In this week's double parashah, B'har/B'chukotai, we read (among many other topics) of the mitzvah to observe the yovel, the fiftieth "Jubilee" year. From the second half of Leviticus 25:10: "It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family."
For two years (this one and the sh'mitah/sabbatical year, which occurs previously in the forty-ninth year), the land is to lie fallow. Nothing is to be planted, and God promises the Israelites that enough food will grow for them to eat and stay healthy until the harvest returns after their resumption of planting in the fifty-first year. And, as the text demands, every Israelite is to return to the original tribal land that was parceled out during Joshua's conquest of Canaan.
Commenting on this passage, Rabbi Yitzkhak Nafkha (third century CE) looked at Psalm 103:20 ("Bless the Eternal, O God's angels, mighty creatures who do God's bidding, ever obedient to God's word.") and wrote, "This is referring to those who observe the [mitzvah of letting the land lie fallow]. Why are they called 'mighty creatures'? Because while it's common for a person to fulfill a commandment for one day, for one Shabbat, or even for one month, can one do so for an entire year? This person sees his field and trees ownerless, his fences broken and fruits eaten, yet controls himself and does not speak. Our rabbis taught, 'Who is strong? One who controls passion.' Can there be a mightier creature than a person like this?" (Midrash Tanchuma on Parashat Vayikra).
Around Hanukkah of 1998, a young Joshua Davidson (now senior rabbi at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, New York) presented my eight-year-old son Jonah with a trumpet. It had been Josh's from his childhood and I can recall him playing it in high school. Josh felt that Jonah was the right person to receive the trumpet for a number of excellent reasons. First, Jonah had been learning from Josh how to play the shofar, and it's a very short journey from shofar-player to trumpet-player. Second, Jonah and Josh shared the same initials-J.M.D.-which were embossed on the outside of the trumpet case. Eight-year-old Jonah's response, as always throughout his life, was unrestrained. He thought it was incredibly cool to have received the instrument, especially with his initials included. He also felt it looked "a little old," which it was, even if Josh really wasn't (yet). But the real stumbling block for him concerned the mouthpiece, the metal attachment that's blown through to initiate the trumpet's sound. Jonah could never imagine using someone else's mouthpiece because, as he insisted, "It must be covered with millions of disgusting germs!" Not wanting to undermine the possibility of a future, virtuoso world tour, I assured him we could sanitize the mouthpiece so that he could play it without fear of contamination. Which we did and, for a good number of years, we were privileged to enjoy watching our son play in school concerts and hearing him sound the shofar when Ellen and I led Rosh HaShanah family services.
Three years ago, Jonah Maccabee Dreskin died at the age of 19. As you can imagine, letting him go has been the most difficult and painful experience of my life. Jonah was bigger than life. He was a clown with a huge heart, who never missed an opportunity to goof off but never did so at another person's expense. He was always available to a friend in need and never once complained when his mom asked him to vacuum the house or set the table. He called me "old man," enjoyed punching my arm (hard), and would remind me that I'd retire to Maui only if mom let me share the house he was purchasing for her.
When Jonah died, my family and I were thrown into a period of distress during which the land lay fallow. For a while, nothing was planted and nothing grew. We woke up each day, dressed ourselves and fed ourselves, but did little more. We met the day, but produced nothing. We lived off what was already there. We had to survive this vast emptiness that had been cast across the landscape of our hearts, and we could only try to accept on faith that a day would arrive when we would be able to resume our plantings, enabling new crops, new projects, and new love to once again begin to grow.
We were anything but alone in our fallowness. First, how many caring friends and extended family members reached out to us, held us, fed us, and watched after us, until we were ready to resume our lives? Second, how many men, women, (and children!) have gone through similar experiences, losing someone they love and waiting out the period of grieving (some for months, some for years) until returning to the fields and starting to plant anew?
I don't know if Rabbi Yitzkhak Nafkha was thinking of anything more than farming when he commented on the challenge of the one-to-three-year observance of sh'mitah and yovel. But I wouldn't be surprised if he sensed this parallel too. After all, is there anyone who gets through life without having to face the death of someone they love? It may come later than sooner, which is preferable of course, but eventually death comes. And each of us must manage the deep emotional loss, and navigate the sometimes tortuous journey through grief and back to wellness.
Faith in the return of economic well-being, or faith in the return of optimism, hopefulness, and joy, can be elusive. For a time, we may have to be the ones to hold others as they journey through their own barren lands and are unable to regain a sense of life's bounty for themselves. And for a time, we may lose sight of it ourselves when, perhaps, the most we can do is sense that others are watching over us until we're ready.
In the Jubilee year, jubilation may not be the first thing on our mind. It's important to remember that while it may take some time, each of us can (and likely will) return home, and that the land will once again send forth its goodness.
This is my final column for 10 Minutes of Torah and the end of our study (for this year) of Leviticus. Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik . . . may we be strong and, through our learning and our love, strengthen one another.
Billy Dreskin is a rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple near White Plains, New York. You can contact him at RabbiBillyDreskin@gmail.com.
A few verses later in the description of the Jubilee, our Torah offers another context for these unusual laws. Why are we told to let our fields lie fallow for these two years when doing so must have been such a heavy burden to the landowners? And why are we forbidden from selling the land "beyond reclaim" (Leviticus 25:23), when such a sale might bring profit? Because, God tells us, "the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me" (Leviticus 25:23).
God's words are a lesson in gratitude, a lesson that is fundamental to the Jewish way of being in the world. On the deepest level, God tells us, the Land is not ours to sell or to exploit; the fields from which we gain our livelihoods are merely loaned to us by their Creator. And so too, the blessings we have received are not ours to squander, and the community we have been born into is not ours to disregard. God invites us to make ourselves at home in this world, but we owe God's creation the respect due from a guest.
But the early Chasidic sage, Rabbi Baruch ben Yehiel of Medzibezh, interpreted this verse in another way. Parsing the words differently, he interpreted "you are but strangers" to refer to our existence on earth, with all its challenges, and "residents with me" to refer to our ultimate home in God's realm. "The measure by which one feels distant, as an outsider, a stranger…" he writes, "by that same measure does one feel close to heaven" (cited in Itturei Torah, vol. 4, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg [Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1996], p. 149). When we feel most alone in this world, we should not conclude that God has abandoned us; it is in those very moments that God draws close.
"They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy," the psalmist so determinedly prays (Psalm 126:5). And during those times in our lives when we cannot even bring ourselves to sow, may we know that even then, we are not alone; even then, God is planting seeds.
Beth Kalisch is an associate rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, New York.
"B’chukotai, Leviticus 26:3-27:34
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 957-970; Revised Edition, pp. 864-879;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 765-786"