Who is Mighty?
In this week’s parsha we find the mitzva of shemitta, which obligates farmers in Eretz Yisrael to let their fields lie fallow every seventh year, and allow passersby and wild animals alike to eat freely from their produce. In recognition of the strength of character demanded of the Jewish farmer in shemitta year, our Sages apply to him the verse:
ברכו ה' מלאכיו גברי כח עשי דברו לשמע בקול דברו.
Bless Hashem, O His angels, the mighty in strength who fulfill His word, to heed the voice of His word.
The Midrash explains as follows:
בנוהג שבעולם אדם עושה מצוה ליום אחד, לשבת אחד, לחדש אחד, שמא לכל ימות השנה ודין חמי חקליה ביירא כרמיה ביירא ושתיק, יש לך גבור חיל גדול מזה ... איזהו גבור הכובש את יצרו.
“The mighty in strength.” Most mitzvos are observed over the course of a day, a week or a month, but rarely for an entire year. Yet this farmer is expected to leave his field and vineyard barren [for an entire year] and remain silent. Is there anyone mightier of spirit than he? … Who is mighty? He who conquers his yetzer hara.
The Midrash applies the same verse to Bnei Yisrael, for having willingly accepted the Torah:
אמר רבי ישמעאל בשעה שהקדימו ישראל נעשה לנשמע יצאה בת קול ואמרה להם בני, מי גלה לכם רז זה שמלאכי השרת משתמשים בו דכתיב "ברכו ה' מלאכיו, גבורי כח עושי דברו וגו', ברישא עושי והדר לשמוע."
R’ Yishmael taught: When Bnei Yisrael preceded “na’aseh - we will do” to “nishmah - we will listen”, a voice emanated from the Heavens saying, “My sons, who revealed to you this secret, used by the ministering angels, as it is written: ‘Bless Hashem, O His angels, the mighty in strength who fulfill His word, to heed the voice of His word’?” First they resolve to fulfill His word, and only then they heed His voice.
Rashi notes in the beginning of our parsha that there is an intrinsic connection between shemitta and Kabbalas HaTorah. This connection is highlighted by the Midrash, which applies the expression “mighty in strength” to both, since both reveal the might and fortitude of spirit of which it is said:
איזהו גבור הכובש את יצרו שנאמר "טוב ארך אפים מגבור ומושל ברוחו מלוכד עיר".
“Who is mighty? He who conquers his yetzer hara, as it is written: ‘The patient is greater than the mighty, and he who governs his spirit is greater than he who captures the city.”
Rav Ovadiah Bartenura, in his commentary to this Mishna, explains that there are two kinds of patience: that which comes from a natural docile spirit, and that which comes from a mighty resolve to control an otherwise hostile spirit. The verse therefore comes to teach us טוב ארך אפים מגבור, which can also be translated to mean, “Great is the patience that comes from might.”
To the degree that a person feels naturally inclined towards a negative trait, yet bridles his spirit to follow the dictates of the Torah, he is considered a mighty servant of Hashem, rising to a position of importance equal to that of angels.
This is the very reason for man’s existence in this world. He was created with certain character flaws and instructed to improve himself and thus earn perfection as the fruits of his own labor. Regarding this, the Vilna Gaon writes:
עיקר חיותו של אדם בעולם הזה בשבירת המדות ואם לא יתקן מדותיו למה לו חיים.
Man’s life in this world is essentially an existence of tempering his nature. If he does not perfect his character, what is his life worth?
In an identical vein, the Noam Elimelech writes:
האדם לא נברא בעולם רק לשבר את הטבע.
Man was created in this world only to break the constraints of his nature.
The Faithful Farmer
In describing the “mighty strength” necessary for a person who wishes to control his nature and rise to the level of angels, the Midrash cited above points to two examples: shemitta and Kabbalas HaTorah.
A farmer feels so intrinsically attached to his land, that he cannot possibly abide by watching another person eat the fruits of his toil. This is not so much a conscious, rational objection, but a deep seated emotional reaction which can hardly be contained. For this reason our Sages teach that if a person takes the produce from a field for three consecutive years with no objection being raised, it is a clear proof that he owns it. Had the field belonged to someone else, the real owner could not possibly bear watching his produce taken by another and remain silent.
Yet on shemitta year, the farmer is expected to throw open his gates and allow his produce to be taken not only by strangers, but even by wild beasts. As city-dwellers, it is hard for us to appreciate the self-control that this demands, truly a mightiness of spirit that comes only as a result of a deep recognition that Hashem is the Master of the world and all its produce. Once every seven years, the Jewish farmer makes this great sacrifice, thus testifying that the land he sows with his sweat and blood is not his own, but Hashem’s.
