Why a coronavirus break is not a sabbatical break

In Parshat Behar (Vayikra 25:20-22) we learn about the plan for a successful shmita (sabbatical) year in the Land of Israel:

If you shall say “What will we eat in the seventh year, for we have not planted nor gathered our produce”? I shall direct my blessing to you in the sixth year and it will produce enough for three years. You shall plant in the eighth year but you will still be eating from the old produce until the ninth year; until the new produce ripens you shall eat from the old.

The shmita year follows a set calendar. Every seventh year the farmers take a break from working and let the land lay fallow. Here, God is promising us that we will receive extra blessings during the sixth year to carry us through until the ninth year. We know what to expect and we are able to plan accordingly to make sure that we will have enough food to get by while we are not working.

The coronavirus is a totally different situation. It snuck up on us without giving us the time to prepare in any way. As we were thrust in the middle of it we had to try to figure out how to manage. Now that we are in the midst of the plague, countries around the world are trying to learn from their mistakes and move on.

If we look back at the story of Yosef (Breisheet 41), the reason that Egypt was saved from the seven years of famine was because Pharaoh had the dreams about the seven beautiful and robust cows, the seven ugly and gaunt cows, the seven healthy and good ears of grain and the seven thin and scorched ears of grain. Yosef, with God’s help was able to interpret the dreams properly and store up enough grain during the years of plenty to sustain Egypt and beyond during the years of famine. If only we had a heads up like Pharaoh, we would have been able to quickly put a plan in place as Yosef did.

Although some may be comparing this coronavirus break to the shmita year where you have time away from work for introspection, in reality, the situation was thrust upon us and nobody is sure exactly how to handle it. As well, someone planning a sabbatical from their job is in a very different place than an employee who is terminated without notice.

With the shmita year, there is a set beginning and end where one can again plant and harvest. With the coronavirus, there is no end in sight and even if it ends there is talk about it starting up again in a few months to a year.

Shmita as well as the prosperous and lean years in Egypt all ran on cycles of seven. We don’t know when this coronavirus cycle will end. The only cycles of sevens that can give us comfort right now are Shabbat and the upcoming holiday of Shavuot which culminates seven weeks counting the omer, where we can leave off our radios, TVs, phones and computers and take a break from the latest coronavirus news.

May we hear good news and may all who are ill have a speedy recovery.

About the Author
Sharona holds a BA in Judaic Studies from Stern College and an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli Graduate School, Yeshiva University. Sharona was the first Congregational Intern and Madricha Ruchanit at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY. After making aliya in 2004, Sharona founded Torat Reva Yerushalayim, a non profit organization based in Jerusalem which provides Torah study groups for students of all ages and backgrounds.
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