"And You Shall Sanctify the Fiftieth Year"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Sichot of the Rashei Yeshiva

"And You Shall Sanctify the Fiftieth Year:"

Assessing Israel's First Half-Century


Harav Aharon Lichtenstein



When celebrating a birthday, people of a more reflective nature accompany their "personal Rosh Ha-shana" with a dimension of a "personal Yom Kippur." They ponder the events of the year gone by and gear up for the year to come. Our consciousness of time and its limitations, our awareness of the sand that slowly drains through the hour-glass and the days of youth slipping away towards the end of life, bring about a mood of soul-searching, a desire to make an accounting of our lives before God.

This "hour-glass" mentality does not apply to the Jewish People. With regard to the communal sin offering, our Sages comment that "the community does not die." It therefore does not have fixed stations on the path between birth and death. Nevertheless, even on the communal level, for a nation which has a spiritual dimension to it, the passing of a year represents an appropriate occasion for reflection. This is especially true in the case of a nation which, in a certain sense, is just starting its path.

In our resurrected State, the path of time is strewn with memories. These reveal themselves each year to those spiritually inclined, and something of this sense should characterize Yom Ha-Atzma'ut each year.

On Yom Ha-Atzma'ut this year, as we celebrate the State's fiftieth year of existence, this dimension of the day takes on special significance, the nature of which may be understood in light of the halakhic framework of the "Yovel" (Jubilee) year:

And you shall count for yourself seven sabbaths of years, seven years seven times over, and the seven sabbaths of years shall number for you forty-nine years. And you shall sound a shofar blast in the seventh month on the tenth of the month, on Yom Kippur shall you sound the shofar throughout your land, and you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and shall declare freedom in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a Yovel for you: each man shall return to his estate, and each man shall be returned to his family. The fiftieth year shall be for you a Jubilee; you shall not sow, nor shall you harvest that which grows by itself in the field or in the vineyard. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat the produce in the field. In this year of Yovel, each man shall return to his estate. (Vayikra 25:8-11)

The Yovel celebrations commence on Yom Kippur, giving the day a dual character. The Rambam writes (Laws of Shemitta and Yovel 10:13-14):

Three things are crucial to a Yovel year: the sounding of the shofar, the freeing of slaves and the returning of fields to their [original] owners ... From Rosh Ha-shana until Yom Kippur, slaves were not sent to their homes nor were they subjugated to their masters, and fields did not return to their owners. Rather, the slaves would eat, drink and celebrate, with crowns upon their heads. When Yom Kippur came, the Beit Din (court) would sound the shofar, the slaves were sent to their homes and the fields returned to their owners.

As the Yovel year commenced on Yom Kippur, two complementary themes were intertwined. On the one hand, this was the day of forgiveness and mercy - like Yom Kippur of any other year; it was the day of the "covenant of the thirteen attributes," the day upon which the second set of tablets was given to Moshe Rabbeinu, the "great and awesome day of God." On the other hand, it was a special Yom Kippur - "on THIS Yovel year each man shall return to his estate." It was a Yom Kippur representing economic revolution, social rehabilitation, a reorganization of the status quo. Thus, personal repentance and societal restructuring combined to create an overpowering experience of national and spiritual splendor.

Today, halakhic Yovel is not observed. We have not yet merited this. But the spirit of this special year, and the need for self-examination and renewal at the end of the forty-nine year period, are certainly still valid and necessary. The masters of mussar used to emphasize that self-examination is not only the result of celebration but also its basis and foundation. Thus we are required today to start assessing our national balance sheet.

Since we are ultimately dealing with a day of celebration, let us start with the positive side. What should we regard as the most impressive and most significant achievement of the establishment and existence of the State of Israel?

I believe the answer to this is quite simple. The Sages instituted that we recite the "She-hecheyanu" blessing at times of rejoicing. We may distinguish two themes in this blessing. One is the joy associated with the event. But perhaps the dominant theme is this: satisfaction and joy in the fact that we have traversed a certain distance which makes the joy possible. "Blessed are You ... Who has given us life and maintained us and ALLOWED US TO REACH this time." This is not only a blessing over "this time," but also over all those years during which Divine mercy has accompanied us and allowed us to reach this festival, this celebration, the fulfillment of this mitzva. The blessing is over our actual existence during the whole period, and over the positive quality of that period.

