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Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim 5776

Parashat Hashavua: Justice and Shemitta

Harav Yosef Carmel

Our parasha has many references to matters of proper jurisprudence, which we like to focus on. This time we will explore some of the parasha’s more general instructions given to batei din and their proximity to another mitzva that is dear to us.

In Shemot 23:6-8, the Torah warns not to tip justice against the poor, to stay away from falsehood, and not to take bribes. The Torah (ibid. 9) forbids harming foreigners/converts. This is followed by three p’sukim on the Shabbat of the land (=Shemitta) and on standard Shabbat. Some of our great thinkers searched for connections between these matters.

The Alshich explains why Shemitta would come amidst rules of justice. If society is based on justice, then they will be able to follow the pattern of Shemitta – six years of agricultural work and one of refraining from it. The land will not tire despite six straight years of sowing. If there are perversions of justice, then famine will come and there will not be agricultural produce even on many of the years that are slated for it.

This idea is based on the Mechilta (D’Rabbi Yishmael, Mishpatim 20), which says that when Bnei Yisrael act according to Hashem’s will they do one Shemitta every seven years, and when they do not act in that way they have four “shemitot” in one seven-year period. The way the Alshich explains it, having a fair justice system has a special standing regarding fulfilling Hashem’s will.

The Ohr Hachayim connects the matter to the pasuk found in between the discussion of justice and that of Shemitta, the pasuk that discusses the ger. He says that since the Torah says that if we do not let the land rest on Shemitta we will be sent away and it will therefore have its rest (Vayikra 26:34), Shemitta observance is needed to prevent us from being gerim.

Let us suggest our own explanation along the lines of the above ideas. By keeping the mitzvot of Shemitta and making our fields the domain of all, we are, to a certain extent, turning ourselves into strangers in our own fields. We will be forced to make a living from things that are available, as opposed to sustaining ourselves in an orderly manner through hard work on our own property. This type of situation could harm, Heaven forbid, the strength of the feeling that everyone has his own property that no one can take. If every seven years, people’s property because ownerless, maybe it is not so bad to take it during the six years either. That is why, in proximity to the discussion of Shemitta, the Torah warns very strongly about propriety in monetary affairs and jurisprudence. The idea that matters of the spirit are more important than matters of the physical world in no way takes away from the importance of being morally careful about monetary matters.

May we merit seeing the fulfillment of both sets of mitzvot to their fullest.

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