not really belong to us. We are all temporary tenants entrusted with the Farmer’s land, called to obey the Farmer’s rules. This is his land. The Farmer rules.
Release of the slave
Just as there was a cancelation of debt there was also a cancelation of labor. Yes, Israelites had indentured servants—but, to the extent that slavery can be humane, Israel’s enslaved were treated the well because of Torah regulation. The indentured servant was to be set free in the seventh year. This law can be found first in Exodus 21:2. But here in Deuteronomy we have an additive. Upon emancipation, the owner was to give the servant not only his freedom, but also a severance package that included a goodly supply of livestock, produce, and drink, reminiscent to what the Israelites received from the Egyptians when they left Egypt. In addition to being a gesture of compassion and generosity, it gave the newly-freed servant an opportunity to make their own livelihood, not needing to sell themselves into slavery once again and breaking what might’ve become a cycle of poverty.
The law of shmitah also encouraged the owner of the servant to treat them during the six years with love and compassion. That way perhaps the servant would not seek a release after the expiration of the sabbatical year. After all, we are constantly reminded that we were slaves in the land of Egypt, and we were redeemed, so likewise we are commanded “to do unto others” (15:15). In fact, conditions were such that it was not so uncommon for the involuntary servant to choose to remain with his owner even after the shmitah year. There is an interesting ritual that solidifies that choice and makes it permanent; in fact, scripture employs the word in Hebrew translated as “forever”—olam.
The ritual begins after the enslaved says: “I will not go away from you,” an assertion rooted in love and satisfaction. The owner is then to take an awl and put it through the ear of the servant and into the door post of the home. It is like a branding that marks an eternal servitude chosen because of love and gratification. The servant belongs to the master.
Yeshua, the Master of Forgiveness
Would it not be strange if the Messiah who was promised to the Jewish people through the text of the Hebrew Bible came and did not keep Torah? I think that one of the ironies of all time will be when Messiah returns and Christians are surprised that He is Jewish, and Jews are surprised that He is Yeshua! Then, all of the theological controversy regarding the law and whether Yeshua kept the law will be moot, for it will be clear to both Israel and the Nations that He really does keep Torah. Hence, all of the demonstration of love and mercy in the Hebrew Bible is actually subsumed within the personage of Yeshua. He is Torah incarnate. He came with the forgiveness of the ages. He forgave us for being sinful humans and even for crucifying him to death.
Yeshua forgave the Samaritan woman at the well who had five husbands and was not living with one of them. Where most or all Jews would have shunned this Samaritan woman and would not have offered up forgiveness, Yeshua had the power to do so—and did. When a woman was caught in the throes of adultery and did not deny it, Yeshua found a lawful way to acquit her with the words, “Go and sin no more.” Yeshua looked down from his vantage point from the crucifixion stake and saw the Roman soldiers gambling for his garments. His tormentors looked like the bulls of Bashan as they “opened wide their mouths like a . . . roaring lion,” and “pierced his hands and his feet.” On both sides of him he heard the criminals who deserved death reviling him; the religious leaders were making fun of him and taunting him. In the midst of it all He asked the Father to forgive them. They mocked him, beat him, spat upon him, jeered at him, placed a crown of thorns upon his head, nailed his wrists and his feet to the wooden stake and thrust a spear through his side. They yelled “crucify him” as the sign in the background mocked him as King of the Jews. He looked upon the microcosm of the world consisting of all those who would mistreat his name in the future and yet in his spiritual, physical, and mental agony He blurted from the depths of a heart-felt compassion, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” One thief on the cross had railed at him but then recognized him as the Son of God. Yeshua discerned repentance and forgave him and offered a place in paradise with him that night. Peter denied Yeshua thrice but Yeshua forgave him once and that was enough for eternity. Yes, Yeshua practiced what He taught and if we can deliver the truth in a palatable form that Yeshua kept the Jewish law of love and mercy contained in Torah, perhaps we will see more Jewish people coming to the Lord.
Anchoring Ourselves to Yeshua
To those who accept the offer of forgiveness through repentance, we do so by anchoring ourselves to Yeshua and letting him mark us in servanthood. He pierces our ears so that we will be sensitive to hearing his instructions and he bores them through with his imprimatur of grace and seals them in his blood. We in turn give up our freedom to be led by our human instincts and whims and instead let our Maker be the ruler of our life for now and eternity. That is what true love and servanthood demands. We are no longer owners of our destiny but have surrendered to the Creator of our soul. For God really so loved us that He gave his only unique begotten Son, that if you believe and trust in him this morning, you will experience his salvation and all of its positive consequences.
What does the law of shmitah mean for us today? How might Yeshua exegete the shmitah scriptures so that they fill up the meaning for us today? It might go something like this in the style of the Sermon on the Mount:
- Blessed are those who are ready to forgive without being asked, for they shall be great in the eyes of HaShem.
- Blessed are those who give at any time without respect for how close the debtor is to lawfully filing bankruptcy, or to how unlikely the donee is able to repay, for remember your indebtedness was forgiven when you were unable to repay.
- Blessed are those who give anonymously out of the abundance of their heart to the poor and thereby expect nothing in return. Your father in heaven sees you and will reward you accordingly.
- Blessed is the one who gives equal pay for equal work without discrimination, for remember that you too are a minority within the world.
- Blessed is the one who treats their employees with the same respect as they treats their Master, for they are worthy of many crowns.
- Blessed is the one whose land is abundantly full with intentional produce for the stranger, the poor, and the underprivileged, without partiality to any self-serving motives.
If you have heard the voice of God, that still, small voice convicting and speaking to you, don’t ignore it! Heed the warning and implement forgiveness, beginning in your heart. Hurry headlong to communicate that forgiveness in an appropriate way. If you have heard the still, small voice of God, determine now in your heart that you will let bitterness go, forgive that distaste for what that person did to you, and humble yourself before your Maker, for this is the year of shmitah! This is the privileged year for you to let go of that division which has crept unawares into your relationship with your children, your parents, your spouse, or with friend, co-worker, or foe. There may not be another chance to do so. This is the year; this is the month; this is the day; this is your moment. Just do it for the love of Shmitah!
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