I. A. Read 25:1-7.What’s the meaning and purpose of the sabbatical year? And, given the fact that it appears to have been only fairly fully implemented in the land for a relatively short period of time, how seriously can we take this text as important for either those in Biblical or later times, including us?
1. We talked in Kedoshim about a sort of limiting of self as an element of holiness, the aim of living in covenant with God and our fellows. We walked through several mitzvoth before and after our encounter of the Golden Rule where we learned the importance of boundaries, hedges, avoiding “expropriating ground” that is not ours. This denial of the bloated self is not a vow of poverty nor a disavowal of God’s rich blessings. Rather it’s an awareness of, and living true to, a respect for what’s God’s, what’s our neighbor’s, and what’s ours, as well as a commitment to care for the needs of our fellows that comes from a love of them.
We learned we must fight the illusions of the world that lead us to venerate, even worship, those material things or selfish interests that go far beyond our earning the rightful benefits of our work. This excess can be due to a sort of obsession with our acquisitions and dominions and accretions, with our acting as if we’re lords of the earth, forgetting our covenant with, and allegiance to, the Provider whose land and property it is and whose blessing of it is its true source.
2. Finding ways to “keep” the sabbatical year in some fashion manifests these values. More specifically, it reflects an understanding that we are mere stewards of the land, not ultimate owners, and an acknowledgment that our God is truly the owner. This creates an altogether different sense of how we live life. We serve God. It’s not all about us or for us. Further, we tend to treat others more lovingly, more fairly, more justly, more mercifully when we see ourselves as servants of God rather than master unto ourselves. As evidence of this, all of us, including the poor, are entitled to sustenance out of the surplus in the seventh year.
3. We remember also that it was God Who created the earth. We celebrate a sabbath of years, as well as days within the week. By separating this time, we cherish the same principles of the weekly sabbath - respect for and honor of God, rest for ourselves and the animals and the land in the seventh unit of time, dedication of time for sacred purpose, setting aside moments given over to holiness, and an honoring of God’s hope for us to emulate the Divine attributes, especially in holiness (You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.)
4. We show faith in God that we will be provided for through the extra growth in the fifth year, the availability of resources for all in the seventh year, and the restoration in the eighth year. This is not a mindless or careless abandonment of our duty to work and to create and to be productive, all of which God expects, but rather a faith in God’s loving kindness and care for our well-being.
5. We show a respect to the land, to avoid exploiting it and overworking it. While people in the time of the Bible didn’t follow these rules precisely, and nor would we, there are basic principles in them that should draw our support and a response.
6. Fundamentally, these values lift us out of an over-reliance on materialism and elevate our commitment to spiritual matters, deepening our living out God’s values and spreading them. As with all other notions of sacred time in the Bible, God expects us to spread patterns of living in sacred time more and more out to secular time and make all time more sacred over time.
There seems to be a Divine interest in our paying greater heed to loving kindness, compassion, modesty, truth as against the instinct to domination, greed, over-interest in, and undue pressure for, material gain. One approach brings on Divine light; the other diminishes it. There is a sense that sanctity and holiness are not compatible with, or possible, in the midst of constant and ever-present devotion to private acquisitiveness and/or covetousness. Rather, again, while God blesses us richly, there seems to be a Divine preference for equilibrium with balance and limits.
B. Could we live out these ideas today? How?
1. While it’s unlikely that many of us could or would literally take a sabbatical year of the sort described in the Bible, we could create a sabbatical period each seven years. While it might not be the length and exact nature suggested in the agricultural context of the Biblical words, we could slow down our commercial or other acquisitive activity, rest ourselves and “the land,” and puncture any budding mania we may feel to overdo our commitment to growing material assets.
In its place, we could devote time to study, service, spiritual orientation, teaching and learning, re-acclimating ourselves to the values we hold dearest, the truths and virtues God has taught and expects of us. Perhaps refreshed and re-dedicated to service of God and our fellows, we would come back to more normal time out of these weeks or months ready to live more fully in the Way God has given us.
2. Or, even if we can’t take an extended time off every seventh year, we could take time off or use vacations or other shorter and regularly dedicated periods of time to turn off the relentless machine, to slow it down, to cease constant production in order to replace that way of living, even if for awhile, as well as the ethic associated with it, with rest, and a return to Godly ways, and a certain restoration of the use of time more in sync with what we know God expects of us.
II. Read 26:3-17. Blessings and Curses. If we follow God’s prescriptions and keep God’s ways, we get rains in their season, so that earth yields produce and fruit; threshing overtakes vintage (so plentiful that reaping exceeds sowing); we eat our fill; and dwell securely in land; we live in peace, untroubled. But if we do not and break the covenant; God wreaks misery, consumption and fever, pain and pining, and we sow seed to no purpose, for enemies will eat it. God will set the Divine Face against us, and we are routed by enemies, etc., etc.
