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Behar 5782: Working to Live or Living to Work?

Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! I have always been fascinated by how people define themselves. People generally conflate who they are with what they do professionally. For example, I find that when I ask men to tell me about themselves they generally lead with, “I am lawyer/teacher/doctor.” Though almost everyone will insist that the most important part of their lives is their family, they rarely begin with, “First and foremost, I am a father to four great kids and husband to the most amazing woman.”

(Of course, if someone does not feel this way about their family it might explain the omission. It reminds me of the line by comedian Jim Gaffigan who began one of his shows by saying, “I am a father to three AMAZING kids,” at which point the crowd applauded enthusiastically. He then continued, “and then I have ANOTHER kid.”)

To be sure, work has become entwined with identity – perhaps it has always been this way. Humans are social creatures by nature, and there is an internal yearning to understand where we fit in the social strata. There’s both an internal and societal need for this categorization and, undoubtedly, this is one of the reasons that we have so many “Smiths” (i.e. blacksmith, locksmith, gunsmith, silversmith, etc.).

Still, I have often wondered why so many people, even after achieving a high level of material success and career acclaim, continue to sacrifice the other important elements of their lives – their families, their health, and their overall freedom. Rightfully or wrongfully, people define themselves by what they do and the success that comes with it. Why are people workaholics? It doesn’t seem to make sense to kill yourself so that your kids will have “more” when all they really need is more of you. It’s just not logical.

Why is it so hard to separate our perceptions of self from our professional lives? Not to mention that when you become so enmeshed in your job that it defines you, then you may also begin to allow it determine your value. This can have disastrous effects if a person loses a job or remains unemployed.

This week's Torah reading gives us a clue to understanding why people tend to define themselves by their work. In this week’s Torah portion we find the laws of shemitta – the Torah mandated sabbatical year.

“​Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruit. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest to the land, a sabbath for the Lord. You shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard” (Leviticus 25:3-4).

The key to understanding what shemitta is all about is to understand the parallel to the weekly Sabbath. In other words, just as we work for six days and rest on the seventh, we work the land for six years and let it rest on the seventh. This is particularly relevant this year as the Hebrew year 5782 is a shemitta year (this year of shemitta began on September 7, 2021 and runs through September 25, 2022).

During the shemitta year, the residents of the land of Israel must completely desist from cultivating their fields. They also relinquish personal ownership of their fields; whatever produce grows on its own is considered communal property, free for anyone to take.

“Therefore you shall fulfill my statutes, and keep my judgments, and do them; and you shall dwell securely in the land” (Leviticus 25:18).

The great Biblical commentator known as Rashi notes (ad loc) that the punishment for not observing shemitta is expulsion from the land of Israel. Rashi goes on to say that the years of the Babylonian exile were a quid pro quo punishment for the seventy shemitta years that the Jewish people did not keep upon entering the land of Israel (see Rashi’s comment on verse 26:35 where he gives the exact calculation for the 70 years).

One must wonder what it is about shemitta that the Jewish people found so difficult to observe? Perhaps they didn’t believe that Hashem would provide for them if they didn’t work their fields? After all, what were they to do if they didn’t have food to sustain themselves and their families during the shemitta year (not to mention the following year as well, before the new crops of the eighth year arrived)?

While it is tempting to hypothesize that the reason was that a farmer relying on a yearly crop to survive may not easily abandon planting his crops due to a lack of proper trust in the Almighty, it is ultimately untenable.

The Torah deals with this issue directly: “And if you shall say, ‘What shall we eat the seventh year? Behold we shall not plant nor gather in our produce?’ Then I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for three years” (Leviticus 25:20).

Rashi (ad loc) explains that Hashem promises to provide for them. Hashem guarantees the Jewish people that the sixth year harvest would provide sustenance for them until the harvest of the eighth year. In other words, God provided three years of sustenance upfront and still they failed to observe the shemitta! This seems simply incomprehensible. If they had the food that they needed already in storage after the sixth year, what possible reason could there be for not observing shemitta?

