Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Liza Bernstein. Liza has spent the past three summers at camp, most recently as Rosh Machon 2019. After graduating from Penn, Liza has stared at a lot of Gemara, at Hadar and the Conservative Yeshiva, and is starting a PhD program in the fall in which she hopes to stare at more Gemara. She hopes to one day join the Workmen’s Circle.
The World on Hold: Reflections on Parashat Behar-Bechukotati
by Liza Bernstein
When days and weeks feel the same, how do we sanctify time? In last week’s parashah, Shabbat is mandated to the Israelites as a time marker. This week we read two parashiot, Behar and Bechukotai, and we receive another means of sanctifying time: the sh’mitah year. In strikingly similar language, God says:
וּבַשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗ת שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָאָ֔רֶץ שַׁבָּ֖ת לַיהוָ֑ה שָֽׂדְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תִזְרָ֔ע וְכַרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תִזְמֹֽר׃
In the seventh year, it will be a Shabbat, a Shabbat for God; you will not sow your fields and you will not prune your vineyards.
Just as Shabbat is described as a time for God, the entire sh’mitah year, a year in which we cease working the land, is mandated as a time for God. Ibn Ezra, in exploring the connection between Shabbat and sh’mitah, goes so far as to imply that in the sh’mitah year we receive a hint of what the creation of the world was like. What do we do during a time when we’ve stopped the world? How do we act when the world is being re-created?
The sh’mitah year is a reminder that what we have in this world is not ours. My teacher, Rav Joel Levy, once taught me that on Shabbat, we are asked to see the world as perfect. When we walk the streets, the laws of Shabbat forbid us from picking up trash on the ground, from fixing what’s broken. Instead, we’re given an imperfect world and asked to see it as whole. While Shabbat is a day in which we are guests and not agents, the sh’mitah year is an entire immersion in that world. We are asked to put away our tools and to remind ourselves that none of this is ours. As we rebuild our relationship with the world, we see the imperfect as perfect, and we reassess ourselves. How does our year of being a guest help us become a better agent?
It is difficult to read about the sh’mitah year and not think about our current world in which everything is seemingly on hold. What is a secular sh’mitah year? We expect the sh’mitah year; we make arrangements. What do we do during a time that wasn’t pre-ordained, a time that didn’t allow us to prepare? Poignantly, after we learn about the sh’mitah year, the words עם and אח, neighbor and fellow, appear fourteen times (in just Parashat Behar!). Inextricable from our relationship with the world is our relationship with those around us. In this week’s parashah, we are told: ולא תונו איש את–עמיתו, do not wrong one another. When our world is on pause, there is a pervasive feeling of loss. A loss of control and a loss of normalcy permeates our lives. This week’s parashah reminds us that we still have control over our relationships.
As we step back from the world, we are now, perhaps more than ever, consciously engaging with our communities. We are checking in on each other, donating food, and remembering the importance of tzedakah. We are kikar dancing online, singing our favorite mishmar songs, joining in on eidah Zoom calls. Together we are striving to be better – to build better relationships, to fix what we didn’t know was broken, to prepare ourselves to be better agents and leaders in this world. While we talk to our camp friends and join online Kikar from Afar programs, we are reminded that camp is much more than a place in Conover, Wisconsin. Camp is a community, a values system, and an entire world that pushes us to think of who we are and who we can be.