My first composed sermon during shelter-in-place addresses the question of whether, in fact, we should continue with this difficult but essential practice. I believe Parashat B'har speaks directly to this question, urging us to refrain, as much as we can, from the activities of ordinary life.
The Choice to Refrain: Staying Home During Coronavirus
All of us are aware of the difficult tension facing our country today. In an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, our society—and with it our economy—entered a state of suspended animation. Two months in, and with the virus still raging at least here in Illinois, we remain as wary as ever of the effects of this disease. At the same time, the American people yearn to reengage, to “return to business” as soon as possible. We stand at the intersection of a force of nature and human responsiveness, asking ourselves whether and how we can once again take charge of our own lives.
This tension, located where human and earth connect, is highlighted in this week’s Torah reading. Like so many other essential ideas, the Torah contains two perspectives on the issue, challenging us to make sense of what appear to be competing realities.
First, the opening lines of this week’s Torah portion:
The Eternal spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: 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 the Eternal. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Eternal: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce—you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield (Lev. 25:1-7).
These verses describe the sabbatical year. Every seven years, the land gets a break just as we get a break every seven days – as it says שְׁנַת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ, “it shall be a year of a Shabbat for the land” (Lev. 25:5). The thought of ceasing farmwork, of calling halt to productive labor, seems unimaginable … though less so today than in year’s past. And even if leaving fields fallow for a season is a time-tested best practice of settled agriculture, I’m not familiar with any other societies that suggest that every field should lie fallow at once.
As scary as this sabbatical year seems, the Torah insists that it be observed. The land, we are reminded, is not ours to do with as we wish. At least one seventh of the time, the land gets to be wild; we may eat of it as the animals do but not as cultivators and conquerors. Indeed, God is very clear: “For the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me (Lev. 25:23).
Every seven years we are reminded that human progress is not the fullness of God’s plan. This week’s reading from Leviticus decenters us and repositions the land as a primary character in the story of the world.
But a parallel passage in Exodus frames things differently:
Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; 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 (Ex. 23:10-11).
The English here obscures an important difference in the text. In Leviticus, we read שָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת, “The land shall observe a sabbath” (Lev. 25:2). The subject of the sentence—indeed, the subject of much of the passage—is the land itself.
Here, however, we read תִּשְׁמְטֶנָּה וּנְטַשְׁתָּהּ, literally, “You shall let [the land] go, and you shall abandon it” (Ex. 23:11). The role for the human being is much more active. In theory, the farmers could work the land – the sabbath here doesn’t happen automatically. People can choose to keep at their work, to ignore God’s instructions, even though it’s bad for the land and bad for the rest of society. In Exodus, humans can’t just sit back and watch the land observe Shabbat; rather, they must cultivate an active inactivity.
Leviticus foregrounded the earth, while Exodus keeps human beings front and center. Both want the land to lie fallow, but they see the potential for human power very differently. These two perspectives, I suggest, offer us important and relevant lessons about our own place in the natural drama unfolding around us during the COVID-19 crisis.
With unparalleled clarity, we have been reminded that we do not own the world, that nature has power and agency far surpassing our ability to control it. This is the vision of Leviticus, a message of radical human smallness. We are but strangers on this land, which predated us by billions of years and which will outlive us for lifetimes beyond measure. Leviticus insists that we understand this most basic message: sometimes, nature exceeds our grasp, and all we can do is watch as it unfolds according to its own design.
The vision of Exodus is different. Yes, you can work the land if you choose – but doing so is wrong. You must instead take the action of abandoning it for a year in order to generate the greatest social good. After all, when the farmers have put down their plows and the fallow earth begins to yield, it is the needy and the poor who will have their first choice of the wild fruit. The land’s sabbath is secondary here to the needs of the community, which are attended by the active inaction of those who usually are in control.
And this, I believe, is where we find ourselves in the current moment. On the one hand, we have witnessed with awe the power that nature can wield over us. Though our brightest minds bend the tools of science toward finding a cure, we remain, by and large, at the mercy of a disease we cannot control.
And yet we do have choices to make. Some agree to remain at work, bringing essential healing and nourishment even at great personal risk. Others—and this is most of us—have the choice to refrain: to avoid the workplace, to stay distant from our loved ones, and to continue to give wide berth to one another and to the disease that would both multiply and divide were we to come together. Even as we can’t control the coronavirus, our choices do have a major impact on its depth and extent.
Let me be clear: I believe that this week’s Torah portion speaks directly to today’s situation and offers us guidance. We have the responsibility, where we can, to continue to “abandon the land” so to speak, to persist in maintaining social distance while it remains unsafe to come together. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinic association, puts it this way: “Reform rabbis and our institutional partners are observing shelter-in-place orders, even where the law does not require, in order to best protect the health of our communities.” This choice recognizes the integrity and power of nature and also affirms of our responsibility to the most vulnerable in our society. Even those of us with lower risk of serious infection must protect those who are unsafe by abandoning—as much as we can—the proverbial work of the land.
Much about this week’s parashah challenges us, but it does so with compassion. Knowing the anxiety its rules would produce, the Torah reminds us that even as we are strangers in our own land, we sojourn with our God. The Eternal is with us—in the myriad forms we might imagine—as we face this scourge together. So our prayers echo with the closing line of this week’s haftarah reading:
Heal me, O Eternal one, and I will be healed. Rescue me, and I will be rescued. For you are my glory (Jer. 17:14).
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