Yechiel Shaffer
The Rabbi of Pikesville Jewish Congregation in MD

The Jewish Farmer: A Role Model for Bnai Mitzvah

For a while, many of us were engaged in a conversation about how smachot will be different following COVID. We hoped smachot might be more deliberate and thoughtful going forward. The choice to celebrate an occasion one way or another, or to spend large amounts of money on marking a simcha, would now be a deliberate decision by baalei simcha and not a product of communal expectation.

Smachot would be more meaningful, deliberate, and intimate.

While we could analyze whether these lessons have been learned, or any adjustments have ultimately been made, we know that there is a large group of young women and men who celebrated their Bar/Bat Mitzvah’s in a completely unexpected way, during the extended lockdown period. These teens will hopefully carry these memories with them, and, while no one wishes for them to have had to learn resilience and flexibility from their Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations, they where certainly celebrated, and the community often rallied around them while they moved their celebrations online and made other adjustments.

The break of COVID lockdown offered us the opportunity to reexamine, and reevaluate how we want to celebrate important occasions. The Torah in this week’s Torah portion, Behar, introduces to us a different kind of break, the mitzvah of Shmitta, that presents similar opportunities for reflection to those who observe its laws.

As we read the instruction in this week’s Torah portion to observe the laws of Shmitta, we are introduced to a spiritual lockdown, in which the land of Israel is left unworked, and Jewish farmers take a sabbatical to focus on their spiritual development. While discussions of shmitta often focus on the laws defining the inactivity of the land, equally as significant is the passivity of the farmer. In his or her refraining from working the land, they express tremendous faith, and inspiring sacrifice for the word of God.

In their chosen restraint the farmer becomes a hero of Israel, and teaches us a remarkable value. For six years their income is secured by the sweat of their brow, in the seventh year they are nourished and secured by faith, generosity and good will. This heroic act of sacrifice by the God-fearing farmer, is not one that is overly celebrated or championed but rather simply is expected of the God-fearing farmer. For six years the farmer uses their hands daily, and in the seventh year they use their mind, heart and soul.

In the early days of COVID Bnai and Bnot Mitzvah made adjustments to keep the community safe. We celebrated their significant birthdays in different ways, and families and friends worked hard to support them through these unexpected changes. Today we find ourselves in a different place. Most events have returned to relative normality and many are grateful for the opportunity to celebrate their significant occasions within the context of their community, and among their friends.

This is why we should take a moment to think about the Jewish farmer, who quietly makes sacrifices to observe shmitta.  There are few celebrations of this sacrifice, and, 6, 8, or 10 months into the year, while the field is overgrown and bills are piling up, it would be understandable if the farmer begins to feel lousy. It can feel lonely to look out of your window and see a functioning world, while yours is left unattended too.

While many are having the celebrations they wished for, there are still some families who are impacted by COVID and are making difficult decisions to change their smachot so as not to play a part in spreading COVID within the community. These sacrifices are much more closely aligned to experience of the Jewish farmer observing shmitta than the smachot of the early days of COVID. With the world having made progress, it feels bizarre that we are still being impacted by COVID, and is a hard pill to swallow, especially a young man or woman excited to begin their lives as adult members of the Jewish community.

While all of the sacrifices and adjustments made over these years have been inspiring, it is in this moment in particular, when we are so desperate for life to be normal, and we might experience our values and desires competing with each other, that the Jewish farmer reminds us that it is our values that guide us and inspire us both when celebrated in public and in private quiet moments. It is how our values impact our private choices that teach children the significance of these values. The farmer teaches his or her children faith by refraining from working their land every seven years, with no fanfare nor celebration, and it is the families that continue to make adjustments to their smachot that teach us dignity, grace and the value of life.

If you are a family that finds yourself in May ’22 planning a simcha, conflicted by how to celebrate, then finding yourselves making changes due to COVID, please know that the values that are guiding you through this difficult process are deeply inspiring, and, like the Torah promises the Jewish farmer who observes shmitta, your sacrifice will be a source of blessing for prosperity and good health for your families and your community.

May we only share the happiest occasions, in good health, together.

This short Dvar Torah is shared in honor of a special family, and the sacrifices they made this Shabbat, to ensure COVID doesn’t spread in our community. May they only know happiness, have good health, & share many smakhot within their family and our community.

About the Author
Formerly the Assistant Rabbi of Cong. Ohab Zedek in NYC, and The Hampton Synagogue, Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer is the Rabbi of the growing, young community, Pikesville Jewish Congregation, in Pikesville, MD.
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