If we ask ourselves what it is that we are celebrating in this Yovel year, the most significant and impressive achievement is the very fact that we are able to celebrate our fiftieth year. There are those who perceive the Yovel as "just another year." Another year gone by, more pages torn off the calendar, and now it's the fiftieth year - as if this is quite obvious and nothing out of the ordinary. This is perhaps understandable coming from young people, who were born at a time when the State was already well established and a fact of life. But in truth, such an attitude has no place. The establishment of the State was accompanied by a general sense of wonder, and this excitement should accompany its continued existence.

In Parashat Mas'ei (Bamidbar 36:4) we read, "And IF ('im' in Hebrew) there will be a Yovel for Benei Yisrael..." Rashi (Vayikra 2:14) understands this to mean "WHEN there will be a Yovel;" in other words, it is obvious that a Yovel will eventually come. Not so the Ramban, who believes that "And if there will be a Yovel" should be understood literally. It is not obvious; it is not a natural phenomenon which comes about with the inexorable passage of time. It is a reflection of both Divine mercy and human initiative. "And if there will be a Yovel" - it will be both "for Benei Yisrael," and in a certain sense - because of Benei Yisrael, and in their merit.

Those who were opposed to Zionism knew that, at Sinai, "With the blast of the yovel (i.e., the shofar) - they shall ascend the mountain" (Shemot 19:13). It is only when the shofar blast is sounded in the world by the Messiah that "they will ascend the mountain," that the Jews will retake the land.

But the entire thrust of Zionism in all its forms - and most certainly of religious Zionism - is exactly the opposite: only to the extent that there is willingness for self-sacrifice in order to "ascend the mountain" will "the blast of the yovel" sound. The yovel, the shofar blast of Mashiach, does not come of its own accord. It requires effort, communal and national devotion, and personal self-sacrifice.

Obviously, we have to know in which spirit and under what circumstances we are to "ascend the mountain." There are unfortunate ascents - from the point of view of both their motivation and their results. Indeed, the Torah contains some harsh accounts in this vein:

"And they awoke early in the morning and THEY ASCENDED to the summit of the mountain ... And Moshe said, 'Why then are you transgressing God's word? It shall not succeed. DO NOT ASCEND - for God is not among you - lest you be struck down before your enemies.'" (Bamidbar 14:40-41)

Through God's kin, we have merited that the spirit of the "ascent of the mountain," at the time when it was called for and out of a profound historical awareness, motivated those who returned to the land, as well as those who gave the movement their support from afar. Their "ascent to the mountain," bringing the "great shofar blast" nearer, stemmed from a sense of mission and a consciousness (at least among our community) that we were indeed acting in and being directed by God's spirit.

The Torat Kohanim states: "Just as the Shabbat of Creation is called 'a Shabbat unto God,' so is the seventh year called 'a Shabbat unto God.'" Based on this, Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that both Shabbat and Shemitta come about by themselves, regardless of human sanctification. However, the holidays and Yovel require human intervention: in the case of the holidays, Beit Din must declare the New Moon, and in the case of Yovel, "if the shofar was not sounded, or if the slaves were not freed, or if land was not returned to its original owners, then ploughing and sowing are permitted; it is not considered a Yovel at all."

As opposed to the festivals, the question regarding Yovel is not one of hastening or delaying an occasion; the question is whether the Yovel will take place at all. "And if there will be a Yovel for Benei Yisrael" - will there indeed be a Yovel?

By the mercy of Heaven, we have arrived at the State of Israel's Yovel year. And it would seem that the situation goes beyond even the framework laid down by R. Meir Simcha. The occurrence of Yovel in his formulation depends on elements of the Yovel year itself: the shofar blast, the freeing of the slaves, etc. But there is another facet to Yovel as well. Concerning the verse, "And you shall count for yourself seven Sabbaths of years, seven years seven times over ... and you shall sanctify the fiftieth year," Rav Chaim of Brisk explains that the sanctity of the Yovel is brought about precisely by the COUNTING of "seven years seven times over." The constant and devoted action of counting the years, of preparation and readying, of paving the way towards the fiftieth year - that is precisely what sanctifies it; that is what determines the status of the fiftieth year as a "Yovel year."

