Parashat Behar — What will we eat?
This week’s parasha opens with the mitzvah of shemitah, the prohibition to sow and harvest fields one year per every seven. The produce that grows is hefker — available for anyone to eat — and does not legally belong to the owner of the field.
When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of God. 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 God: 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 (Leviticus 25:2–7).
It turns out that despite the promise that God makes to the Israelites — that “you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce” — and despite another promise later on to provide satiety and security for the people, the Torah assumes that people would be afraid to abandon their fields for an entire year. Who wouldn’t be afraid to leave their lands fallow? How could you be sure what and how much produce would grow from uncultivated land? The Torah addresses these fears in advance:
You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security; the land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill, and you shall live upon it in security. And should you ask, “What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in (Leviticus 18–22).
However, by this point in history, food preservation strategies were already well-established. It is obvious that people would try to save food in advance. Moreover, God promises satiety in general and in advance of shemitah years in particular. Were these guarantees insufficient to quell the Israelites’ fears of a food shortage?
They probably were, but only to a degree. Perhaps we must understand their concerns — “What will we eat?” — not as an expression of distress about merely food security but a general concern of confronting the uncertainty brought by shemitah.
People prefer the known and familiar. Change is hard and shemitah disrupted the Israelites’ standard agricultural routine. Leaving the land fallow for a year had never been done before. It was an experiment with unknown results, and people were afraid. I am certain that as each shemitah year approached, farmers fretted anew. The Jerusalem talmud is filled with stories of the sages dealing with the economic uncertainty produced by this sabbatical year. From the allusion of the Mishna and Talmud to those who were “suspected on [shemitah”, we can infer that many preferred to continue working instead of taking the year off. People cling to security, even in the face of better potential options. They will do a lot just to avoid uncertainty.
Shemitah also throws the economy out of balance. It undermines routine and economic certainty broadly. It forces us to confront a new and different future, one that requires leaps in infrastructure, preservation, innovation and production to get through, especially as populations grow and standards of living increase. Indeed, in the short term, this constraint leads to the development of creative solutions, increased supply chain efficiency, new technology and immediate sustenance. Examples of this in modern times include hydroponics and crops growing in Arava desert conditions south of the demarcation line for Shemita. In the long-term, the innovative technological solutions lead to economic growth. In The Tree of Life and Prosperity — in the chapter titled City Mouse — I expanded on Joseph’s redesign of the Egyptian economy, and how the innovations he employed and the liquidity he created leading up to the seven years of famine ultimately restarted the economy.
But Shemitah’s unique opportunity lies not only in its preparations, but also in the year itself. During the year, produce from fields belongs not to their owners but to everyone. The entire community is equally entitled to enjoy what grows forth from each field, opening channels of dialogue between different farmers and members of society. When people visit one another’s fields, they meet, learn and even establish new professional relationships. Such disruption in routine can be difficult at first, but provides fruitful rewards over the long term. Indeed, abstaining from field labor enables people to pursue talents and interests that they may not have managed to cultivate previously due to lack of time. Removed from the hamster wheel of agricultural production, people are afforded the time and energy to consider more broadly what they should produce, why and how.
During this Shemita year, we are living through much uncertainty in the world writ large: terrorism, volatility in the capital markets, inflation, etc. Now more than ever, we must consider how to translate the aforementioned social and economic opportunities of Shemita into reality. How can we create platforms that facilitate innovation based on trust, peer-to-peer interaction and collaborative growth; and companies that provide useful goods and services with these values embedded? How can we reconsider assumptions and trajectories and create something different? What leapfrogging innovation can we think of to better feed the planet as climate change increases its impact. The uncertainty begs us to begin anew, and to empower others with a spirit of brotherhood and innovate together for mutual benefit.
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