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Behar: Of Ice Cream Sales and Shmittah Cycles

In the summer of 2009, the New York Times quoted a study by the CDC that recorded an apparent connection between ice cream sales and murder rates in NYC. The idea that eating ice cream could lead to murder is truly alarming. Luckily, however, a critical reading of the results of the study indicated that, in fact, ice cream consumption did not directly lead to murder. Rather, both ice cream sales and murder rates rise during the summer, when it is hot, and more people are out and about. An oft-cited study, this highlights a crucial principle of both psychological research and Jewish faith: correlation does not equal causation.

One of the foundational tenets of Judaism is the belief that God alone controls every facet of our daily lives. At the very same time, however, another key principle of Jewish living is the idea of exerting maximum efforts, or hishtadlus. While there may be a correlation between our efforts, which we are commanded by God to exert, and the ultimate result, we must also remember that our efforts do not necessarily cause outcome. This is perhaps one of the ultimate dialectics of Judaism, and must be practiced and internalized through experience.

Parshas Behar begins with the laws of Shmittah. The Pasuk says, “and God spoke to Moshe at Har Sinai, saying… when [the Jewish people] come to the land [of Israel], the land shall rest a Sabbath for the Lord (VaYikra 25:1-2).” Rashi notes that Shmittah, like Shabbos, is called “Shabbos LaHashem,” because it is similar to the Shabbos we observe each week. As we say in Kiddush every Friday night, Shabbos commemorates the 6 days of creation as a means of acknowledging that God created the world and continues to exercise full control over every physical and material aspect of it. We are commanded “sheishes yamim taavod;” work and exert effort for six days, “u’bayom ha’shvi’i Shabbos LaHashem” and then, for 25 hours, cease from doing work, pull back from the efforts you exert throughout the week to acknowledge that God is actually in control of our material successes. As such, each week, we practice engaging with this dialectic; we exert maximum effort throughout the week, and then tolerate the distress inherent in relinquishing control on Shabbos.

Rav Wolbe explains that, rather than an agricultural tool or means to allow the land to lie fallow to further assist in bringing forth successful crops, Shmittah is Shabbos on a larger scale. It is one thing to cease our efforts to achieve physical and material success once a week. Doing so strengthens this muscle, this notion that faith in God is both exerting effort while also relinquishing ultimate control to God. Shmittah, however, is a means of practicing this and internalizing it in a more profound manner. For six years, we work the land, planting, sewing, plowing, reaping; and then, we are commanded, we must cease from exerting any effort whatsoever toward this agricultural pursuit. During the 7th year, the land is left alone, and in that year, we experience firsthand this idea that God himself provides and controls the outcome of all our efforts.

Furthermore, we do not work any harder or change anything about the way we farm or plant in the year preceding Shmittah that would affect the growth of crops during that year; and yet, God promises that (25:20-21) “if [we] will say, ‘and what will we eat in the 7th year?’… In the 6th year, the land will produce enough for three years.” In this incredible promise, we recognize the incontrovertible fact that God alone controls the outcome; He can make our efforts produce the natural, expected outcome (enough for one year), but He can also make it so that those same efforts produce three times the amount. This is why Shmittah is called a Shabbos for Hashem, because it allows us access to and interaction with the same foundational principle as our weekly Shabbos observance.

There are times when this idea of exerting maximum effort while accepting that we have little to no control over the outcome is significantly harder to do. Particularly when we believe the outcome is crucially important to our happiness or success, or when it seems as though effort actually is causally tied to the outcome, it is most difficult to relinquish control. There appears to be a mathematical reality to some of these instances - isn’t it statistically true that if apply to more jobs, I have had a better chance of getting one, or that if I spent more hours at work, I increase my pay, and therefore end up having more money? And here again we turn to the concept of dialectics, of finding the truth in seemingly contradictory ideas.

Yes, if you work more hours, and are paid hourly, your paycheck will increase, and at the same time, the amount of money you will actually end up with each year is determined by God on Rosh Hashana. Yes, it is true that the more you “put yourself out there,” for career opportunities, or for shidduchim, the more people you meet, speak with, or turn to for help, the more people there will be to exert efforts for you. And at the same time, the ultimate result is God’s to decide, and God does not need statistics or probability on His side to provide the outcomes we need. Like the tenuous connection between ice cream and murder rates, effort does not align with 100% accuracy predict outcome; there is certainly a correlation between our efforts, which we are commanded to exert, and the outcome. Cause and effect, however, is God’s arena.

This Shabbos, as we engage with this dialectic on a smaller scale, consider the laws of Shmittah and the relevance of these ideas to your life. May God give us all the continued energy to exert maximum efforts in our lives, and the internal strength and faith to relinquish control over the ultimate outcomes.

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