Toiling in Torah

Nov 24, 2014

by Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin

Once again Rosh Hashanah is upon us and it’s time to take stock of our spiritual accomplishments and shortcomings. In which areas were we successful and where do we still need to make more of an effort? In addition, what new challenges are we ready to accept upon ourselves in the coming year?

This year in Eretz Yisrael, Rosh Hashanah carries with it something very special – the ushering in of the shmittah year. For many of us in Israel, this is a complex time dealing with issues such as watering our garden, deciding where to buy our vegetables, etc. However, one who focuses only on the prohibitions may be missing the point. In reality, not working our fields for an entire year affords us the ability to direct our attention more fully towards spiritual growth. A comparison can be drawn to Shabbat, where refraining from work is not the only goal. Shabbat is our weekly opportunity to focus more on the profundities of our lives and less on mundane affairs.

It is in this sense that the Ibn Ezra frequently compares the shmittah year with the Shabbat. Both allow us to get more deeply involved in our Torah learning and spiritual growth for the purpose of rejuvenating our spirituality. The Tur (Orach Chaim 290) says that after sleeping on Shabbat afternoon one should learn Torah. He quotes the following midrash: “The Torah said to G-d, ‘When the Jews enter the land of Israel one will run to his vineyard and another to his field. What will be with me?’ G-d replied, ‘I have a match for you and its name is Shabbat. Because they are not working for a whole day they have time to learn you.’” Rav Hutner, zt’l, points to the fact that the mitzvah of hakheil (which comes at the end of the shmittah year) is in essence a reliving of the original Matan Torah. Every seven years the Jewish people must once again reaffirm their acceptance of the Torah through intensive study for a full year, and thereby revitalize their relationship to G-d and His Torah. This is necessary because of the probability that our connection to Torah weakened after six years of mundane activities and materialistic endeavors.

My grandfather, Reb Yaakov, zt’l, points out that there is a connection between Parshat Bechukotai, with the blessings and the curses and the previous parsha, Behar, where the laws of shmittah are enumerated. Rashi comments that “Im bechukotai teileichu,” (If you will follow My decrees), really means that we should be ameilim b’Torah, (toilers in the study of Torah). In other words, if we toil in our Torah study we will receive the blessings. If we don’t, Rashi adds, we will receive the curses. Why should there be such a severe punishment for not toiling in Torah? The implication is that even regular Torah study is not sufficient if it isn’t accompanied by toiling in Torah. Therefore, says Reb Yaakov, Rashi is teaching us that the blessings and curses of Parshat Bechukotai are the inevitable consequences of how we behave during the shmittah year. Every seven years one must take a year off and actually toil in Torah, (study alone is not enough), and if one does not fulfill this obligation, he isn’t fulfilling the mitzvah of shmittah properly. Torah study in the shmittah year must be qualitatively different than that of other years, in order that it lead to a renewed commitment to the receiving of the Torah at Sinai.

Most of us, whether in Eretz Yisrael or in the Diaspora, are not farmers and we do not have fields to work. But, the imperative to re-establish our relationship with G-d’s Torah is still a very relevant obligation and challenge.

This year when we hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, let us all also hear a call to take inventory of what we have accomplished in our last seven years of Torah study and renew and intensify our commitment for the coming seven years.

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