The Ramban says that Shmita and the Yovel cycle are fundamental mitzvos.
Something is lost on us today – slavery and a global agricultural society have mostly vanished from Earth with the advent of industry; Shmita and Yovel have long been missing large chunks of their key halachos, for thousands of years.
Consider the fact that when the Ramban classified it as fundamental, Yovel hadn’t been properly marked for centuries. When the laws associated with it seems so antiquated, archaic, and arguably irrelevant, what about it is fundamental?
The Pnei Yehoshua explains that Yovel is not just a time when slaves go free – it is a Yom Tov that celebrates freedom and liberty. The Sfas Emes notes that the nation was born by being liberated from the crucible of Egypt.
After millennia of exiles, restrictions on movement, bans, pogroms, genocide, and general oppression, society has developed to give all people human and civil rights; Jews can now practice Judaism relatively freely, to the extent that young people today have little to no idea of what it means to not be free. While progress is undoubtedly a good thing, we must be vigilant not to take our rights for granted.
One of the brachos said daily is שלא עשני עבד – perhaps this alludes to the principle that we do not take our unprecedented liberties for granted. But our ancestors said it even whilst it wasn’t strictly true – when they were harried and enslaved! So perhaps it doesn’t refer exclusively to our bodies.
The Sfas Emes explains that the body is a vessel for the soul. With discipline, the body can simply be an appendage of the soul; physicality can be transformed into spirituality. To do so, the soul must lead the way, so that the body is almost passive in decisions. The Mishna in Avos says לא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה – I found nothing better for the body than silence. The Sfas Emes notes that the emphasis is on silence for the body specifically. When the body is silenced with deference to the soul, it is elevated.
This is precisely mirrored in Yovel. The land is dormant and fallow for a year, and man internalises that God is the true provider of sustenance and nourishment. Matter is led by the soul. A microcosm of this is reflected in the fact that humans are the only creatures that are made to stand upright. We strive to reach upwards, and animals cannot.
Yovel was dedicated to displaying our gratitude that we are always able to serve God – indicated by the shofar being blown. A slave, whose entire existence is subjugated to his owner, goes free on Yovel. It becomes abundantly clear why it is classified a foundational mitzva; freedom is a wonderfully thing that we are very grateful for. But perhaps it also shows that even under oppression, slavery, and exile, we are nonetheless subjugated exclusively to God. The Zohar says that on Yovel, everything returns to its source.
The soul always remains free.