Saturday, Jul 20, 2024

The Farmer, The Gaon, and The Father

Daybreak had arrived and Zorach the farmer was up bright and early, as there was much to be done. After davening and a hearty morning meal, he was off to the fields with some of his workers. Before beginning the new season, they surveyed the vast terrain, land that had to be plowed, cultivated and sowed. Just a few short months ago, it was lush with golden brown wheat, the trees in the groves weighed down by luscious fruit. But now, the fields were empty, except for some remnants of unripened fruit ruined by the harsh winter weather.

Loads of work awaited him, but the yield was well worth the effort. After perusing the land, Zorach knew exactly what had to be done and where to begin. But before commencing, he stood in a corner of the field, humbly lowered his head, and recited a silent prayer. Tears flowed freely onto his cheeks as he said: “Ribono Shel Olam, You are the One Who sustains the world and feeds every single creature, from the tiniest insects to the birds and beasts of the wild, and of course man. Please give me the strength and knowhow to work the fields and bestow upon us Your blessings for bountiful grain and multitudes of fruit.” Only then did the farmer signal to his workers for the work to begin.


It’s not like Zorach lacked the confidence in his agricultural acumen. To the contrary, for years his land had produced the most savory crops in the area, attracting buyers from all over. He had the knowhow, the ambition, and the stamina to work the fields for their potential. But with all of these attributes, he knew full well, “If Hashem will not build the house, in vain do its builders labor on it” (Tehillim 127:1). And when he made the annual trek to Yerushalayim to bring his first fruits, the bikkurim, he cried with heartfelt emotion as he recited the pesukim of Arami Oveid Ovi: Thank You, Hashem, for all You’ve done for me.


It wasn’t always this way. When Zorach first went into farming, he approached it with the typical exuberance of youth. Yes, he knew that he needed siyata diShmaya, but the idea that he was totally dependent on Hashem was not yet deeply ingrained in his heart. Lurking within the inner chamber of his mind, there was still a feeling of kochi ve’otzem yodi, my own ability and strength will get me by. Yes, he was grateful to Hashem at the end of a successful harvest, but he also took pride in his own efficiency and work ethic. That is, until he faced his first Shmittah.


As a child, he received a chinuch to have faith in Hashem, but this sort of bitachon would require superhuman strength. He approached his work in the sixth year with mixed emotions. On the one hand, he was hopeful that Hashem would not forsake him. On the other hand, he felt considerable angst. His bounty this year would have to suffice for much longer than usual. How would this happen? But happen it did.


Zorach davened for Hashem to provide parnassah for his family and that there be food on the table throughout this time. And he saw the words of the Torah come alive before his very eyes: “And if you will say: ‘What will we eat in the seventh year? Behold we will not sow and not gather in our crops. And I will ordain my blessing for You in the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for the three-year period” (Vayikra 25:20-21).


By the end of the sixth year, when Zorach’s fields bloomed more than ever, when he harvested his overwhelming bounty, he had a moment of awakening, with a new realization. How could it be that the same work that he invested every year now suddenly produced triple the amount? It could only be because Hashem was the sole Provider of this bounty. If two-thirds of the harvest had exceeded the effort he put in, it was safe to say that even the fruits grown with his work were also totally the blessing of Hashem. He was merely a tool in the Hands of his Creator working the soil only because hishtadlus was necessary.


Now he understood more than ever how many chassodim from Hashem were necessary to produce an abundant crop even in a regular year. Who created the winds to transport the clouds above his land and the conditions for the clouds to empty their load on his field? He thought about the seemingly dead seeds coming to life just as their outer walls rotted away because of the wetness. How the roots emerged going downwards, while the shoots went upwards, against the force of gravity. How did the plant know exactly which nutrients to extract from the ground and which ones to leave behind?


And once the crops are fully grown, so many of its natural adversaries can strike them down: locusts, animals, vicious storms, and the like. Yet, Hashem prevented all of these from causing damage. And just because there were bountiful crops in previous years was no guarantee that it would happen again this year.


This totally boggled his mind. He thought to himself, “How could I ever have been so foolish to take credit for my successful harvest?” Yes, Shmittah was a totally humbling experience for him. Before commencing work on a new crop, he stood meekly before Hashem and, with emotion, asked for another year of chesed bestowed from heaven.  


