Minutes of Torah

This year is the year of shmittah, a year of sabbatical for the land in Israel, during which the ground lies fallow, as reflected in the opening verses of this week’s parashat Behar:

“When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest…. you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce on its own.”

After six years of toil, the earth is not to be cultivated or farmed. It is to yield what it yields without human intervention.

Torah anticipates that the people would be concerned with what they would have to eat and tells them that enough crops will be produced in the sixth year to cover year 7 (the sabbatical year), year 8 (the first year of the new cycle, during which there must be a new planting), and into year 9 (awaiting first new harvest), as they are told in a Midrash that God will answer their needs “by way of a blessing, and a blessing is sometimes by nature.”

But shouldn’t the Israelites have faith that God will provide for them?

Torah is teaching a person the ways of God so that we might have more faith in God and not say “What are we to eat?” The fear of food scarcity is an indication of deficient faith. And as we will see in a few weeks in the book of Numbers, this is an offense that the Jews of the desert would perfect.

Perhaps the ancient Israelites were sustained by miracles, but not every generation will be worthy of such. It is these later generations, us? — who will ask “What are we to eat?”

It is indeed the less pious among us who might worry after our meals. But should they, or we, ever ask, we will not be punished for an apparent lack of faith. We will be heard. And we will be answered by God “in a way of blessing” that is “somewhat by way of nature” — that is, not entirely miraculously. Those who do not deserve miracles will not get them. They will “only” be granted a response from “nature.” They will “only” get the blessing of a surplus harvest.

The lack of faith in God on display here is not about insufficient faith, but about misconstrued faith, a fundamental misunderstanding about how God works in the world. In truth, all of us should know that miracle and nature are one. When this understanding is clear, ‘miracles’ are no longer necessary.

The natural order of the world is a miracle. That the sun rises and sets; that trees blossom and lay dormant; that waters flow; that babies grow, that plants sprout: These most “natural” events, when fully appreciated, are anything but humdrum. They are teeming with beauty and mystery and are occasions for awe and wonder — and are miracles.

It is our failure when we cannot behold the Divine presence in a loaf of bread. We need not seek miracles when we can see them before our eyes. But we become inured over time, unable to appreciate the wonders we encounter day after day. Over-exposure leaves us desensitized, but hungry for more ‘out-of-the-ordinary experiences.’

Sometimes a shake-up in routine can remind us of the wondrous divinity that surrounds us and animates our world. One year out of seven, and one day out of seven, we are called to pay attention, to adjust our focus so that we might see again and might reawaken our capacity for wonder.

Unique among the commandments, the laws of the sabbatical are the only ones in which Torah specifically reminds us as having been “given at Sinai.” No other commandment is introduced in this manner. What has the matter of the sabbatical year to do with Mount Sinai that Scripture felt compelled to expressly state where it was commanded — were not all commandments given on Sinai?

Perhaps laws of the sabbatical impart this core teaching about the relationship between nature and miracle. By giving the land a rest every seven years, and desisting from intervening in its course, we watch the universe unfold ‘naturally.’ And what we discover are the ways in which that natural world is itself so very mysterious, and miraculous. We might see that there is truly no greater, more wondrous miracle than nature itself.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rav Julius




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