First of all I want to start by explaining what I will be chanting from the Torah. I had no idea what it all meant until I looked into it, so I am going to assume that nobody else does either. Just so you know, when I refer to God I’m going to use female pronouns. Something Rabbi Alana taught me…
My portion, Behar, talks about shmita. Shmita is the rule or practice that says that you must let the land rest every seven years. Last year, Jewish year 5775, was actually a shmita year. To celebrate it our congregation did text study and planned many shmita events which I attended, including Farm Education Day. While at Farm Education Day I got to be part of a small shmita simulation game, which was a great learning experience. We controlled parts of it, like how we grew our food, but there were other parts of the simulation that were not in our control. For example, when the director decided to simulate a drought, we didn’t have enough food to make it through the shmita year. The simulation gave an example of when we must really put our trust in God that She will make everything run smoothly.
One of my favorite parts of shmita is that it creates empathy among wealthy people for the poor. Both the wealthy and the poor have to undergo the experience of not knowing if there will be enough to eat. My portion also mentions the bigger occasion, the Jubilee, which happens every 49 years; actually in the 50th year. So every 50 years during the jubilee we don’t sow, we don’t reap and we don’t harvest the fields. Everyone basically gets to start over: slaves get released, debts are dropped and as with the usual shmita, the land gets to rest.
During shmita we aren’t allowed to grow anything in the earth (well we aren’t supposed to), instead we must allow the land to rest. We have to put our trust in God, that She will make our harvest in the 6th year plentiful enough to last until the next harvest. But is that even possible? How can one harvest that usually only supplies us for one year last for two: first, the shmita year itself, and then, the year after the shmita, when the new plants are growing? Plus, since your family is eating all of the crops there is no income there either. In other words, when we aren’t growing anything how are we supposed to make a living and survive?
For example, this happens today with seasonal jobs like construction or farming. When you aren’t working during the winter months doing those jobs, you are still expected to pay your bills and feed yourself, and your family.
Farmers for a long time actually let one of their fields rest every year, so they didn’t have to rest everything at once, but every year something was rested.
That’s one way around the problem, other than that I guess we do the best we can; we would probably use food sparingly in that first year to make sure we have as much as possible for the second. Like in the movie The Martian, when Mark, the main character, is worried he will run out of potatoes, his main food supply, he only eats the bare minimum of what he needs to survive. Even though he’s really hungry. Good thing he was a botanist. 😉
But ultimately maybe it involves trusting God to sustain us. Which brings me to what my haftarah is about. In my portion, God tells Jeremiah to buy land even though the Chaldeans are about to conquer it and God’s retort is “why do you doubt that anything is too difficult for me?” Throughout Jewish history, including in the Torah, there are examples of how, as a people, we lost faith in God. It never ended well. EVER.
Something else that puzzled me about my portion was the Torah mentioning that during the Jubilee, we are supposed to release all of our slaves. But does anybody else wonder why we, Jews, once slaves, owned slaves ourselves?
Some scholars say that we treated our slaves better than we were treated in Egypt, but I’m still surprised. I asked Rabbi Alana and she explained that the key difference was that it wasn’t a permanent arrangement. The Jewish slaves could get out of it if it didn’t work for them, whereas when the Israelites were slaves, it was likely harsher conditions and no, they did not have a choice. As it says in Deuteronomy chapter 15: verses 15-17, in most cases, slavery in the Bible referred to individuals who sold themselves or were sold into slavery based on financial poverty or debt. It also specifies that Hebrew slaves didn’t have to wait until the Jubilee for their release, as they had their own personal seven year cycle to count.
Here are my questions for you (remember you don’t get to ask me any right now. 🙂
What do people think about the Jews owning slaves? Were you as surprised as I was? What are some other explanations?
Before I end, I want to talk a little bit about something else we noticed. Every seven days, we are told to rest. Every seven years, we are told to rest the land. And then every 49 years, or 7 times 7 years, we are told that slaves get to rest by being freed, that debts are dropped (which is a different kind of rest, because we don’t have to worry about unpaid bills), and everyone isn’t farming so they get to rest, too. 7 days, then 7 years then 7*7 or 49 years, what is with all of the 7’s?
I also wanted to mention the work I did for my mitzvah project, which was volunteering at Growing Hope. Growing Hope’s goal is to help people improve their lives and communities through gardening and increasing access to healthy food. I had a ton of fun volunteering there and got to do multiple interesting things. The first time I volunteered, we worked in the hoop house the whole time, transplanting little baby plants into bigger pots to allow their roots to spread more. I noticed that they kept different bins of soil, used soil and new soil. I connected it back to shmita thinking about how we were only using the new soil at the beginning, trying to avoid the used soil, almost like trying to let it rest!
During the rest of the time I spent volunteering there I got to do a lot of other fun jobs around the farm like weeding and planting. Growing Hope is an amazing organization, helping people of all ages get the healthy food they need to sustain a good lifestyle. I have some brochures in the back and I hope you will all support them. I will also be contributing some of my bat mitzvah gift money to them.