“You can only give what is yours.”
Parshat Ki Tavo opens with the commandment of bikkurim. It continues with related agricultural commandments and a commandment to inscribe the Torah on large stones. The sages add that this was made in 70 different languages, to be accessible to all nations. The parsha concludes with a long speech detailing the blessings the nation will receive if it follows the Torah, and the calamities which will befall it if it does not.
Bikkurim means bringing the first fruits to the Temple and reciting a special prayer. It is valid only under certain circumstances: (1) physical presence in the Land of Israel; (2) well-established political status in the land; and (3) building the Temple. There is an additional precondition, which is complete human ownership of the fruits a person brings, according to the verse: “the first fruits of your land.” Even one who has planted a tree in their own land but has layered it into another person’s land cannot bring the firstfruits (layering is taking a branch and bending it to the point of planting it in the ground while still attached to the original tree so it grows new roots). Nevertheless, the essence of the firstfruits commandment is letting go of the fruits in a solemn and joyful process, and not as an experience of loss.
This complex dynamic, between ownership and letting go, is also one of the foundations of shmita.
Along with the establishment and preservation of the mechanisms that enable private property and personal freedom, and thus the prosperity of society and the individual, shmita seeks to instill in us the awareness that together our lives are interdependent, yet, individually, a mere shadow passing over the earth. Although our natural inclination is to be preoccupied with our property (which may outlast us, especially our non-recyclable waste), property does not define who we are.
I once learned from Rabbi Menachem Fruman, of blessed memory, that this forceps movement – of ownership and letting go, of toil and rest, of framework and freedom – is the most liberating thing. It was when I worked with him on an essay for a book on Jewish economic thought when we started talking about Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Adams explains that to learn to fly, all you must do is throw yourself at the ground and miss it. Rabbi Fruman paralleled this to the tension between aspiring for transcendental holiness and promoting actual justice within this world.
Thus, shmita and bikkurim invite us to throw ourselves straight into the core of private ownership in the most meticulous sense, and yet miss it and learn to fly. In this sense, shmita enables us to grasp eternity, while living within the constraints of space and time.
Aharon Ariel Lavi is a serial social entrepreneur, economist and historian of ideas, a professional community builder and a thinker who believes Judaism can inspire all walks of life. Founder of Hakhel: The Jewish Intentional Communities Incubator at Hazon. His recent book, Seven, explores shmita-inspired economic, social and environmental ideas. Lavi lives with his wife and five children next to the Gaza border and he is also a professional mountain biking guide, racer and trail builder. Feel free to drop him a line at: email@example.com