In fact, the question is really much more difficult. Once the Jewish people were “paid” upfront to not work the shemitta year, how did they have the temerity to accept this payment and then violate the shemitta by working the field anyway? It seems like a terrible flaw of avarice. What compelled them to work the land?

Furthermore, in next week’s Torah reading we find a litany of horrible things that are prophesied to happen to the Jewish people, culminating in their expulsion from the land of Israel. Rashi comments (26:15) that the reason for all the calamities is due to the fact that they didn’t labor in their Torah study.

If the Torah already explicitly says that they were expelled from the land for not keeping shemitta, what does Rashi mean by saying it was because they didn’t labor in the study of Torah?

We find an illuminating verse that describes the very essence of man: “Man was born to labor [...]” (Job 5:7). According to Rashi (ad loc) the context of this verse is the challenge mankind faces in contradistinction to angels who don’t sin.

The primary difference between angels and mankind is that angels are static while man is dynamic. That is to say, that while angels do not sin they also do not have potential for personal growth, they simply exist in the state they were created. Man, on the other hand, is dynamic; man is given the potential to achieve and become much more than the state in which he was created, but this potential for growth also enables him to falter and sin.

Thus, the very essence of man is driven by a desire to accomplish, which therefore defines much of his existence. This is the reason people define themselves by what they do, because personal growth is at the very core of our being. This is also why many men who retire from work and choose to lead a purposeless life (aside from driving their wives crazy) begin to emotionally and physically deteriorate quite rapidly – often leading to an earlier demise.

A study of Shell Oil employees found that those who retired at 55 and lived to be 65, died 37% sooner than those who retire at 65. That’s not all, people who retire at 55 are 89% more likely to die in the 10 years after retirement than those who retire at 65. Social Security has noticed this trend as well. Men who retire at 62 have a 20 percent higher likelihood of death than the general population. Fascinatingly, retiring early for women causes no increase in mortality rates. Women, it seems, derive their self-worth in other ways.

This drive to achieve is why the Jewish people weren’t able to observe the shemitta; they simply felt horrible about being inactive and having nothing to do. They chose to violate the mitzvah of shemitta because without work and labor, without a purpose, they felt that they risked their mental and physical well-being. This wasn’t about earning more money; it was about self-preservation.

This is why the Torah mandates that during the shemitta year men are supposed to labor in the learning of Torah. We are enjoined to immerse ourselves in growing in Torah because when we study Torah with real effort and diligence then we begin to understand ourselves and the world around us. We thus continue to grow as people and lead ever more purposeful lives.

This is why next week’s Torah portion says that the reason the Jewish people were ultimately booted out of the land of Israel was for not laboring in Torah. If they had labored in Torah study and continued to achieve personal growth through Torah, then they would have felt fulfilled and they would have been able to observe the laws of shemitta.

Today too, growth in Torah is an elixir of life for all who wish to retire. After all, that is the reason that Hashem gifted us the Torah; to enable us to lead the most incredible lives that He has planned for each and every one of us.

Torah Portion of the Week

Behar, Leviticus 25:1 - 26:2

Behar begins with the laws of Shemitah, the Sabbatical year, where the Jewish people are commanded to not plant their fields or tend to them in the seventh year. Every 50th year is the Yovel, the Jubilee year, where agricultural activity is also proscribed.

These two commandments fall into one of the seven categories of evidence that God gave the Torah. If the idea is to give the land a rest, then the logical plan would be to not plant one-seventh of the land each year. To command an agrarian society to completely stop cultivating all farm lands every 7th year, one has to be either God or a meshugenah (crazy). No sane group of editors would include such an “insane” commandment in a set of laws for the Jewish people; only God could command it and ensure the survival of the Jewish people for following it. Also included in this portion: redeeming land which was sold, to strengthen your fellow Jew when his economic means are faltering, not to lend to your fellow Jew with interest, the laws of indentured servants. The portion ends with the admonition to not make idols, to observe the Shabbat and to revere the Sanctuary.

Candle Lighting Times

It is never too late to be what you might have been.
— George Eliot

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Eddie Bursztyn

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