Shemot Twenty-Three: Agricultural Holidays

The list of laws continues, with further regulations that seem to ultimately be concerned with what it means to be a good human being. While one would hope that the majority of these things would be innate and stem from common sense, having them canonized like this demonstrates the importance of just and moral conduct in Tanakh.

“You shall not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shall you bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice (Exodus 23:2).” This admonition is extremely powerful. It teaches that we need to act with integrity in all situations. We are responsible for not following the crowd when they’re doing something wrong, and for staying in touch with our individual moral compasses for guidance in the face of adversity. While it’s always challenging to be the person standing apart from the crowd, the commandment to do so is literally from God in this case.

In this chapter, we also have the origin of the commandment of shmita. “And six years you shall sow your land, and gather in the increase thereof; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat. In the manner you shall deal with your vineyard, and with your oliveyard (Exodus 23:10-11).” Shmita is the practice of letting the land lie fallow every seven years. This is a commandment that only pertains to the land of Israel itself, and is not practiced in the Diaspora today. Ironically, this year happens to be the shmita year, and it’s the first time that I’ve been in Israel for this event. It’s amazing to see the care with which people treat a biblical admonition regarding agriculture, something that we don’t usually think about otherwise. Shmita for me is about mindfulness, and about recognizing that the earth can’t give of itself unconditionally forever. Just as God needed a rest on the seventh day, and as we do each week, the land requires this time of rest in the seventh year.

This chapter seems to have a lot of calendar references, because we also learn about some of the festivals. “The feast of unleavened bread you shall keep; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Aviv, for in it you came out from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty; and the feast of harvest, the first-fruits of your labors, which you sow in the field; and the feast of ingathering, at the end of the year, when you gather in your labors out of the field (Exodus 23:15-16).” The first festival mentioned, Pesach [Passover] happens to be coming up at the end of this week. The ancient Israelites had their calendar in rhythm with the seasons and the agricultural cycle, and for them, the spring holiday was the beginning of the year. It seems fitting to me that the holiday that represents the redemption of the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt would fall at this time of renewal for the world.

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