Osher va’Osher – Behar-Bechukotai 5772

There is a cute greeting in Hebrew.  You might say mazal tov!  osher va’osher!  Congratulations.  May you have happiness and wealth.
The word osher, depending on how it is spelled, can mean two different things.  With an aleph, osher means “happiness.”  With an ayin, osher means “wealth,” as in material wealth.
It is a fascinating homophone.
You’ve probably heard the English expression, “Money can’t buy happiness.”  The world is not quite so simplistic.  Because money can certainly pay for a whole bunch of things that make life not only possible, but easier, and more enjoyable.  Without enough money to satisfy our needs, a life of happiness and fulfillment becomes quite a challenge.
Nevertheless, the unrelenting pursuit of osher with an ayin, money, can indeed keep us from a life of osher with an aleph, happiness.
Isaac Arama was a fifteenth century Spanish Rabbi who published weekly sermons in a book called Aqaydat Yitzchaq.  He goes so far as to  say that “material possessions are a handicap to one’s efforts to determine true values.”  Money gets in the way of a meaningful life.
But Arama is a realist.  He acknowledges the importance of material possessions.  Human beings have physical needs, and it is through labor that we acquire those things that we need to survive and to thrive.  He cites the mishnah in Pirkei Avot: im ein kemach ein torah, im ein torah, ein kemach.  “If there is no flour, there can be no Torah.”  Material wealth is necessary to enable a person to study Torah.  A person who is constantly struggling to put food on the table, to pay for health care, rent, and electricity, doesn’t have much time, or even peace of mind, to luxuriate on the development of his soul.  Having enough material possessions makes it possible for us to acquire spiritual values.  On the other hand, where there is no Torah, there is no flour.  Without Torah, without the proper use of our material possessions, true living is not possible.  Spiritual fulfillment cannot be achieved.
Maybe that is why we wish each other both osher va’osher.  True happiness, true fulfillment, with the material blessings that make it possible.
But most human societies today do not offer a healthy balance of material and spiritual opportunities.  Today, we face so much pressure to be always available for our jobs, to measure our success in life by how much stuff we have, and to never give ourselves a real break.  We are constantly in pursuit of osher with an ayin, wealth.  But do we do what we ought to truly cultivate osher with an aleph?
But this is not a dilemma only for the fast-paced twenty first century.  Go back three thousand years and find that human beings were also struggling to find that balance.
Parashat Behar, the first of this morning’s double portion, begins with the laws of the Shemittah, the sabbatical year.  Every seven years, the Israelite farmers are prohibited from working the land.  Whatever it produces on its own will sustain them.  Indeed, as long as the Israelites follow the rules, God promises to bless the land with so much abundance in the sixth year that there will be plenty of food throughout the seventh.
Interestingly, the beginning of God’s instructions are only partially directed towards the Israelites.  “When you (Israelites) enter the land that I assign to you,”
וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַה’
“the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord.”  (Lev. 25:2)
Notice, the instruction is not given to the Israelites to let the land rest.  The subject of the verb “observe a sabbath” is “the land.”  We learn that the land also gets to rest.  The land is personified.
What does it mean for the land to rest?  There are a few details.  First, there is to no agricultural work performed on the land or on trees.  Second, anything the land produces on its own, all produce, is ownerless.  Anybody can come and pick it.  Jewish law forbids a farmer from putting up fences or gates around his fields, or stockpiling produce during the seventh year.  Anyone is supposed to be able to come on to his property and pick whatever they want.  Later on, in the book of Deuteronomy, a third rule is mentioned which refers to the cancellation of debts in the seventh year.
What is the reason for the shemitah.  Why does the land get to rest?
One might say that it makes good economic sense to require a sabbatical year.  After all, letting land lie fallow and rotating crops is good for farming.  It enables the earth to regain nutrients, and ultimately to be more productive.  There is certainly a connection between good agricultural practices and the laws of shemitah.  But farmers should not need to be commanded to rotate their crops.  They do it because it is good practice to do so.  In fact, simply letting your fields lie fallow once every seven years would not be particularly effective.  According to one scholar, ancient Israelites probably let their land lie fallow biennially, even though the Torah does not mention this.  There must be something else to the Torah’s idea of shemitah.
Many scholars notice the similarities between the commandment to let the land rest every seven years, and for people to rest every seven days.  Throughout the Torah, the only two things that are described as shabbat ladonai – a sabbath unto God – are the seventh day, and the seventh year.  None of the holidays, not even Yom Kippur, is described as such.  There is a close link between Shabbat and Shemitah.
The symbolic meaning of Shabbat is as a reminder of the Creation of the universe.  Just as God rested on the seventh day after six days of creation, we rest on the seventh day.
To be clear, this is not meant to teach us the scientific origin of the world.  It is meant to teach us about our relationship to the world.  That the world belongs to God, and that we are ultimately dependent on God.  Shabbat instills a sense of humility in human beings.  By regularly spending a day not dominating our world, we are reminded that there is something greater than us.  The shemitah, with its many similarities to Shabbat, embodies this lesson as well.
With regard to Shabbat, we are told that every living thing among us is entitled to rest: our son and our daughter, our male and female slaves, our animals, and the strangers living among us.  During the shemitah year as well, the Torah lists everyone who is entitled to freely eat from anything the land produces: you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, your cattle, and the beasts of the field.  Ownership of land is basically put on hold for that year.
Focusing on this ceasing of economic activity, one commentator sees the shemitah as promoting union and peace.  All strife comes from the attitude of “what’s mine is mine.”  The shemitah year says, effectively, nothing really belongs to any of us.  Every human being is equal.
Isaac Arama, who I mentioned earlier, points to an additional lesson.  He says that “the suspension of work in every seventh year causes us to realize that our mission on earth is not to be slaves to the soil but a much higher and nobler one.  Work should only serve the purpose of providing food and other needs, while our task is to attain the supreme end; the purpose of giving this land to this people was not to be brought into the land in order to be enslaved by it, and addicted to tilling it and gather in the crops and enrich themselves…  Their purpose is to accomplish themselves and seek perfection, according to the will of their Creator, while satisfying the needs of their sustenance.”
In other words, properly observing the shemitah will enable us to reach a healthy balance between our pursuit of osher with an ayin and osher with an aleph, between wealth and happiness.
But the laws of shemitah have very little practical significance to us today.  First of all, they do not apply to land outside of Israel.  Second, Jewish communities throughout the millenia were always trying to find ways to circumvent the restrictions of shemitah.  If it is to pay taxes to the Romans, it is ok to cultivate some crops.  If you sell the land to a non-Jew, that person can work the land and sell the produce back to you.  And many other creative ways to not have to stop economic activity for a year.  The human drive to get more stuff is just too powerful.
That does not mean, however, that we should ignore what the laws of shemitah would ask of us.
Isaac Arama would have us ask ourselves, “Is my mission on earth to be a slave acquiring more material wealth, or is my mission a higher and nobler one?  Am I working to provide just enough for myself and loved ones to survive and thrive, or have I gone beyond that”  “How am I living a fulfilled life?”  “Will the direction in which my life is going  lead to true happiness?”
Shabbat and Shemitah tell us that, to get at what truly matters, we have to take a break from material pursuits.  Let’s ask ourselves: Am I taking breaks?  Am I turning off my cell phone?  Am I finding time to study Torah?  Am I giving extended amounts of uninterrupted attention to the people I love?
In short, am I pursuing a life that places equal value on both osher and osher?
*1*Hopkins 1985: 201
*2*Kli Yakar, Deut. 31:12