Thursday, November 23rd, 2017

Parashat Behar: Crises of Faith for Only the Farmer? by Yaakov Bieler

May 17, 2012 by  
Filed under New Posts

An expression of a lack of faith in the midst of a biblical Halachic discussion.

Individuals experiencing and expressing doubts concerning their religious beliefs are mentioned in a  number of anecdotes found in the Bible.[1] Such questions of faith, however, are virtually absent in the portions of the Tora devoted to Halacha. Consequently, it is quite remarkable to encounter the following articulated lack of faith in the middle of a discussion of the Mitzva of Shmitta (the Sabbatical year) in Parashat Behar:

Vayikra 25:20

And if you shall say:[2] What will we eat during the seventh year? Behold we cannot sow (new plants) or harvest[3] (that which will grow by itself without cultivation)!

The individual quoted in this verse is wondering how the Commandment in VaYikra 25:4-6[4] can realistically be fulfilled. By his reckoning, the cultivated food produced during the sixth year of the Sabbatical year cycle, will hardly be sufficient to satisfy his needs during the sixth, seventh and eighth years.[5] And as for the subsequent verses that appear to be designed to specifically allay such a fear,

Ibid., 21-22

And I will Command My Blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it (the land) shall bring forth fruit for three years. And you shall sow in the eighth year, and eat of old food until the ninth year, until its (the eighth year’s) produce is ready you shall eat from the food from the previous harvest

the principle Ein Somchin Al HaNes (one should not depend upon the performance of a miracle) would seem to countermand absolute reliance on something that cannot be empirically verified, even after an explicit Divine Promise.

Is such questioning in fact natural to all people?

MaLBIM appears to intensify the challenge of understanding this verse when he draws a distinction between the adverb “Ki” (when) and the conjunction “Im” (if). Whereas according to this commentator, the latter word “Im” suggests merely a possible future scenario, the former “Ki” implies that what follows is inevitable.[6] And since VaYikra 25:20 begins, “VeCHI Tomru Mah Nochal BaShana HaShevi’it…”, MaLBIM contends that HaShem’s Certainty regarding this question being posed by Jews results from His being all too well Acquainted with human nature in general, and the propensities of the Jewish people in particular.[7] It appears that the implication of MaLBIM’s assertion is that not only a small number of individuals possessing relatively weak faith in HaShem, but rather EVERYONE will be asking this question at one point or another. One can further wonder whether the specific Commandment of Shmitta should be viewed as representative of an entire class of Mitzvot that   in order to fulfill them, delayed gratification and significant sacrifice are required, which in turn will generate these types of doubts and questions.[8]

Another Commandment that directly challenges personal faith and trust in HaShem.

A Commandment that in many ways closely parallels the challenges to faith posed by the observance of Shmitta, and that has to be fulfilled several times each year, is the need to journey to Yerushalayim for Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot (Shemot 23:17; 34:23; Devarim 16:16)

e.g., 34:23

Three times per year all of your men should appear before the Face of the Master, HaShem, God of Israel.

Although in the instance of Aliya LeRegel (going up [to Yerushalayim] as a pilgrim), the individual who is Commanded does not explicitly articulate his concern, these thoughts can be readily inferred from the subsequent verse:

34:24

When I will Cause you to inherit nations from before you, and I                 will Expand your borders, NO MAN WILL COVET YOUR LAND, when you go up to see the Face of HaShem your God three times each year.

It would be quite reasonable for an individual to fear that while away from his home for a prolonged period,[9] others might be tempted to come and wreak havoc with his possessions.  R. Eliemelch Bar Shaul[10] points out that the obligation to fulfill this particular Commandment applies exclusively to landholders, suggesting that while spending Yom Tov in the presence of the Temple along with all of its pomp and circumstance, was obviously a very spiritual experience, the actual fulfillment of the Commandment had to be fraught with considerable insecurity and concern[11]—another test of faith. Aliya LeRegel is not so much about whether there will be ENOUGH food for the future, but rather whether there will be ANYTHING at all to eat, should thievery and/or vandalism occur while one’s home, farm and food stores remained unguarded.

The challenges inherent in Shmitta are present in all Commandments concerning agriculture.

On further reflection, one comes to realize that on an existential level not just the Mitzva of Shmitta, but the entire agricultural enterprise in the land of Israel is in effect a long series of tests of faith. The Tora draws a clear distinction between the lands of Egypt and Israel, not only in terms of the religious practices and morality of the respective cultures,[12] but also in terms of the manner in which crops are normally grown in the two locales.

