Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, Leviticus 25:1-27:34
With this week’s double Torah portion of Behar-Bechukotai, we finish the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus. The verses in Behar detail the Holy One’s commandments for resting the land given to the Israelites every seventh, or sabbatical, year as well as His laws for the Jubilee, the 50th year.
These regulations for resting the land reminded me of some of my recent experiences — and failures — with gardening. I love to garden, despite having the problems of a city-dwelling gardener: too little land and not enough sun. Every inch of the usable portion of our land has been planted in the 30 years I have happily gardened there.
A few years ago, my son and I went to the Carnegie Science Center to see a movie about monarch butterflies. We were alarmed to learn about the endangered status of the monarch. According to the movie, the population of this butterfly has been reduced 90 percent in recent years because of the near eradication of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only food source, and the butterfly’s habitat being lost to urban sprawl.
My son and I were touched by the plight of the monarch. Since then, I have been trying to introduce milkweed into my garden, with little success. Generally I have a “green thumb,” so I’ve been puzzled at my inability to grow milkweed, an uncultivated plant that used to grow “like a weed” in the wild. It was not until I had read this week’s parshah that it occurred to me — in the 30 years as caretaker of my garden, not once have I let it lie fallow. It has missed four sabbatical years of rest during those three decades, which is more than halfway to the Jubilee year of rest.
Like the land, we humans need our rest. In great wisdom, the Holy One gave us the gift of rest every seventh day and also commanded us to observe it. In the closing verse of Behar, we find this admonition: “You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, Mine, the Lord’s.” This concept of a day of rest every seven days was new to all peoples of the ancient world, not only to the former slaves to whom it was given.
In conflict with this commandment is our American work culture, which oftentimes demands more of our time. It’s not unusual for many of us to be “on call” to the office or on duty seven, and not six days, of the week. How many of us regularly scroll through work e-mails or take work-related calls on a Saturday? How many of us eschew the vacations to which we are entitled? For many of us, Shabbat is crammed full of errands and work. We never allow ourselves to “lie fallow,” and so we seldom give ourselves the opportunity to renew and recharge.
We should take to heart the lesson in this week’s Torah portion, see the seventh day of rest as a necessity and approach the Holy One’s gift with anticipation and joy. And, if we are in a position to do so, plant milkweed in some rested soil for the monarch!
Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek!
Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.