When Hashem was ready to give Klal Yisroel the Torah on a place up high, various mountains came to vie for the honor. Mount Tavor claimed that it was worthy for this distinction, for it was so high that the waters of the Mabul did not go above it. Mount Chermon said that the Shechinah should rest upon it for it flattened in order for the Yidden to tread on it as they crossed the Yam Suf. Har Hakarmel voiced its claim as well.


Amidst this argument, a bas kol rang out: “Why do you advance forward, O’ you mountains of majestic peaks” (Tehillim 68:17). Why do you compete with Har Sinai? You all have a defect in comparison to Sinai, for it remained silent and humble while all of you didn’t. On Sinai is where I want to rest My Shechinah and give the Torah (Megillah 29a, Bereishis Rabbah 99).


Shmittah and Har Sinai. Both of them represent one of the most beloved middos to Hashem: anavah, humility. Much has been written about the associations between Shmittah and Har Sinai. Modesty is one of them.


Rav Elchonon Wasserman was once describing to his talmidim the greatness of Rav Akiva Eiger and how deeply we must concentrate on his every word . “Imagine,” he said, “if someone knew the first blatt of the masechta with every commentary of the Rishonim and Acharonim in it, with every diyuk, and the reasoning behind every question and statement on the blatt. Wouldn’t that be impressive?”


“Now imagine,” continued Rav Elchonon, “if someone knew ten blatt Gemara in this manner. Wouldn’t you be amazed by this?” Again the talmidim signaled their approval.


“Now picture someone knowing an entire masechta on this level. Wouldn’t that be astounding?”


“Most definitely,” was their reaction.


“Well that,” said Rav Elchonon, “is the level at which Rav Akiva Eiger mastered the entire Shas!”


My rosh yeshiva, Rav Mordechai Gifter, was wont to say that before one attempts to answer a kasha of Rav Akiva Eiger, he must realize the greatness of the one who asked the question. He compared the gaon to an international chess master who knows every possible move on the chessboard and can perceive the opponent’s every possible step and counter it. If Rav Akiva Eiger left a question unanswered with a tzorich iyun, one can be sure that he anticipated your answer and did not offer it as a solution. Our job is to understand why he discarded our answers.


Yet, with all of his brilliance, with all of his gaonus, this rebbi of Klal Yisroel for the ages displays so much humility in his writings. Recently, while giving shiur to my talmidim, we learned a piece from Rav Akiva Eiger. In it, he asks a brilliant question that he leaves unanswered and that numerous Acharonim try to find a solution for. After he concludes this question of genius, he adds a few words that moved all of us, words that we stressed over and over again. I’m not sure if the talmidim will remember the kasha for a very long time, but they will certainly remember the heartfelt words that rang out from the page: “VaHashem yifkach es einei hoivorosMay Hashem give sight to my eyes which are blinded” (Kesubos 11a).


What astounding humility from this beacon of Torah. It was precisely because of his greatness and his vast knowledge that he understood better than anyone “arukah mei’eretz middahIts measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea” (Iyov 11:9) and how much siyata diShmaya is needed to reach the depths and find the truth.       Shmittah and Har Sinai. What a beautiful connection.


Recently, I attended an aufruf of a talmid. At the Kiddush, the father of the kallah got up to speak. He had all the reason in the world to be proud and to gloat over this happy occasion. The father, an accomplished rov and talmid chochom, a scion of Torah giants, was rejoicing that his daughter was about to marry a metzuyan, the son of a brilliant talmid chochom. But his words were not prideful at all. To the contrary, he thanked Hashem with great humility and said, “How grateful we must be to Hashem, especially in this day and age, when there are so many outside influences to hinder the ruchniyus of our children. Can anyone fool themselves into thinking that it was their own knowhow that raised such a wonderful son or daughter? We can only be mishtadel…but it is ultimately the work of Hashem.” He sure got it right.


Someone once asked the Brisker Rov how he was successful in raising such exemplary children about whom the Chazon Ish said: “The Brisker Rov’s sons are like malachim.” The Rov’s answer was short and to the point: “Tehillim, Tehillim, un noch zogen Tehillim.” For after all of the classes on child psychology and the articles on parenting and building self-esteem, we are only tools in the Hands of our Creator. We must humbly plead before Hashem to the point of tears: “Hashem, our G-d, sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouth and in the mouths of Your people, the family of Yisroel. May we and our offspring and the offspring of Your people, the house of Yisroel, all of us know Your name and study Your Torah for its own sake… Yes, the fruits of our fields…and the fruits of the womb.”


Shmittah and Har Sinai. What a beautiful shidduch.




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