Parshas Behar begins with the mitzvah of shemittah, the sabbatical year, when the land of Israel is
allowed to rest and no farmer is allowed to work his land. In the middle of Parshas Beshalach, among
the curses that are listed as punishment if the Jewish people stray from the word of Hashem, the topic
of shemittah reappears. Hashem warns the Jewish people that their sins will ultimately lead to exile,
leaving the land of Israel desolate.
“Then the land will be appeased for its sabbaticals during all the years of its desolation, while you are in
the land of your foes; then the land will rest and it will appease for its sabbaticals. All the years of its
desolation it will rest, whatever it did not rest during your sabbaticals when you dwelled upon her.”
Rashi comments that the Babylonian exile was a fulfillment of this decree. The seventy years of exile
atoned for the seventy shemittah and yovel years that were not observed by the Jewish people while
they lived in the land of Israel. Rashi makes a calculation that the entire 436 years from when the Jewish
people entered the land of Israel until the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash contained 70 years of
shemittah and yovel.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (Emes L’Yaakov) writes that this Rashi is shocking, how is it possible that the
Jewish people did not observe a single shemittah year properly? There were many years that the Jewish
people had good leadership which enforced adherence to the Torah? Furthermore, Reb Yaakov is
bothered about why the mitzvah of shemittah is singled out as the one that needs to be atoned for
through exile. Parshas Bechukosai begins with diligence in Torah study (see Rashi’s commentary) as the
cause for blessing; wouldn’t negligence in Torah study therefore be the natural cause for the lack of
Reb Yaakov explains that the purpose of the shemittah year is to afford the entire population (ancient
Israel was primarily an agricultural society) a sabbatical year for intense Torah study. Most years it is
challenging to fully immerse oneself in Torah study; someone has to put bread on the table, someone
has to work the field. During the shemittah year, everyone has more free time to devote to Torah study.
Reb Yaakov writes that not observing the shemittah doesn’t only mean working the field when it is
forbidden, it also means squandering the extra free time, and not using it productively to deepen one’s
connection to Hashem and His Torah through in-depth study. That is what was missing throughout all
the years in the land of Israel. There may have been many years when the farms were left untouched,
but the Torah was left untouched as well. This, of course, correlates with the beginning of parshas
Bechukosai; intense Torah study brings Hashem’s blessings, and abandoning Torah study when one has
the time to study has the opposite effect, heaven forbid.
The Chid”a (Nachal Kadumim) uses this idea to explain the juxtaposition of shemittah and Har Sinai in
the beginning of parshas Behar; the shemittah is meant as a time to study the Torah we received on Har Sinai.
He adds a brilliant idea. The Talmud teaches that the sage Rava would tell his disciples not to
come to study during the months of Nisan and Tishrei. These months fall out in early spring and mid-
fall, busy times on the farm, preparing the soil for the growing season and harvesting the crop. Rava
told his disciples that if they do not work during these months, they will not be able to study at all, for
they will have nothing on which to live. The Chid”a writes that if we multiply these two months by the
six working years in every shemittah cycle we will arrive at a total of twelve months of minimal Torah
study. To compensate for those twelve months, Hashem gave us the shemittah year, one full year to
dedicate to Torah study.
These ideas teach us the importance of using our free time to the fullest, to fill every minute with Torah
and mitzvos. The disruption that the coronavirus has caused has affected everyone’s schedules; some of
us have more free time than usual and some of us have less. Almost all of us have free time in places in
our schedules that we weren’t used to having, whether it’s being saved from commuting between home
and work, seamlessly moving from one meeting to the next without any travel time in between, no
after-school activities to take the kids to, the list goes on.
We have to grab all those extra moments and use them, not lose them. Shabbos is a particularly important time for Torah study; we don’t have a work-from-home schedule, we don’t have to administer school-at-home for our kids, and most importantly we don’t have media on our devices consuming endless hours of our time.
May we use every minute to the fullest with Torah and mitzvos, and may the land be appeased for its rest, with the coming of Mashiach.