Devarim 11:10-11

Because the land that you are coming there to inherit, is not like the land of Egypt, from which you went out, where you sow your seeds and water by foot (you carry the water from the Nile to the fields which you desire to irrigate), like a green garden.The land that you are crossing (the Jordan river) there to inherit

is a land of mountains and valleys, by means of the rain from the heavens it drinks water.

RaShI and RaShBaM emphasize positive and negative aspects of depending upon rain rather than upon the Nile as a source for irrigation.

RaShI

…In Egypt, you had to be disturbed from your sleep in order to work;

only the lower areas would be naturally watered as opposed to the higher elevations, and you would therefore have to physically carry the water from the lower to the higher places;

But in this case (the land of Israel)… you can stay asleep in your bed,

and the Holy One, Blessed be He, Waters both the lower and higher places (by means of rain),

that which is exposed (and therefore accessible to man) and that which is not,

simultaneously.

RaShBaM

…You have to observe the Commandments of HaShem,

because this land is better (than Egypt) for those who are observant,

but worse than all of the lands for those who do not observe,

…the land of Egypt, all people, good and evil, as long as they are willing to take the trouble, will be able to water their fields and they will have food to eat,

but as for the land of Israel, only if you observe the Commandments will (v. 12) “the Lord your God seek its welfare constantly; the Eyes of the Lord your God will be upon it from the beginning of the year until the end of the year” to provide you with rain in times of need.[13]

Consequently, just as the Jewish people had to depend upon exceptional productivity of their fields during the sixth year to see them through the three years[14] that would follow,[15] each individual year of the Sabbatical year cycle in terms of itself also carried with it a considerable challenge and therefore cause for insecurity and angst. The farmer would have to ask himself annually: Would the Jewish people be Deemed by HaShem sufficiently deserving to earn the requisite amount of rain for their crops to get us through not only the extreme scenario of the sixth, seventh and eighth year combination, but also the first, second, third, fourth and fifth years, independent of one another?[16]

“Man” served as the introduction to the concept that man is dependent upon God for his food.

The lesson of the profound tentativeness of one’s food supply and the extent to which it would be controlled by HaShem in accordance with whether the people were judged deserving, is initially impressed upon the Jewish people with regard to the Manna that they consumed in the desert soon after the Exodus from Egypt. Klee Yakar, in order to try to explain why the Jews appeared to be extremely concerned already in the sixth year of the Sabbatical year cycle, references the description of the people’s experience with the Manna, as summarized by Moshe in Sefer Devarim.

Devarim 8:3

And He Humbled you, and Caused you to be hungry, and Fed you Manna, with which you were unfamiliar, neither had your fathers experienced it before, in order that He could Make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by every Word that issues from the Mouth of the Lord does man live.

Klee Yakar wonders: if Manna fell every day, why did the Jews experience hunger?

He responds: Since they were constantly unsure about whether there would be additional Manna the next day, however much they ate today was undercut by their continual insecurity regarding their food supply. Consequently, they experienced psychological starvation, even if physiologically their needs were being more than met. That hunger was apparently designed to motivate the Jews, via either positive or negative reinforcement, to comply with the Commandments of the Tora. Shemot 16:4 states quite unambiguously: “…Behold I will Cause to rain down upon you bread from the heavens, and the people will go out daily to gather it so that I can Test them whether they will walk in accordance with My Tora or not.” RaShBaM, paralleling his comment on Devarim 11:10, understands the Divine Test inherent within the Manna experience as designed to train the people to adhere to not only the specific rules governing the Manna, e.g., don’t try to horde it from day to day,[17] don’t go out on Shabbat in order to try to find extra portions,[18] etc., but to instill a sense of the importance of complying with all Mitzvot called for in the Tora. Through the manner in which the Manna is delivered and distributed, the individual Jew is called upon to recognize that if s/he will depend to such an extreme degree upon HaShem for food, it would be extremely prudent to carry out God’s Will in all areas possible.

Is depending upon rain tantamount to relying on miracles for one’s existence?

And as for the issue of Ein Somchin Al HaNes, perhaps a distinction must be drawn between an individual undertaking a course of action that is inherently more dangerous than ordinary day-to-day existence, e.g., volunteering to fight in an optional war, undergoing elective surgery, driving during an ice storm, etc., and the  realities of the human condition. We tend to deny, perhaps in order to not become overly paralyzed with fear, that everyday life is fundamentally uncertain and that we are in far less control of our circumstances than we would like to think we are. Which brings us to Commandments like Shmitta and Aliya LeRegel: Because of our constant sense of physical and economic insecurity, as noted by Klee Yakar, some of us think that we never can devote significant time to devoting ourselves to the development of our souls. Could these types of Commandments, as well as the need for Shabbat observance and generously supporting various religious institutions be designed to remind us that our OWN PHYSICAL needs are not all to which  we need to devote time and energy; our SPIRITUAL needs are also of great importance. To live a total Jewish life, success with regard to PARNASA (financial concerns), which we are taught to believe is so much in God’s Hands, becomes a function of not only how skilled and innovative we are and how hard and long we work, but also how spiritually engaged and deeply believing we manage to be.

