Shabbat 31: Farming and Faith

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

The Torah is full of mitzvot relating to farmers. Whether one is plowing, planting, or harvesting, the Torah has clear guidelines to direct us. One must separate wheat and the vine, avoid plowing with two different animals, leave the corner of the field for the poor, take our first fruits to Jerusalem, and give some of our produce to the kohen, levi and the poor. We must not pick up that which we might drop, nor go back to harvest a forgotten field. Wherever a farmer turns, there is a mitzvah opportunity waiting. 

The reason is obvious. The Torah was given to the Jewish people so that they could establish a model state in the land of Israel, one in which material and spiritual success would go hand-in-hand. For those entering the land, and for millennia afterwards, it was agriculture that was to be the backbone of the economy. What other profession could the Torah focus on? 

But the Torah’s concern goes beyond the practical. It takes great faith to be a farmer. One works for months from dawn to dusk, all the time knowing that if nature does not co-operate, all the work is for naught. Is it any wonder the ancients prayed to rain gods, sun gods and the like? But whether one turned to gods or to G-d, all who farmed knew that they were dependent on factors beyond their control in order for their efforts to bear fruit. 

At the same time, when nature co-operates and the harvest is plentiful, there is the opposite fear—that of forgetting that it is G-d who controls nature. Is it any wonder the Torah warns us “to beware, lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your G-d… and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me’”(Devarim 8:14,17)? With such an attitude most natural, the Torah’s fear is very real.

The farmer must work hard on strengthening his faith, on understanding that despite one’s hard work, without the blessing of G-d, one’s efforts will produce very little. This is not an easy aspect of faith, not because it is hard to understand, but because it is hard to accept. We all know that there are many, many factors beyond our control that determine our success. And the line between great success and failure can be thin and crossed with amazing speed, something we are witnessing before our very eyes. For every bright, hardworking, well-educated and successful businessman, there are others who are equally bright, hardworking and well educated who are not blessed by G-d with equal success. What one calls luck, a believer recognizes as the hand of G-d. We may know this intellectually, but we do not operate by intellect alone, and we much prefer to attribute our success to our own efforts. Such an approach—in moderation—is actually quite healthy and psychologically necessary. To attribute our success fully to G-d would rob us of our initiative, and would be theologically incorrect. G-d is a partner in our success, but He is a silent one. It is man who is the managing partner, who makes the key decisions that impact—but do not control—the outcome. It is our silent Partner Who plays a key role in that determination. 

That one can take pride and credit for one’s work is a necessary gift from G-d. It goes against human nature to work hard, yet feel “others” should get credit for the work. It is the balance between the two that is so difficult and yet so necessary. 

“Reish Lakish says: What is the meaning of the verse (Yishayahu 33:6): ‘Vehaya emunat, and the faith of your times shall be the strength of salvations, wisdom and knowledge; fear of the Lord, that is his treasure?’” (Shabbat 31a). Reish Lakish explains that emunah refers to seder Zeraim, the Mishnaic order of seeds, dealing with the laws of agriculture. This teaching is followed by Rava’s teaching of six questions that we will have to answer on our final day of judgement. In Rava’s understanding, emunah refers to our commercial dealings; nassata venatta b’emunah, were your business dealings conducted faithfully? This teaching would seem to have little to do with that of Reish Lakish, save for the fact that they both use the same proof text.

Whereas for Reish Lakish, faith was expressed via farming, for Rava, it was expressed via commerce. Reish Lakish lived in an agricultural society in the land of Israel, where the Torah laws relating to farmers were applied[1]. Rava lived in Machoza, a cosmopolitan city that was home to many urban, wealthy Jews, for whom commerce was their way of life. 

In other words, both Reish Lakish and Rava saw faith as a reflection of one’s work. Does one recognize G-d’s role as our silent, yet controlling Partner, or does one become so engrossed in one’s efforts that one fails to see beyond one’s self? 

Work can bring one closer to G-d, no less than the Beit Midrash; but it can also lead to us forgetting and ignoring G-d. Ironically, the greater our material success, the greater the risk of spiritual failure.

Much depends on one’s perspective. One who is able to see work as part and parcel of one’s relationship with G-d is be able to spend the bulk of one’s time engaged in service of G-d. Work becomes so much more than earning a living. However, one who fails to see work as a religious activity runs the risk of being spiritually dulled by spending so much time involved in mundane pursuits.

It is the bifurcation between work and religion that goes a long way to explaining how one who is so meticulous regarding many of the mitzvot between man and G-d can be so lax when it comes to the mitzvot relating to money. And it is our business dealings that are the true measure of our faith in G-d. Nassata venata b’emunah is much more than a question as to whether our business dealings were conducted honestly. Rava teaches that how one conducts business dealings is the best demonstration of one’s level of faith. It demonstrates whether one truly believes that, “A person’s entire livelihood is allocated to him during the period from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur” (Beitzah 16a), or whether one thinks one can outmaneuver G-d. 

Massa umatan, referring to the give and take, the rough and tumble, of the business world actually translates as “to lift up and give”. Nassata comes from the root to raise up, to elevate, which is why a president, or the ancient head of the Jewish community, is known as the Nassi. Matan is another way of saying to give. Done properly, our business dealings, whether in farming, health care, investment banking, the arts or anything else, are an opportunity to elevate ourselves by giving to others. Conducted properly, our massa umatan creates a win-win situation, all while strengthening our emunah

 

[1] If the agricultural laws are meant to draw us closer to G-d, there is little reason for them not to be applicable in the Diaspora. Apparently, it is not the land per se which is imbued with holiness. Rather, the Land of Israel is the Divine resting place, allowing us to see the hand of G-d even through the most mundane of activities. Whereas farming is Canada is a means for food production, farming in Israel is an intrinsically holy and religious endeavour.