There is no fiftieth year without forty-nine years of work and effort and sacrifice!

Thus, if we ask ourselves what is the greatest kindness, what is the most impressive achievement of "this Yovel year," we may answer as follows: the very fact that there is a yovel year, the fact that the devoted work of forty-nine years has brought about the yovel. In those early days, it looked to everyone as though the State stood on shaky foundations, with a permanent question-mark hanging over it. There was almost no other country in the world whose very existence was similarly in question. Many countries were constantly embattled and endangered; they had conflicts over borders, over economic or social issues, but their actual existence was accepted. In our case, by contrast, doubts, deliberations and constant anxiety have accompanied us since the birth of the State.

Divine assistance, devotion to our task and a spirit of sacrifice are what made not only the ESTABLISHMENT of the State but also its CONTINUED EXISTENCE possible. Upon reaching our fiftieth year, it is appropriate that we give praise and thanks to God, and - on a different level entirely - thanks and blessing to those who have, throughout the way, worked to ensure its existence.

We must also take another point into consideration, which is of astonishing national and spiritual significance. According to Halakha, the laws of Yovel are applicable only when "a majority of the land's inhabitants live in it." [Thus, according to most of the Rishonim (with the exception of Rabbeinu Tam), as early as the Second Temple period the laws of Yovel could no longer be observed.] How do we define this criterion? Not by "its inhabitants" who already dwell there, but by those who are MEANT to dwell therein - those people for whom Eretz Yisrael is meant to be home. We have not yet merited that a majority of Knesset Yisrael will dwell in the land. This still represents a dream and vision for the future. Nevertheless, the State has come a great distance, with the help of Heaven, towards realizing this ideal.

Here, too, we must recognize both God's grace as well as the great effort and selfless devotion (which have no parallel in the modern age) that went into bringing about this circumstance. Upon the founding of the State, a community which numbered only six hundred thousand was ready within a decade to absorb a number many times greater, entailing huge self-sacrifice, economic hardship, a change in social status, and in some ways even cultural reversal. This devotion found expression in the feeling of fraternity on the personal level and in a sense of mission on the historical level. Such a phenomenon is simply unique.

And yes, there is harsh and justified criticism - quite fashionable today - of a number of aspects of the absorption process: the snobbishness, the domineering attitude, the will to remold the new arrivals in the image of those who took them in. The criticism has its place - certainly from a religious perspective, which takes a dim view of the attempt during those early days to erase religious identity. But let us not, in our criticism, ignore the greatness of the absorption process itself. Even if some vested interests became entangled in it (keeping in mind that to the extent that the number of Jews living in the country grew, the country's security was strengthened), ultimately - and this was given profound recognition in the "Law of Return" - this was a remarkable expression of identification with every Jew qua Jew, regardless of his cultural background or other characteristics. This represents identification with Knesset Yisrael and with the sanctity of Israel. For all of this, we must offer praise to God and our thanks and admiration to those who invested so much in the enormous and ongoing task of absorption. The connection to the nation of Israel which this expresses should be a source of national pride and celebration.

Alongside the joy of Yovel, we must also remember the introspective aspect of "Yom Kippur" which opens it. To what extent have we fulfilled - and do we now fulfill - the specific requirements of the Yovel year?

Three areas are especially prominent in the Yovel year: the sounding of the shofar, the freeing of slaves, and the returning of land to its original owners. (The remaining laws of Yovel, relating to leaving the land fallow, etc., apply during shemitta years as well, but the three above-mentioned mitzvot are specifically characteristic of the Yovel year.) These represent three focal areas which Knesset Yisrael must strive for at all times, and certainly right now.

