This week’s Torah reading contains the commandment of Sh’mita, allowing the land to lie fallow in the seventh year. The Midrash (Yalkut Tehillim 103) says about this mitzvah, “Bless the L-rd, you angels of His, you mighty ones who perform His bidding, hearkening to the voice of His word” (Tehillim 103; 20). Rav Yitzchak Nafcha says that this refers to those who observe the Sh’mita laws. The normal course of the world is for a person to perform a mitzvah for a day, or a week, or even a month; is it possible to keep something for a whole year? Yet these farmers watch their fields become destroyed, and their vineyards ruined, and they remain silent.
A person can refrain from something for a single day, with extra strength of character they can continue for a week or a month, but to remain observant of this law of Sh’mitafor an entire year, slowly watching years of hard work falling into ruin and seeing other people come in and treat the field as ownerless, is almost beyond the capability of a normal person. All of a person’s resolve and determination to observe this law is worn down day by day. Therefore the Midrash refers to such people as “angels, the mighty ones”.
The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) learns out from the same verse in Tehillim the greatness of the Jewish nation as they received the Torah. “At the moment that the Jews said ‘We will do’ before ‘We will understand’ a voice came out of heaven saying ‘Who revealed to My children this secret that the angels use, as the verse says, “… You mighty ones who perform His bidding, hearkening to the voice of His word”. First they obey, and then they understand. This ability to accept G-d’s will unquestioningly, and only afterwards to attempt to understand it, is the secret of the Jews’ strength as a nation. It is the phrase that they used at Mount Sinai, the phrase that the angels use, and it is also the only way that the nation can observe the commandment of Sh’mita. The people don’t ask how they will be able to eat in the seventh year; they first observe the commandment, and then have faith and trust that G-d will provide for them.
We see that this commandment is almost beyond human capability to perform, being in the realm of the angelic. However, in the second of today’s readings the Torah describes a severe punishment for not keeping the mitzvah of Sh’mita. “Then the land will be appeased for its Sh’mitot during all the years of its desolation, while you are the land of your enemies. Then the land will rest, and it will appease for all its Sh’mitot” (Leviticus XXVI; 34). The Talmud derives from here that exile results from Israel’s failure to observe Sh’mita. Because of the seventy Sh’mitot that they had violated prior to and during the First Temple period, the Babylonian exile lasted for seventy years, during which time the land made up for the rest of which it had been deprived.
This shows the tremendous spiritual level of which the Jewish nation is capable of achieving. G-d demands that we achieve the status of angels, otherwise we are severely punished with exile and suffering. Being a nation like all other nations is not an option for the Jews; there is no middle ground. Either we reach almost inhuman spiritual heights, and receive the blessings detailed in Bechokosai, or we fail and incur the punishments and curses listed there.