Marianne Novak

The Sh’mittah Year of Grief


My beautiful daughter Batsheva Chaya Stadlan a”h died almost seven years ago. It is hard to believe that so much time has passed as my memory can access the day she left this world for the next with great facility.

The number seven is forever linked in my mind to Batsheva. Her name can be translated as bat-daughter -of Sheva- seven. One of her nicknames was bat7. One of her childhood friends recently ran the London marathon and had a pink logo of ‘B 7’ on the back of her jersey to honor Batsheva’s memory.

The number seven in Judaism is laden with meaning. God created rest on the seventh day of creation and hence we observe Shabbat. In our tradition, seven represents the complete essence of God. When my daughter arrived into this world with golden red hair and creamy peach-hued skin, my husband and I named her, in a postpartum haze, after his paternal grandmother Batya ( lit. daughter of God). We were certain of the similarities of the names- Batya and Batsheva- as Batsheva did absolutely embody being not only our daughter but God’s too.

Seven also represents the Sh’mittah year, the agricultural Sabbatical as decreed in the Torah. First in Exodus 23:10-11, where its purpose is to help the needy.

י) וְשֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים תִּזְרַ֣ע אֶת־אַרְצֶ֑ךָ וְאָסַפְתָּ֖ אֶת־תְּבוּאָתָֽהּ׃ (יא) וְהַשְּׁבִיעִ֞ת תִּשְׁמְטֶ֣נָּה וּנְטַשְׁתָּ֗הּ וְאָֽכְלוּ֙ אֶבְיֹנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ וְיִתְרָ֕ם תֹּאכַ֖ל חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה כֵּֽן־תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְכַרְמְךָ֖ לְזֵיתֶֽךָ׃

(10) Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; (11) but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.

And then later in Leviticus 25:1-4, where the seventh year is a Shabbat for God.

א) וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר ה׳ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בְּהַ֥ר סִינַ֖י לֵאמֹֽר׃ (ב) דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם כִּ֤י תָבֹ֙אוּ֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֖י נֹתֵ֣ן לָכֶ֑ם וְשָׁבְתָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַה׳׃ (ג) שֵׁ֤שׁ שָׁנִים֙ תִּזְרַ֣ע שָׂדֶ֔ךָ וְשֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים תִּזְמֹ֣ר כַּרְמֶ֑ךָ וְאָסַפְתָּ֖ אֶת־תְּבוּאָתָֽהּ׃ (ד) וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗ת שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַה׳…

(1) ה׳ spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: (2) Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of ה׳. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. (4) But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of ה׳…

But the term used to describe this agricultural break is not Shabbat Shabbaton La’aretz- a Shabbat for the land- but rather is Sh’mittah, which means release as also during this time all debts are released, nullified, as described in Deuteronomy 15: 1-2.

א) מִקֵּ֥ץ שֶֽׁבַע־שָׁנִ֖ים תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה שְׁמִטָּֽה׃ (ב) וְזֶה֮ דְּבַ֣ר הַשְּׁמִטָּה֒ שָׁמ֗וֹט כׇּל־בַּ֙עַל֙ מַשֵּׁ֣ה יָד֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַשֶּׁ֖ה בְּרֵעֵ֑הוּ לֹֽא־יִגֹּ֤שׂ אֶת־רֵעֵ֙הוּ֙ וְאֶת־אָחִ֔יו כִּֽי־קָרָ֥א שְׁמִטָּ֖ה לַה׳׃

(1) Every seventh year, you shall practice remission of debts. (2) This shall be the nature of the remission: all creditors shall remit the due that they claim from their fellow [Israelites]; they shall not dun their fellow [Israelites] or kin, for the remission proclaimed is of ה׳.

Seven years is an enormous time to grieve. You never get over your loss- nor should you- but each year, as one of my fellow grief support group members likes to say, it gets a little easier to carry. Perhaps in this Sh’mittah year of my grief, I can learn to release some of the sadness. Perhaps in the way that Sh’mittah creates a renewal of the land and the Jewish people by allowing God to shoulder some of the burden, I, too, can release some of my grief and allow ה׳ to comfort me and renew myself and be more present for my family. Sh’mittah is something I can use to give my heart a rest.

When I talk about my daughter, I say עליה השלום- upon her should be the ultimate peace, the peace in Heaven. But after seven years of the heavy lifting of the anguish of loss, perhaps the only way she can achieve that Divine rest is if I also release, if not all then at least some of my heartache. Grief is so hard to endure and there is always a lingering fear that if you lighten the weight, even by the smallest bit, you will somehow diminish your lost loved one’s light. This Sh’mittah year of loss, I want to believe that my lessening of my burden will give Batsheva’s light and love the ability to shine even brighter.

Living in the intense space of grief is not living. It does nothing really to honor the memory of who you have lost. It ironically makes it all about your own suffering. And maybe it prevents a lost loved one’s soul from truly achieving eternal rest. I believe that my daughter is looking down upon me and I want her to see me happy when I’m thinking about her. I know that her love for me would not allow her to rest if she only saw me in constant pain over losing her. So I try my best to keep the memory of her beautiful life alive and include her in my heart at all the family milestone events she could not physically attend since she passed away.

This Pesach my family and I were privileged to be in Israel and celebrate the holiday of freedom with our Jewish family that sadly at this writing is still not yet free. Batsheva loved Israel and spent the last months of her life there. As I try do, I imagined her with us – her Abba, sister, brother and me- at the Seder, traveling to the Galil, at an Ishai Ribo concert and shopping in Mamila. Batsheva was davening with us and families of those still held hostage by Hamas, Erev Yom Tov in front of the Prime Minister’s house in Jerusalem.

As we left Jerusalem for our flight home, I saw a leftover sign on a field from the last Sh’mittah year of 2021-2022.

! כאן שומרים שמיטה
‘Here, we observe Sh’mittah!’
-reminding me to give myself permission to release some of my pain, to release the idea that the only way I can show love to my daughter is through sadness and to release my ache , so that my love to her can pierce the Heavens and in turn her love can release upon me.

תהא נשמתה צרורה בצורת החיים-
The 7th yahrzeit of Batsheva Chaya Stadlan-
בתשבע חיה בת נועם יגאל ורנה-
begins on the 25th of Nisan, כ״ה ניסן.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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