Must the precepts of Torah have productive purposes? Must they, in other words, “have a point”? Most modern thinkers have thought so. God’s revelation, they assumed, must surely be as rational as the human species that God created to receive it.
But if so, what is the point of revelation? Shouldn’t rational human beings be able to reason our way to whatever God wants without it? Revelation, it was said, jump-started the human project in the dark era of human infancy, but after evolving to proper logic and science, we hardly need it any more. With this thought in mind, liberal thinkers became archaeologists of the spirit: Torah became a mere historical relic to which they pointed as proof of early Hebrew genius.
Most medieval commentators, too, understood that if God had nothing to say beyond what reason might figure out anyway, we might as well just study philosophy. They therefore chose to believe that Jewish law went deeper than reason. Torah must also be a set of symbolic metaphors pointing beyond the obvious.
Take this week’s agrarian laws of the sabbatical year, the insistence that we give the land a rest every seven years. Was God’s point simply to prefigure our own age of ecological sensitivity — in which case we read it just to congratulate ourselves on our ancestors’ ecological prescience? Or is there some further dimension that required revelation, because scientific logic alone would not necessarily come up with it?
Our commentators make much of the fact that the sedra begins with the assurance that “God told Moses” these sabbatical rules “on Mount Sinai.” Since it was way back in Exodus that God spoke at Sinai, why reiterate the point here, if not to demonstrate that the sabbatical rules are more than what Moses might have dreamed up on his own? Any half-way observant farmer might learn to save the land from overuse, but it took revelation to reveal a deeper level of symbolic significance that the sabbatical laws entail.
That symbolic meaning arrives through the twin comments of Akedat Yitzhak and Bahya ibn Pakuda. Taken together, they remind us that we are neither slaves, on one hand, nor fully masters, on the other. The “slave” part is obvious, albeit not particularly relevant to most Americans for whom slavery is hardly an actual threat. For the record, however, a mandated break from working the land does release workers from enforced servitude to their labor.
The “master” part hits home more forcefully, as if written just for us. Released from slavery to our fate, as most of us are, we may easily be deluded into thinking we can be masters of it: Get smart, work hard, and everything is possible. The result is its own kind of servitude: 80-hour weeks and “24/7” availability.
But here’s the sad truth: We are in a lifetime war with entropy, and entropy will win. Our plans will some day falter; our projects will eventually etherealize into tidbits of memories; we will ultimately get sick enough to die. The sabbatical year gives us healthy distance from our quest for mastery. Life is more than a series of projects undertaken, completed, and notched into an achievement belt.
If the sabbatical year is time out from work, then what is it for? In saying, “The sabbatical year shall be to you for food,” says Abrabanel, Torah implies that “we should consume what is good for our souls,” which are in quest of wholeness before we die. The years of our lives are not just for labor, therefore; rather, they constitute “a pathway to wholeness,” which is achieved by supplementing work with such spiritual pursuits as cultivating the love of others, appreciating God’s universe, practicing goodness, and making a moral inventory of ourselves. “Instead of expending our years in emptiness, we should engage in select activities that approximate the work of our Creator.”
We read the rules of a sabbatical year even here in the Diaspora, where they do not apply, and the point is more than self-congratulatory ecological consciousness. We should need no divine revelation, after all, to show us what happens if we leach the land of its productive capacity. We do, however, need God for sabbatical rules that assure us we are called not just to work but to find wholeness.
Life is a text we write for others to read after we die. The official work we do fills most of its pages. But the pages have margins, where we can write whatever we want. The sabbatical year symbolizes life’s margins. Pursuing wholeness happens best when we take time out to scribble in the margins.