In a certain sense, the sounding of the shofar in the Yovel year differs in nature from the blasts with which we are more familiar - the shofar blasts of Rosh Ha-shana. Rav Soloveitchik taught that according to the Rambam in Sefer Ha-mitzvot (Aseh 170, and in his responsa as well), the mitzva of shofar on Rosh Ha-shana is to HEAR, while the crux of the mitzva on Yovel is to SOUND the shofar (Aseh 137). This expresses the differing nature of these two mitzvot: the mitzva of Yovel is more "communal," more ceremonial, than that of Rosh Ha-shana. The difference is quite significant; nevertheless, "the [mitzva of shofar on] Yovel is the same as that of Rosh Ha-shana as regards the blast and the blessings" (Mishna Rosh Ha-shana 3:5). The shofar blast of the Yovel year, too, is accompanied by the blessings of malkhuyot, zikhronot and shofarot, and the associations of the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana apply to the shofar of Yovel as well: coronation of God, Divine judgment and human repentance, and the desire for redemption.

There is a focus on religious awakening here; consciousness of the Kingdom of Heaven and an effort towards extending it on Earth. Among chassidim of Chabad, Rosh Ha-shana night is known as "coronation night;" similarly, Yovel may be "coronation year."

The second aspect of the Yovel year - freeing of slaves - focuses on the social issue. Its message is revolutionary both from a philosophical point of view and certainly in its practical implementation. Most slaves were people who were too poor to pay their debts. They would be set free after six years of servitude, unless they desired to stay "indefinitely." To some extent, their emancipation represents an act of erasing the gaps which have been created in the past and a new beginning. This displays an aspiration towards social justice and equality. Until the Yovel, it appears that "he shall serve him forever" - the radical gap between slave and master will prevail eternally. Then the Yovel year comes around and declares, "And you shall return each man to his estate and each to his family." There is economic and social restoration.

Together with the freeing of the slaves, representing the social aspect of the Yovel, there is also the mitzva of restoring fields to their original owners. This, too, has revolutionary significance in its practical application, but it focuses not so much on the personal and cultural aspects as on the economic infrastructure of society.

The Yovel year thus spreads its influence in three main areas: the religious sphere (in a narrow sense), the social-interpersonal sphere and the physical-economic sphere.

In "this Yovel year," then, let us ask ourselves with regard to each of these areas: where do we stand? And where are we headed?

The picture is complex. On the one hand, in all three spheres we can point to impressive achievements:

I. As students of the Beit Midrash, if we compare the state of the Torah world today with its condition at the time the State was established, we will find that we have good reason for excitement, praise and thanks. Let us not forget that the number of students enrolled at Yeshivat Har-Etzion alone equals the number of yeshiva students that Ben-Gurion was asked to exempt from military service at that time - a mere fifty years ago. I am no historian, but I doubt very much that at any stage in Jewish history the number of students in batei midrash was ever higher than the number today (and this occurred in such a short time!). With all the criticism, and with the occasional irritation, both religious and cultural, that accompanies this phenomenon - let us not take for granted that which has been achieved in the sphere of pure Torah. A simple indicator: look at the number of sifrei kodesh being sold today, and even more importantly - the number being studied!

II. On the social level, there are many opportunities for self-actualization and self-fulfillment, and a shrinking measure of social dependence (frameworks corresponding to slavery).

III. In the economic sphere, there is simply no comparison between the bounty of today and the hardship of the early days of the State. It is not simply a matter of growth of the G.N.P., but rather something which finds expression in daily life: who owns an "estate," and on what level he lives.

In those spheres associated with the Yovel, we therefore have much cause for praise and thanks. At the same time, there are many issues which should cause us concern and which appear, both absolutely and relatively, not as progress on the road to Yovel but rather as retreat. We hear much - and unfortunately it's not all just talk - about a decline in idealism, less readiness for self-sacrifice, a decline in motivation for national and historical tasks, an increase in egocentric ambition in the selection of where to live and work, a lowered historical consciousness and social awareness, a widening of social gaps. It is true that the quality of life of those social strata termed "the poor" is immeasurably higher, in absolute terms, than the quality of life enjoyed by "established" families at the beginning of the State. Nevertheless, we know - both halakhically and psychologically - that the status of a poor person cannot be measured by absolute standards but rather by how he perceives and experiences his own situation within the surrounding society. The widening of social gaps is very worrying. At times we are witness to a distorted sense of priorities, both within society at large and within the religious community.

