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Having just celebrated Lag B’omer, I thought we’d take a look at Rabban Shimon Bar Yochai, the hero of the day, together with the parsha we read this Shabbat (in Israel), Behar.
Bar Yochai is quoted extensively throughout the Talmud, often as Rav Shimon. The most well-known story about him tells of his escape from the Romans by hiding in a cave, together with his son, for 13 years. He had severely criticized Roman engineering, city planning, and culture, calling them decadent, oppressive, and mercenary, and was therefore wanted by the Roman authorities. While hiding in a cave, he and his son studied Torah, and were sustained miraculously by a carob tree and spring.
When they finally were able to come out of hiding, they encountered regular folks going about their daily business, plowing and sowing, and were highly critical of this waste of time, time that could be better spent studying Torah. The divine response to this approach was to send them back to their cave, presumably to learn to not be so critical of the physical world and its needs, which is what happens, more or less. The story goes on, Rav Shimon enjoys a hot bath and engineers a road (sort of), and also apparently kills a few people (!). The story is wonderful, complicated, and I am not doing it justice here – read it yourself, it starts on page 33b (33rd day of the omer, get it?) and ends on 34a. I’d like to concentrate on the negative attitude Rabbi Shimon had towards the work of the material world, and the divine response – “did you come out to destroy my world? Go back to your cave!”
Remarkably, Bar Yochai and his son seem to be more “religious” than God Himself, and preach an ascetic leaving behind of the things of this world in favor of the study of Torah for the sake of the world to come. This approach is unacceptable to God, who is, understandably, proud of the world He created, and wants people to work, enjoy, and use it.
This week’s parsha (in Israel), Behar, contains the laws of Shemitta, the Sabbatical year: “…when you come to the land which I give to you, and the land shall rest, a Sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years shall you prune your vines, and harvest your grain. And on the seventh year there shall be a Sabbatical rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune.”
The idea of the Sabbatical year would seem to be to teach us that the land, the earth, does not actually belong to us, and needs to be respected as God’s. We need to work the land as He commands us – which includes any number of commandments that we share our produce with the poor – and relate to it with the respect, awe, and care that it deserves.
The opening phrase – “Six years shall you sow your field, and six years shall you prune your vines…” can be simply understood as an introductory narrative: this is how the world works, you work the land, you tend your plants; that’s the way of the world. And then, on the seventh year, we recognize God’s ownership of the earth by refraining from that work.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Kil’ayim, 8, 1), however, brings an interesting reading to this. The opening phrase, six years you shall sow your field and tend your vinesand harvest your grain, is part of the law of the Sabbatical year, and should be read as saying six years, and NOT on the seventh. The six years of work are not understood as just a description of normal life; rather, they are a positive commandment: you are commanded to work the land for six years. This reading creates a new halachic angle for the seventh, sabbatical year: there is a negative commandment, to not work on the Sabbatical year, and also a positive commandment to work for six, which means that those who work on the seventh are actually doing two sins, breaking both a negative and a positive commandment. We will not go into the technical side of this, but, rather, focus on how reading the “six years shall you work” as a positive commandment about resting on the seventh year effects our understanding of the mitzvah of Shemitta in general.
It would seem that the only way to fully appreciate a Sabbatical year, to fully grasp it, is from both sides of the equation – to work during the six years, and rest on the seventh. Only by being a part of, being involved with, being an active partner in, God’s creation, can one truly understand what God says a bit later in our parsha – “for the earth is Mine”. The act of working the land for six years is the only way to truly appreciate the magnificent, complicated, precisely calibrated planet God created, sustains, and gives to us. Without the work, the rest is meaningless. Without the daily, physical, secular activity, sanctity is not fully understood. Only by experiencing the miracle of the finely calibrated eco system God created, by being an active part of it, can we appreciate that this earth is truly miraculous, and truly His.
To shut oneself away from the physical world of plowing, sowing, planning, building, making, and retreat to a “cave” of supposed spiritual sanctity, as Simon Bar Yochai did, is to miss the point, to “destroy My world”, to reduce God’s creation to something undesirable, pointless, an obstacle to true spirituality. The positive, secular, Mitzvah of “working for six years” makes it possible to fully do the Mitzvah of resting on the seventh. It is the only way to appreciate the divine nature of the miraculous world we have been given, and interact appropriately with it.