Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Men of Tents, Men of the Field

"And the youths grew up, and Eisav was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Yaakov was an innocent man, dwelling in tents." (Gen. 25:27)

And so the story goes that Eisav became evil and murderous, and Yaakov was a good yeshiva bochur, his head in the books all day. But I thought it was a virtue to be "a man of the field"? Afterall, didn't Moshe Rabeinu and King David spend significant time in the field tending their herds before their fated rise to leadership? Also, many of the mitzvahs assume we will be farmers and regulate how and what can do in our fields--how we sow our crops, when we can harvest certain crops, what we are to do with the harvested crops, etc. So what gives? Are we meant to be "of the field" or in the books?

There are two points that I want to make here. Firstly, we have to define "man of the field" in context and distinguish it. Something is lost in translation when we simply say "man of the field." The implication for Eisav was that he was a shark, he had street smarts from the very fact that he was out in the field (or as we would say today, out on the streets), not that he was 'one with nature' as the phrase connotes in English. He was not a farmer nor a shepherd. Rather, he was a hunter and a con-artist (see Rashi there).

On the other hand, Yitzchak was a farmer, as the Torah says,
"Yitzchak sowed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundredfold; thus had Hashem blessed him." (Gen. 26:12). The midrash refers to him as an "olah temimah" ("blemish-free offering") (Rashi on Gen. 26:2) who was so holy that Hashem didn't want him to leave Eretz Cana'an. Yitzchak was holy and a farmer at the same time. So that sufficiently establishes that we can be men of the field and men of the book at the same time. But is there an argument that we should only be men of the book?

There seems to be a genuine disagreement among the sages on whether we are meant to farm (what I would colloquially call "of the field") or learn 24-7 (be "tent-dwellers"). For instance, in Perek Shishi of Brachos, the Gemora records:
The Rabbis taught: "And you shall gather your grain..." (Dev. 11:14) Why does the Torah say that? Because it says elsewhere, "Do not remove this book, the Torah, from your mouth." (Joshua 1:8) Is that meant to be taken literally, as it is written? The Torah comes along and says "And you shall gather your grain" to show that one who follows the words of Torah has an occupation (derech eretz); these are the words of R' Yishmael.

R' Shimon ben Yochai says, is it possible that a man would plow at the time of plowing, and sow at the time of sowing, and harvest at the time of harvesting, and thresh at the time of threshing, and winnow at the time of the winds... What would become of his Torah study? Rather, understand it this way: At the time that the Yidden are doing the will of Hashem, their labor is done by others, as it says, "Foreigners will stand up and herd your flocks" (Isaiah 61:5). At the time that the Yidden are not fulfilling Hashem's will, their labor is done by themselves, as it says "and you shall gather your grain." (Dev. 11:14) And moreover, at such a time they also have to work for non-Jews as it says "and you shall serve your enemy" (Dev. 28:48). (translation my own) (Brochos 35b)
That's the discussion, and the Gemara rounds off that sugya by saying the proof is in the pudding, namely that many who followed the way set forth by R' Yishmael succeeded, and many who followed the way set forth by R' Shimon did not succeed. And so this seems like good proof that we are not meant to have our heads in the books all day; not only is farming, generally speaking, the right thing to do, but it's required of us by the Torah. We are meant to be both in the books and in the field!

I understand a counterargument would be that the Torah is speaking of labor in general, and most people happened to be farmers back in those days, and the real maskana is that a person needs to work (even as a doctor, or lawyer, or whatever) in addition to Torah study, and I agree with that. But I would add that there is something special about farming.

I think Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz (the freilich farmer), who is also a gentleman maple syrup farmer in Vermont, hit the nail on the head when he spoke about some of the lessons that are essential to farming and how they relate to integrating the lessons in Yiddishkeit:
"And what you really see in a Jewish agrarian setting, and what I teach, is process. You know, where does maple syrup come from? It doesnt come from a jar. Somebody went out, cut a trail, tapped a tree, hung a bucket, and collected sap. And all things are connected, the seasons, the harvest, the holidays, how we treat the animals and use the land. So I use the process of making maple syrup as a metaphor for teaching Torah."(Wolfson, Paula. "Jewish Fathers: A Legacy of Love", pp. 59-60)
May Hashem bless our efforts like those of Yitzchak, that we should gather me'ah shearim (100x portions) b'gashmius u'b'ruchnius!

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