The Sages were divided regarding the question of whether each one of three components of the Yovel is a necessary condition for the other (Rosh Ha-shana 9b). The halakha follows the opinion of the Sages that each of the three special mitzvot of Yovel is a necessary condition for Yovel to apply. This means that none of these aspects of Yovel can be lacking. Even if the other conditions are fulfilled, if even one is missing then the Yovel is deficient. When we translate this halakha into more general terms, it means that we are obligated to internalize most profoundly the realization that there can be no "shofar blast" - no coronation of God - without "freeing of slaves" and "returning of fields," without an awareness of social justice and of economic development and reform. Conversely, there can be no social justice nor real equality in the absence of a consciousness of man's "Divine image" and of Divine Kingship. There can be no possession of land if there is not at the same time sufficient concern for people living upon it. The strengthening of the people must go hand in hand with the redemption of the land.

We are speaking here of spheres which must be intertwined, with each nourishing and being nourished by the other. Neglect of one area means neglect of the entire framework. This is the case with regard to the Yovel year, and this is likewise the case at all times. There is no "returning of the fields" if we do not possess "fields," and there is no "sounding of the shofar" if there was no effort made during the previous forty-nine years that there be people who know how to sound the shofar and people who want to hear the shofar.

We have before us a national and personal task. From the communal point of view, as a People and as a State, we have the great and holy task before us of entering a second Yovel period and engaging in those activities which brought about the first one. The infrastructure of "the redemption of the land" must be developed over the preceding forty-nine years.

This is important not only on the communal level but also regarding the individual. The gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 9b) teaches that the freeing of slaves and the returning of land are given to each individual to fulfill, while the sounding of the shofar is the prerogative of the Beit Din. Although the "sounding of the shofar," spreading the influence of Torah and enhancing its majesty, is a task which is given to the heads of the congregation, they are only the leaders of this movement; however, everyone must participate in fulfilling this responsibility. No one may permit himself to entertain the idea that someone else will "sound the shofar" while he himself "does his own thing." The obligation to spread Torah - both personally and within the society to which we belong - is the responsibility of each person, and everyone must keep this in mind as he chooses his path in life, as he makes his important decisions and determines the nature of his day-to-day existence.

There remains much for us to do, as a nation and as individuals, on the way to combining these spheres into an integrated system, which is vital for the world of halakha and the Jewish world-view.

The Yovel year is symbolized by the idea of "return:" "And YOU SHALL RETURN each man to his estate, and YOU SHALL RETURN each man to his family ... in this Yovel year YOU SHALL RETURN each man to his estate" (Vayikra 25:11-13).

This return appears, at first glance, to mean a removal of barriers, a return to the point of departure, an assumption of new challenges and possibilities. But it is not really a return exactly to the point of departure. Like the process of teshuva on Yom Kippur - "Return us, O God, to You and we shall return; renew our days as of old" - the "return" of the Yovel year is not just to the "days of old" but represents a renewal which is built on the past. It is not a cycle but rather an ever-ascending spiral.

With our entry into the Yovel year, we must give praise and thanks to the Master of the Universe for what exists, and we must build upon it. We have to renew our motivation and devotion in a national and personal spirit of youthfulness, and understand how to build onto what has already been achieved through hard labor, through sacrifice and Divine assistance. We must approach the Yovel year with an eye towards the Yovel to come, accompanied by an awareness that the Yovel year is not sanctified by Knesset Yisrael only during the Yovel year itself (according to R. Meir Simcha, as explained above), but also during the course of the forty-nine years which precede it (according to the formulation of R. Chaim, as explained above).

Let us pray that we may continue to offer praise and thanks, that we will know how to devote ourselves to sounding the shofar, social reform and the building of the country, and to combine all the Yovel themes. May there be among us a constant awareness of the shofar blasts, of the malkhuyot, zikhronot and shofarot. May there be spiritual upliftment and renewal. May our coronation of God and our acceptance of the yoke of Heaven be out of praise and thanks for the past and out of hope and eager anticipation of the future, to the day when "a great shofar will be sounded, and the lost ones will come from the land of Ashur and the abandoned ones from the land of Egypt, and they shall pray to God on the holy mountain in Jerusalem."


(This sicha was originally delivered on Yom Ha-atzma'ut 5757 [1997].)

Adapted by Aviad Hacohen and Ronnie Ziegler

Translated by Kaeren Fish


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