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Behar 5782 - Expecting the Unexpected

May 21, 2022 - Iyar 20, 5782

My Pop-pop, my maternal grandfather, always used to say, “Bring a swimsuit wherever you go. You never know when you might need it.” Throughout my childhood and up until today, my parents’ home has always been stocked with a whole lot of snacks, extra towels and sheets, and of course, extra dog leashes and treats, just in case a visitor may knock on the door. Through the actions of those who raised me, I have learned to expect the unexpected and to plan accordingly.

In the past few weeks of Torah reading and 929, we have encountered a number of mitzvot that cannot be properly fulfilled without planning for their possibility. We cannot pay our workers their wages on time unless we know that no matter what happens, we will have enough money in the bank at least to give what we have promised (Lev. 18:14). We cannot return a lost object or help our enemy’s animal with its burden if we haven’t scheduled extra time in our day for the stray mitzvah that might come upon us (Exodus 22:4-5). 

This weekend, in both our parashah and our 929 reading, we come across one supreme example of planning for the known and the unknown - sh’vi’it or the Sabbatical year. After each six years, God commands, the children Israel must leave their land fallow for the seventh year. During that seventh year, everyone’s land belongs to God and to no particular human individual; therefore, any person or animal is free to eat whatever sprouts from the untended land. If one full year without harvest isn’t threatening enough for an agricultural society, God reminds us: “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” (Lev. 25:22). No matter what happens in the initial six years, whether healthy sunshine and rain or all-consuming fire and drought, the land lies fallow in the seventh year, with one more year of no new growth. Even if the Israelites know they will have to be prepared for a seventh year without harvest, they cannot know how their crops will fare for the first six years. 

Although I am no farmer, I would imagine that preparing for the unexpected in this scenario would require careful thought. Which crops will be hearty enough to sprout some growth even after their initial harvest? Which crops are easy to dry and store, and how much should we store between years, in case there’s not enough in the sixth? How do we diversify enough for at least some of our crops to survive any bout of weather that comes our way? In a society that knows its produce is limited by time, agricultural calculations must center on a certain familiarity with the unknown.

In our own time, even for those of us who no longer rely on agriculture for our livelihoods, we still have daily opportunities to plan for what we cannot foresee. We start with the practical - bringing a sweater to the restaurant, even if it’s 100 degrees outside, or saving funds just in case our monthly paycheck or insurance premiums change. At the synagogue, we invest in security, just in case of a worst case scenario. At the same time, we buy new mahzorim and haggadot because of our hope for the future of our congregation, the possibility that we may expand in years to come.  

My favorite modern Midrash on expecting the unexpected comes from my college professor Rabbi Helen Plotkin, with her reading of the concept of pe’ah. Just a few parshiyot ago, we learned that in all years, a person should leave the produce that grows in the corners of her fields unharvested, so that the poor and the stranger can eat their fill. In Mishnah Peah, the Rabbis explain that the concept of peah is one of the things in the world that has no measure, along with offering the first produce of one’s field to God, coming to Jerusalem for pilgrimage festivals, acts of loving-kindness, and the study of Torah. Peah, leaving the corners of our fields, is listed in the same breath as some of the most important acts of our Jewish tradition.

After learning the text together for the first time, my rabbi and teacher challenged me to think about the agricultural field in terms of time. When we schedule absolutely all of the time we have, we have not left anything for the wanderer or the person who needs us. However, when we make time available for the unexpected to happen, when we bare the corners of our modern fields, we increase our ability to be present with whoever may need us. By leaving time open in our day, we also allow ourselves to follow adventure when it presents itself. We allow ourselves to sit with disappointment and tragedy when we need that extra space. Beyond the metaphor of time, when we leave our expectations just a little bit open, we can more readily enter the mindset of wonder, amazement, or even, of anger or despair, without the skepticism or disbelief that may otherwise come. 

While peah may not have a specific measure, we certainly can go too far in planning for the unknown. When we save so much of our money that could have otherwise gone to charity or to celebration of a loved one, or when we stay inside because we’re too afraid of what might happen out there, we waste our opportunity for mitzvot just as much as if we had not made space for the unexpected at all. Even with all of the preparation in the world, the Israelites cannot ignore the possibility that they will not have enough to eat in the seventh and eighth year. We cannot ignore the reality that twists and turns will happen in our lives, regardless of what we do to get ourselves ready.

Even in the Biblical case of shmitah, God knows the complexity of expecting the unexpected. In anticipation of the people’s anxiety about food in the seventh year, God promises to bless the people that the sixth year may provide enough for the three remaining years. While it may be lovely to imagine an ancient Israel with bountiful harvest every six out seven years, I read something different out of God’s words. Regardless of what may happen in year six, you will be blessed enough in years seven and eight to not look back, to not regret. 

Regardless of how much planning you do, once the planning is over and reality has set in, you have done enough. Just as the people Israel have the option of taking food from others’ fields in the seventh and eighth years and option of taking from the communal tzedakah collection, we, too, have ways to push forward even in the least expected situations. We have family and friends, a synagogue, and the flexibility to define new values and actions in years to come. Just as nothing will come from the people Israel lamenting their efforts at farming the last six years, nothing will come from lamenting our lack of preparation. We learn from our mistakes for the next seven years, and we enter that new cycle with a sense of wonder and openness to the infinite possibilities to come. Perhaps, that dream job will come as if from nowhere, or perhaps, that swimsuit at the bottom of the suitcase will come in handy. Shabbat Shalom.

Fri, December 2 2022 8 Kislev 5783