Monday, May 06, 2013

Baseball Cards and Trust in Man

This is the text of the derasha I delivered on Shabbat:
I probably started collecting baseball cards somewhere around the time I was in the third grade.
Kids would bring in their baseball cards and excitedly talk about their rarity, value and the all-important stats.  Listening to these conversations around the lunch table I came to the conclusion that these cardboard homages to the baseball gods would be my ticket to social grace.
I told my father I wanted baseball cards. Ever resourceful, he called up his friend who had a son who sold baseball cards. Perfect. He bought me an entire set—Topps brand, every card, rookies and all. I studied them. I sorted them neatly into plastic holders and organized them in binders. I organized them alphabetically; I organized them by team; I probably even organized them by the color of their jerseys. I think you get the point: I really enjoyed organizing them. 
I looked at the backs of the cards over and over again trying to make sense of all the numbers—to internalize the wisdom that could gain me entry into that all important lunchroom conversation…to no avail. I enjoyed baseball cards the way a librarian might enjoy the challenge of cataloging books written in some foreign language he doesn’t speak.
The problem—as you might have guessed by now—was I had actually never watched a game.
Needless to say, I never was able to participate in the great conversation of the third grade.
This story of my youthful hobby illustrates two very important psychological concepts that can unlock one of the central messages of this week’s Torah reading: ambition and idealization. 
At first glance we might say that my ambition was to collect baseball cards, but that would be incorrect.  My ambition was to be one of the gang.  The difficulty emerged due to what’s called idealization.  I idealized the kids who could talk about baseball cards.  They were the cool kids.  My ambition became shaped by my idealization.
Youth is characterized by idealization—both for the good and for the bad.  Maturity is characterized by a shift from idealization to realistic ideals.  In this case, when I was older I was able to replace my idealization of the cool kids with an ideal of what it means to be a good friend.
Now, let us turn to the Parasha.
Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:2-5) sets forth the commandment of shemittah:
When you enter the land that I assign you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord... it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.
The punishment for failure to observe the commandments of shemittah appears later, in Parashat Behukotai (Lev. 26:32-35):
I will make the land desolate, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled by it. And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheath the sword against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin. Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it.
It is puzzling that our exile and the desolation of the land are so bound up with the mitzvah of Shemitta.  Why such an extreme punishment?  Why is violating Shemitta such a horrible sin?  Of course, we must uncover: What is the purpose of Shemitta?
The Rambam gives two reasons.  And I quote:
As to the mitzvot concerning Shemitta and Yovel some of them teach us sympathy with our fellow-men, and promote the well-being of mankind; for in reference to these laws it is stated in the Torah, "That the poor of your people may eat" (Exod. xxiii. 11); and besides, the land will also increase its produce and improve when it remains fallow for some time.
His first reason is easy to understand.  However, his suggestion that leaving one’s land fallow for a year actually has material benefits—that this rest period can reinvigorate the land and actually increase one’s future yield is surprising.  Rambam’s suggestion, unsurprisingly, raised some eyebrows amongst some later commentaries: If Shemitta actually benefits the owner of the field, then why is the punishment so severe for violating this mitzvah?  Isn’t he, in a sense, punishing himself?
This is where our concepts of ambition and idealization can help us out. 
We all have an ambition to be productive—that’s good.  The problems creep in when we start measuring the success of our ambitions through idealization: by comparing ourselves to other people and turning our work into a competition.
We want to provide for our families.  We want our children to go to good schools.  We want to live in comfort. But, when we start to compare ourselves to others we start to lose focus and our ambitions become unmanageable.  We start putting in extra hours at the office to get that bonus.  We decide that our clothes are not nice enough, our house is not fancy enough, our gardens are not lush enough. 
Life can easily become a never-ending rat-race which has no real meaning. 
Shemitta is the Torah’s way of telling us, “hold on, take stock, take a moment to reflect.”  Life is not a competition—unlock the gates of your fields so “that the poor of your people may eat!” 
It might, as the Rambam writes, actually be better to stop working so hard.  It might be better for our fields to lay fallow for a year, but our over-inflated ambition cannot stand for idle hands.  We must stay busy, for if we do not stay busy what are we?  We often become blind to the fact that it might actually benefit us in the end if we just take some time off. 
The haftorah makes this message resoundingly clear:
אָר֤וּר הַגֶּ֨בֶר֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִבְטַ֣ח בָּֽאָדָ֔ם וְשָׂ֥ם בָּשָׂ֖ר זְרֹע֑וֹ וּמִן־ה' יָס֥וּר לִבּֽוֹ
Cursed is the one who trusts in man, and finds his strength in flesh, and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
Rashi explains, the one who trusts in man is the one who says “I will sow during the seventh year and I will eat” placing his trust in his plowing and his harvest.
Shemitta is the great stabilizer of the Jewish people.  It puts in check our tendency to idealize (and ultimately idolize) man’s power.  This is the core value of the Jewish people—to put our trust in no man—to idolize no being and to only accept the majesty of the matzui rishon—the borei Olam—the true source of all Being.
As the haftorah continues:
בָּר֣וּךְ הַגֶּ֔בֶר אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִבְטַ֖ח בַּֽה' וְהָיָ֥ה ה' מִבְטַחֽוֹ׃
וְהָיָ֞ה כְּעֵ֣ץ ׀ שָׁת֣וּל עַל־מַ֗יִם וְעַל־יוּבַל֙ יְשַׁלַּ֣ח שָֽׁרָשָׁ֔יו וְלֹ֤א ירא (יִרְאֶה֙) כִּי־יָ֣בֹא חֹ֔ם וְהָיָ֥ה עָלֵ֖הוּ רַֽעֲנָ֑ן וּבִשְׁנַ֤ת בַּצֹּ֨רֶת֙ לֹ֣א יִדְאָ֔ג וְלֹ֥א יָמִ֖ישׁ מֵֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת פֶּֽרִי׃
Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord; the Lord shall be his trust.
For he shall be like a tree planted by the water, and by a rivulet spreads its roots, and will not see when heat comes, and its leaves shall be green, and in the year of drought will not be anxious, neither shall it cease from bearing fruit.
To sum it up: Every once in a while take some time off from work—a Sabbatical—pour yourself a nice cup of coffee (or tea) and reflect.  With the right mixture of humor and wisdom you’ll be a lot happier.