Applying the lessons of the “Man” to contemporary experience.

Finally, should a contemporary Jew be tempted to dismiss the theme of direct extreme dependency upon God for physical sustenance as applicable to only the generation of the Exodus from Egypt and/or those working the land in Israel proper, he should keep in mind as much as possible the dictum of Pesachim 116b which is quoted in the Pesach Haggada: “A person is obligated to view him/herself as if s/he has left Egypt.” While a simple reading of this principle would suggest an extremely limited application to Pesach night when one consumes Matza, Maror, drinks four cups of wine and recounts the Exodus, thereby vicariously experiencing the transition from servitude to freedom, it is possible that it is religiously significant to maintain such a mindset throughout the year. A support for such an assertion could be supplied by the great number of references made to the Egyptian Exodus not only during Pesach, but daily, within contexts such as the Shema and the various Kiddush prayers for Shabbat and Yom Tov.  In addition to remembering Yetziat Mitzrayim as indicative of HaShem’s Involvement in the affairs of man and His Omnipotence, the theological lessons associated with the Manna must clearly not be forgotten. Recalling the manner in which Jews were given food by HaShem during their forty years of desert wanderings should enable them to not only face with equanimity the seventh and eighth years of the Shmitta cycle even when the Heter Mechira (the legal loophole of “selling the land of Israel” and thereby circumventing the need to allow the land to lie fallow) is not in effect,[19] but also develop a general perspective on the interrelationship between the efforts that they expend in order to achieve personal success and advancement, and the degree to which they should recognize how HaShem has a Hand in just these matters.


[1] See e.g., Beraishit 15:2; 25:22; 28:20-22; Shemot 5:22. 14:10-11; 17:7.

[2] Halacha draws a distinction between that which is merely thought, in the spirit of the statement in the Shabbat hymn, Hirhurim Mutarim  (random, non-premeditated thoughts do not render the individual entertaining them culpable to punishment) and Devarim SheBeLev Einam Devarim (thoughts that are confined to the heart are not considered significant to the point where they will have any effect on one’s status or interaction with others), as opposed to what is actually said, the assumption being that thoughts may be uninvited, but most normal individuals have control over what they say and do not say.

[3] While it is permitted during Shmitta to go out into the fields and take whatever is necessary for one’s needs, harvesting in order to stock up for the future is prohibited. And if food has been stored in that manner, once the type of vegetable, fruit, grain, etc. is no longer freely available in the fields, it must be removed from the storage site and placed in the open so that anyone who is in need can gain access to it.

[4] “But in the seventh year shall be a Shabbat of solemn rest for the land, a Shabbat for HaShem. You shall not sow your field nor shall you prune your vineyard. Whatever grows by itself you shall not harvest, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine, for it shall be a year of rest for the land. And the Shabbat produce of the land will be food for you, for you and your servant, for your maid and your hired worker, for the stranger who sojourns with you, for your cattle and for the beast in your land, shall all its produce serve as food.”

[5] Since nothing can be cultivated or formally harvested during the seventh year, whatever is produced during the sixth year will have to satisfy that year’s needs, the demands of the seventh year during which the land has be left to its own devices, as well as what is required for the eighth year since at least at the outset of that year, it will take some time before crops that are planted at the conclusion of the Sabbatical year will be ready for harvest.

Some commentators, such as RaMBaN and Da’at Zekeinim MiBa’alei HaTosafot,  focus upon the fact that fear should not actually set in until well into the seventh year when food first begins to run short, and therefore 25:20 should be read in a “reversed” fashion: “And if you shall say DURING THE SEVENTH YEAR ‘What shall we eat…?’” See Klee Yakar’s  explanation later in this essay for an interpretation that allows for keeping the order of the verse intact.

[6] MaLBIM’s position regarding this matter appears to be in conflict with a passage in Rosh HaShana 3a that R. Menachem Kasher cites in his work, Tora Shleima, p. 52, in association with our verse in VaYikra 25:20 :

Said Reish Lakish: “Ki” can have four different connotations—“if”, “perhaps”, “but”, “that behold”…

“perhaps” as it is said, (VaYikra 25:20) “ ‘VeChi’ you will say, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year’?”

