An Odd Number*

Leviticus 25

1 And the LORD spake unto Moses in mount Sinai,

2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the LORD.

3 Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof;

4 But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the LORD: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.

5 That which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, neither gather the grapes of thy vine undressed: for it is a year of rest unto the land.

6 And the sabbath of the land shall be meat for you; for thee, and for thy servant, and for thy maid, and for thy hired servant, and for thy stranger that sojourneth with thee.

7 And for thy cattle, and for the beast that are in thy land, shall all the increase thereof be meat.

8 And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years.

9 Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubile to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land.

10 And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

11 A jubile shall that fiftieth year be unto you: ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of thy vine undressed.

12 For it is the jubile; it shall be holy unto you: ye shall eat the increase thereof out of the field.

13 In the year of this jubile ye shall return every man unto his possession.

As so often happens these days, the idea was expressed most succinctly in the words of a TV commercial:

"Seven is an odd number."

Indeed our sense of time is defined today by the convergence of several important sevens:

In response to the familiar question posed by the midrash and Rashi at the beginning of our parashah, "Why is Mount Sinai mentioned in connection with the commandment of the sabbatical year?" the K’li Yakar notes several intentional parallels that the Torah draws between the laws of the Yovel and the revelation of the Torah:

Evidently, it wishes to draw our attention to the thematic connection between the giving of the Torah (which, according to the traditional calculation, occurred on Shabbat), as the fulfillment of a prolonged anticipation, and the Jubilee. These two modes of religious time are entwined in the very essence of Torah.

Our traditional commentators have striven to find a unifying theme underlying the Torah’s manifold instances of imagery based on the number seven.

However, I want to propose a different interpretation, one that discerns at least two different–but complementary–rhythms of spirituality, each of which is essential for our development as Jews and as human beings.

From the counting of the ‘omer we learn that our actions today derive their value in the light of their future consequences, just as the liberation of the Israelites on Passover is significant because it was the prelude to the receiving of the Torah on Shavu’ot. In the same spirit, we are constantly being urged to improve our spiritual states, to pursue justice and kindness and set aside times for study, so that the present moment is always seen a preparation for the next step in our moral development, or for the eventual perfection of an ideal society.

This is an outlook that pervades much of our conduct in daily life. From a young age we instill in our children the consciousness that their second-grade report card will determine whether or not they will be admitted to Harvard. We spend much of our adult years worrying about financial planning for our retirement. As we are dismantling the sukkah we are already in a panic about the Pesah cleaning. Life becomes an unceasing process of readying ourselves for the future.

The Torah teaches us in this way to place matters in perspective. "U’sfartem lakhem" says the Torah: You shall count for yourselves. From your human standpoint, you must overcome your natural tendency to live for the moment and define your present in light of its future consequences.

However the seven that is embodied in shemittah represents a very different dimension of life. Ve-shavetah ha’aretz shabbat la-Shem: "And the land shall observe a rest for the Lord." The sabbatical year is closely modeled after the weekly Shabbat, about which it is also written: "And the seventh day shall be a Sabbath unto the Lord your God." On Shabbat, as on the shemittah, we are experiencing the world, as it were, from God's perspective. We are not striving to improve ourselves or the world. That is why in the Shabbat liturgy we omit the middle section of the ‘Amidah, in which we would normally entreat the All-Merciful for various favours. On Shabbat, we are complete, and the world is as it should be. It is a taste of the perfection that, on other occasions, would be the object of far-off anticipation.

The commentators have pointed out another remarkable similarity that unites the sabbath of days and the sabbath of years: The Torah assures us that the crops that we grow on the sixth year will suffice for three entire years, even as the mannah that fell on Friday was provided in a double measure, to be eaten on Shabbat as well as on Friday.

Upon closer consideration, it strikes us as a strange way of doing things. Would it not have been a more outstanding indication of the day’s special status if the mannah had fallen in abundance Shabbat itself; or, correspondingly, if the seventh year, not the sixth, would be the one to sprout forth its bountiful sustenance!

Evidently this is not what the Torah had in mind. It is precisely because of their lack of any accomplishment, or of any goal outside themselves, that we are able to experience the authentic spirituality of these times of regeneration.

If I may be allowed to hijack yet another Kabbalistic phrase from popular culture, Shabbat and Shemittah are "about nothing" in the most profound sense. These times were introduced in order to offset to the excesses of our future-directed orientation. At defined intervals in our perpetual race to improve our materiality and our spirituality, we are commanded to pause in our tracks, look around, and appreciate the goodness that surrounds us, in our families, our environment, in the Torah, and in ourselves. The holiness and blessings that God bestows upon us are not all set aside to be unwrapped in some far-distant future; they are with us in the present, and it would be ungrateful of us not to appreciate them. The memories of those sabbatical experiences will linger with us through our workaday lives, giving meaning and value to our deeds and relationships.

The guarantee that one year’s crops will be enough to tide us over for three years undoubtedly ranks among the most remarkable Biblical miracles. Nevertheless, I am led to speculate whether the Torah might not have been speaking of a supernatural increase in agricultural output, so much as of a psychological transformation within ourselves . Perhaps what it means to say is that the observance of the Sabbatical year in its true spirit will lead us to revise our priorities, so that we learn to get by without the luxuries that we previously regarded as necessary to our survival. "Who is rich?" it asks in Pirkei Avot. "Those who are satisfied with their lot." In this way the Sabbatical year bestows upon us inner wealth.

We can readily understand how the sevens of the ‘omer counting, prodding us constantly to surpass ourselves and to make our world a better place, are fundamental to our religious identity. However it is only when they have been balanced and tempered with the divine serenity of the seventh day and the seventh year, that we can gain a complete perspective on the ultimate purpose of life’s struggles, as we strive to fashion a world that is entirely Shabbat.


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My e-mail address is elsegal@acs.ucalgary.ca

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*Lay sermon delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel , Calgary, May 23 1998