A. This text falls hard on the modern eye and ear. Indeed for many of us who pick up the Bible looking for inspiration and help from a first read (which many parts of the Bible do beautifully provide), this language often provokes consternation and upset. After all, don’t bad things happen to good people, and good things often happen to bad people? Plus can our God apparently be this cruel or vengeful?
OR is there an underlying message that God delivers a bit below the surface here? Can we look beneath the ancient “clothes and bodies” of these words to find their deeper soul that speaks to, and is extremely valuable to, people throughout time, including us?
1. First, let’s recognize that the original intent here was likely oriented to a community that broadly and generally rejects the way of life that God expects of us. In other words, this is about a society that rather pervasively makes decisions to ignore and disavow God’s expectations. So, the society is fundamentally out of sync with God and off the Divine path, having walked away. Surely, too, for the ancients of this and most cultures, it would have been natural for there to be consequences in a covenant, for following or rejecting its terms.
2. Second, let’s acknowledge that blessings, for example as taught in Proverbs, are thought by some in the tradition to come from living in, and being obedient to, God’s ways. Further, we do have a sense that a community that truly follows in God’s ways will be healthier, more peaceful, more secure, more blessed. Yet, the text of Job certainly shows us not to be too cocky or confident that we know and can be assured of fully understanding the mysteries of God’s ways. Our experience of the horrors of, say, the Holocaust or, in our own lives, of death and downturns that seem unrelated to living true or untrue to God’s ways certainly, also, makes us modest in all this.
Perhaps we come to a place where we understand that God’s blessings do not mean an easy life or one without pain or hurt or war or death. Nor does it mean necessarily, I think, a life of an extremely high level of material abundance.
3. But is it possible that those who cleave to God and live with a heart and hand dedicated to pleasing God are blessed in very real and actually the most important, deepest ways? Spiritual strength, spiritual abundance. Peace. Confidence. A sense of being blessed with and grateful for whatever physical resources we have. A strong sense of contentment, even in difficult times. In fact, isn’t it this confidence in God and God’s nearness, maybe especially when we’re in pain or in trouble, contentment and gratitude, that the text is really describing, though in words that were on the surface geared to success in agricultural times and on its terms? (We see this sort of remarkable and wonderful Divine support so beautifully explored and described in the Psalms.)
4. Essentially, this path of living and being blessed is our roadmap whatever befalls us in life. Our faith has it that we hold the course with God and that through God’s nearness and our holding to our duties to God we are blessed in certain ways that are very rich and sustaining, even in some ways that we don’t entirely understand, at least in this world. We may have doubts, questions, uncertainty; we might be weak; but God knows, remembers, and honors the covenant, if not always in ways we can understand and at all times, certainly in eternal ways.
B. Curses. We have not read all the verses in the text today, but we should know that what’s described is an ever-worsening condition, from which return is possible but becomes ever-more difficult the worse we stray, and the more horrible the consequences.
1. There may be a material or physical consequences to straying away from God. Proverbs foresees it. We certainly have seen the downfall - ultimately - of evil in so many instances. But, again, Job and other texts and experience teach us that we probably should be modest about “putting God in a box” in our thinking we can be assured that we know exactly how all this will work out in the specifics of our material lives.
2. The place where it appears we are on firmer ground is the certain knowledge we get from faith and experience that when we abandon God we are alone. If we put God out of our lives and reject God, we face circumstances without the Divine support and the promise of instruction and nearness that God gives us. For people of faith, the rejection of God leaves us vulnerable to the exact sort of pain described, perhaps poetically, in these curses. We are visited a sort of spiritual descent, a quite painful one, if we act out of the arrogance that pushes God out.
3. We are as a driven leaf when we leave God - unanchored, blown around without regard to destination. We have the choice to follow and be near God. The choice is ours, but the choice matters, to us and to God.
4. God calls us; God seeks our nearness; God has shown us how to be near and how to return when we err. God always seeks our return. But we pay a price for leaving and staying away and rejecting God. The text teaches this truth powerfully.
III. Read 27:30. The tithe. Why does this portion and indeed the book of Vayikra close with a discussion of the tithe?
This book is fundamentally about God’s call to us to draw near. We have studied why that is important, how that happens, the consequences when we pull away and go off on our own and against God’s hopes and expectations of us. We’ve learned that God always wants our return and both shows us the path back and constantly gives us the means to return.
Yet, in the end, we must find our way to having a heart that is inclined Godward and acknowledges God’s sovereignty. There perhaps is no better single sign of that quality of heart than to believe and act on the principle that we’re stewards of our possessions, which are ultimately God’s. Indeed, at its most basic level, what we have is a gift from God, and that a portion of it - whether our income or our time or the spirit and effort we bring to our endeavors - ought to be dedicated back to serving God as well as those who serve God in sacred space.
This is the giving spirit of the heart that enables us to respond to the Divine call and draw close to our fellows and to God.