Consequently it would appear from Reish Lakish’s understanding that the Tora is suggesting with far less certitude than implied by MaLBIM that this question will be asked. A possible reconciliation of the commentator’s view with that of this Amora would involve speculating how widespread such questioning might be. It is possible that there will certainly be some percentage of the Jewish population that will pose challenges to faith in the Divine. Yet, unless a significant overall portion of the people ask the question, it is still possible to consider such doubt as less than inevitable and indicative of a lack of faith on the part of everyone.

[7] Food plays a major role in reflecting lack of belief in God and His Directives, not only in the Garden of Eden story (Beraishit 3), but also with respect to drinking water (Shemot 15:23-5; 17:1-7; BaMidbar 20:1-13), the “Man” (Shemot 16; BaMidbar 21:5-9) and meat (Shemot 16; BaMidbar 11:31-35).

[8] Mitzvot that appear to parallel the type of sacrifice entailed by Shmitta include:

a) giving charity and tithing, particularly the assumption that one tenth of one’s income (“Ma’aser”) is the proper amount to give annually;

b) the prohibition against working on Shabbat and Yom Tov despite such observances possibly interfering with responsibilities of and potential for earning a living;

c) purchasing costly obligatory sacrifices associated with festivals as well as those required for atoning from inadvertent sin.

d) outlays for Shabbat and Yom Tov expenses.

With regard to living the religious lifestyle in general, R. Shimon bar Yochai in Berachot 35b voices the view that engaging in any agricultural activity, and by extension, other forms of work that are relatively open-ended, will be all-consuming to the point that Tora study will be negatively impacted, and therefore in order to assure high spiritual standards, all involvement in the world of work should be rejected. Although this is a minority view that is not upheld as normative, implicit in the attitude is the assumption that an adversarial rather than complimentary relationship could be seen to exist between the dedication to support oneself and one’s family on the one hand, and being an intense and consistent  spiritual personality on the other.

[9] It should be kept in mind that not only will the individual be required to spend a significant period of time in Yerushalayim, but traveling there and back, certainly during the Biblical period, when the options available were walking, riding an animal, or riding in a vehicle powered by an animal, required a serious additional time commitment to the period spent in Yerushalayim proper.

[10] Mitzva VaLev, Avraham Tzioni, Tel Aviv, 1967, p. 19.

[11] One who owns no land risks nothing, as compared to a landowner, when he goes up to Yerushalayim.

[12] See e.g.,

a) Shemot 22:17 in light of the role of magicians in Egyptian life as in Beraishit 41:24; Shemot      8:3, 14, 15; 9:11; Shemot 8:22;

b) VaYikra 18:3;

c)  Devarim 23:8-9 (the fact that an Egyptian has to wait three generations after conversion in                     order to marry into the Jewish people suggests that there is some degree of separation,                                       even if it is not as absolute as the separation applying to Amon and Moav in 23:4-5).

[13] The context of this verse bears out RaShBaM’s contention in light of the verses that immediately follow (which comprise the second paragraph of the Shema prayer):

11:13-17

And if you will surely listen to My Commandments that I am Commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and serve Him with all of your heart and all of your soul,

And I will Give rain to your land in its proper time, softer and harder rain, and you will gather your grain, your wine and your oil.

And I will Give grass in your fields for your animals, and you will eat and be satiated.

Be careful lest your hearts be turned, and you turn aside and serve other gods and bow down to them.

And the Anger of HaShem will be Ignited against you, and He will Stop the heavens, and there will not be rain, and the land will not give forth its bounty, and you will be lost quickly from upon this good land and HaShem Gave to you.

[14] Commentators point out that when the Jubilee year occurred, then the sixth year would have to provide food for four years, i.e., the sixth, the seventh (Sabbatical year), the eighth (Jubilee year) and the ninth!

[15] How much will grow during the sixth year in excess of the immediate needs of that year would also in all likelihood be dependent upon conformity to God’s Law, as noted by RaShBaM.

[16] This is the sense of the Mishna in Rosh HaShana (1:2) “…On Chag (Sukkot) they are judged concerning water.”

[17] Shemot 16:19.

[18] Shemot 16:25-26, 29.

[19] Does the current state of the Israeli economy still necessitate reliance on a leniency which circumvents a law that has extremely significant implications for the way in which people go about their lives? There are some who are lobbying to now reject relying on this leniency.

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