I was asked to write a series of essays for the Union for Reform Judaism’s “10 Minutes of Torah.” This is the last of the nine. I’d wanted to write about Jonah in each one of them, but of course I couldn’t. So I saved him for this final piece.
In this week’s double portion, Behar-Bekhukotai (Lev. 25:1 – 27:34), we read (among many other topics) of the mitzvah to observe the yovel, the fiftieth “jubilee” year. From the second half of Lev. 25:10: “It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.”
For two years (this one and the sh’mitah/sabbatical year which occurs previously in the 49th year), the land is to lie fallow. Nothing is to be planted, and God promises the Israelites that enough food will grow for them to eat and stay healthy until the harvest returns after their resumption of planting in the 51st year. And, as the text demands, every Israelite is to return to the original tribal land that was parceled out during Joshua’s conquest of Canaan.
Commenting on this passage, Rabbi Yitzkhak Nafkha (3rd century CE) looked at Psalms 103:20 (“Bless the Eternal, O God’s angels, mighty creatures who do God’s bidding, ever obedient to God’s word.”) and wrote, “This is referring to those who observe the [mitzvah of letting the land lie fallow]. Why are they called ‘mighty creatures’? Because while it’s common for a person to fulfill a commandment for one day, for one Shabbat, or even for one month, can one do so for an entire year? This person sees his field and trees ownerless, his fences broken and fruits eaten, yet controls himself and does not speak. Our rabbis taught, ‘Who is strong? One who controls passion.’ Can there be a mightier creature than a person like this?” (Midrash Tanhuma on Parshat Vayikra)
Around Hanukkah of 1998, a young Joshua Davidson (now senior rabbi at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, NY) presented my 8-year-old son Jonah with a trumpet. It had been Josh’s from his childhood and I can recall him playing it in high school. Josh felt that Jonah was the right person to receive the trumpet for a number of excellent reasons. First, Jonah had been learning from Josh how to play the shofar, and it’s a very short journey from shofar-player to trumpet-player. Second, Jonah and Josh shared the same initials, “J.M.D.” which were embossed on the outside of the trumpet case. 8-year-old Jonah’s response, as always throughout his life, was unrestrained. He thought it was incredibly cool to have received the instrument, especially with his initials included. He also felt it looked “a little old,” which it was, even if Josh really wasn’t (yet). But the real stumbling block for him concerned the mouthpiece, the metal attachment that’s blown through to initiate the trumpet’s sound. Jonah could never imagine using someone else’s mouthpiece because, as he insisted, “It must be covered with millions of disgusting germs!” Not wanting to undermine the possibility of a future virtuoso world-tour, I assured him we could sanitize the mouthpiece so that he could play it without fear of contamination. Which we did and, for a good number of years, were privileged to enjoy watching our son play in school concerts and hearing him sound the shofar when Ellen and I led Rosh Hashanah family services.
Three years ago, Jonah Maccabee Dreskin died at the age of 19. As you can imagine, letting him go has been the most difficult and painful experience of my life. Jonah was bigger than life. He was a clown with a huge heart, who never missed an opportunity to goof off but never did so at another person’s expense. He was always available to a friend in need and never once complained when his mom asked him to vacuum the house or set the table. He called me “old man,” enjoyed punching my arm (hard), and would remind me to behave because he’d be picking my nursing home.
When Jonah died, my family and I were thrown into a period of distress during which the land lay fallow. For a while, nothing was planted and nothing grew. We woke up each day, dressed ourselves and fed ourselves, but did little more. We met the day, but produced nothing. We lived off what was already there. We had to survive this vast emptiness which had been cast across the landscape of our hearts, and we could only try to accept on faith that a day would arrive when we would be able to resume our plantings, enabling new crops, new projects, new love, to once again begin to grow.
We were anything but alone in our fallowness. First, how many caring friends and extended family members reached out to us, held us, fed us, and watched after us, until we were ready to resume our lives? Second, how many men, women (and children!) have gone through similar experiences, losing someone they love and waiting out the period of grieving (some for months, some for years) until returning to the fields and starting to plant anew?
I don’t know if Rabbi Yitzkhak Nafkha was thinking of anything more than farming when he commented on the challenge of the 1-3 year observance of sh’mitah and yovel. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he sensed this parallel too. After all, is there anyone who gets through life without having to face the death of someone they love? It may come later than sooner, which is preferable of course, but eventually death comes. And each of us must manage the deep emotional loss, and navigate the sometimes tortuous journey through grief and back to wellness.
Faith in the return of economic well-being, or faith in the return of optimism, hopefulness and joy, can be elusive. For a time, we may have be the one to hold others as they journey through their own barren lands and are unable to regain a sense of life’s bounty for themselves. And for a time, we may lose sight of it ourselves when, perhaps, the most we can do is sense that others are watching over us until we’re ready.
In the jubilee year, jubilation may not be the first thing on our mind. It’s important to remember that, while it may take some time, each of us can (and likely will) return home, and that trumpet will be sounded anew and the land will once again send forth its goodness.