והיה אמונת עתיך חסן ישועת חכמת ודעת יראת ה' היא אוצרו
“The faith of your times shall be an inheritance of salvation, wisdom and knowledge,”
is interpreted as a reference to the Six Sedarim of Mishna. “Faith” corresponds to Seder Zeraim, which discusses agricultural laws such as shemitta. The Talmud explains that the farmer shows his faith in Hashem when he plants his seeds.
Most simply, this means that the farmer must trust that Hashem will send His blessing to cause the seeds to sprout and bear fruit. However, the same is true of every profession. A merchant or craftsman must also trust that Hashem will send him customers to purchase his wares or hire his service. Their faith in Hashem is perhaps even greater, since there is no natural cycle which sends customers to their door, and they have only Hashem on Whom to rely. In contrast, the farmer might be tempted to overlook Hashem and place his trust in the natural occurrence of rain falling and seeds sprouting.
Rather, it seems that the Talmud refers to Seder Zeraim as an avowal of faith, since the farmer is faced with the greatest challenge to faith, against which the verse warns:
כי ה' אלקיך מביאך אל ארץ טובה ארץ נחלי מים עינת ותהמת יצאים בבקעה ובהר, ארץ חטה ושערה וגפן ותאנה ורמון ארץ זית שמן ודבש ...ואכלת ושבעת וברכת את ה' אלקיך על הארץ הטבה אשר נתן לך. השמר לך פן תשכח את ה' אלקיך לבלתי שמר מצותיו ומשפטיו וחקתיו אשר אנכי מצוך היום. פן תאכל ושבעת ... ורם לבבך ושכחת את ה' אלקיך המוציאך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים ... ואמרת בלבבך כחי ועצם ידי עשה לי את החיל הזה. וזכרת את ה' אלקיך כי הוא הנתן לך כח לעשות חיל למען הקים את בריתו אשר נשבע לאבתיך כיום הזה.
Hashem your G‑d brings you to a good land; a land of rivers and springs from the depths that flow in the valley and upon the mountains; a land of wheat and barley, grapevines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey … You shall eat, be satisfied and bless Hashem your G‑d for the good land He has given you.
Guard yourselves, lest you forget Hashem your G‑d and fail to observe the commandments, laws and statutes that I bid you today. Lest you eat and be satisfied … and let your hearts grow proud, and forget Hashem your G‑d Who took you out of Egypt, from the house of slavery … Lest you say to yourselves, “My own strength and the might of my own hand have earned for me this wealth.” Remember Hashem your G‑d. It is He Who gives you strength to succeed, in fulfillment of the covenant He swore to your forefathers unto this day.
By true mightiness of spirit, the farmer overcomes this temptation. He observes mitzvos such as shemitta, by which he attests that the land is not his at all, nor is his success the fruit of his own labor, but he and everything he owns belong to Hashem, Who is the true Master of all creation. Thereby, the farmer rises from an earthly, mundane profession to the spiritual heights of the mighty angels. In fact, his stature is greater than that of angels, since the angels exist in Heaven where Hashem’s presence is clearly evident, whereas the farmer must discover Hashem in this coarse, physical world and see through the veils that hide His presence. The farmer must realize that his seeds sprout not as a result of his own labor, nor as a result of any natural cycle, but purely as a result of Hashem’s kindness. This is the greatest test of faith.
At Kabbalas HaTorah, a similar avowal of faith was made by Bnei Yisrael. When faced with the prospect of subjugating every aspect of their lives to a rigid set of laws, they eagerly proclaimed, “Na’aseh v’nishmah,” first committing themselves to Hashem’s service with no reservation, and only then asking to understand the extent of their commitment.
Like the farmer on shemitta, who overcomes the natural instinct of a landowner to feel master of his produce, Bnei Yisrael overcame the natural desire of every living creature to yearn for freedom and feel master of its own destiny. With love for Hashem and trust in His guidance, Bnei Yisrael relinquished their freedom, and accepted Hashem as the Master of their destiny.
As we prepare for Shavuos, we take the lesson of shemitta to heart, recognizing that our homes, our property, and our very lives are not our own to do with as we please, but we are servants of Hashem in all aspects of our lives. In this merit, may Hashem “grant us the strength to succeed, in fulfillment of the covenant He swore to our forefathers unto this day.”