These week’s double Torah portion, BeHar-Bechukotai, concludes the third book of this year’s Torah reading cycle – we finish Leviticus this week. Nevertheless, we continue with business-as-usual again as we immediately begin reading in the 4th book of the Torah, Numbers, next week.
Is there ever really a break? A true vacation? Not from the Torah, no: We famously finish reading the entire cycle of Torah on Simchat Torah and then right away open another scroll and start all over again at the Beginning! The message is that Torah is the exception, the one thing in human experience that – like God – touches our lives to the eternal and never-concluding, the ever-present now.
But what about on a personal level?
Many of us are solidifying our summer plans right about now, or perhaps some of us are already in the operational phase of those plans. How ‘good’ were you at truly relaxing and vacationing when your kids were smaller? How about now? Is there anything in your daily routine that you cannot take a break from, or don’t want to?
Think: news, or coffee, or your emails – could you take a ‘vacation’ from them just to know that you could if you decided to? I’m not so sure we are in as complete control of our lives as much as we like to think we are….
Interestingly, it is a cessation from normal business and other activities that is the primary subject of the Torah portion this week. We are told that every fifty years “shall be a Jubilee (“Yovel” in Hebrew) for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.” (Lev. 25:10).
The Jubilee Year is a year of land lying fallow. Thus, the farmers (and most folks were farmers back in the day) have to find other focus and purpose in their lives aside from their jobs and routines. All debts are forgiven. Indentured servants get respite and go free. Everyone who had to liquify assets over the last 49 years by selling their family farm, gets it all back and returns home – the hierarchy of society is restored to a baseline equality.
Commenting on this passage, Rabbi Yitzkhak Nafkha (third century CE) looked at Psalm 103:20 (“Bless the Eternal, O God’s angels, mighty creatures who do God’s bidding, ever obedient to God’s word.”) and wrote, “This is referring to those who observe the [mitzvah of letting the land lie fallow]. Why are they called ‘mighty creatures’? Because while it’s common for a person to fulfill a commandment for one day, for one Shabbat, or even for one month, can one do so for an entire year? This person sees their field and trees ownerless, their fences broken and fruits eaten, yet controls themself and does not speak. Our rabbis taught, ‘Who is strong? One who controls passion.’ Can there be a mightier creature than a person like this?” (Midrash Tanchuma on Parashat Vayikra).
Although we are not celebrating the Jubilee year nowadays, the extremity of its idea, of such a radical, year-long, society-wide ‘vacation’ is startling.
Recall for a moment the profound upheaval at the start of Covid, when the whole world by-and-large stayed home. But the Jubilee was all positive – none of the fear and danger and suddenness of the pandemic. It could be planned for and welcomed and fully utilized.
We have a sense of the endurance that people must have developed during those Jubilee years; for the attitude of seeing an opportunity to embrace the new circumstances knowing they were temporary…even though, like us, they suspected nothing would really be exactly the same afterward. In some ways, the great disruption that was the Jubilee year was, ultimately, a tool for clarifying values, ensuring societal balance and health, and protecting ecological sustainability.
As we prepare for what will hopefully be a wonderful summer for us all, perhaps we can consider building into our plans these aspects of what vacation…the Torah recognizes the need and value of a true vacation!… should be all about!
Rabbi Michael Schwartz