Parshat Behar discusses the laws of Shemitta, instructing us to let the land rest by not sowing or plowing. We are told to practice this once every seven years. We learn that the land must rest, and it would otherwise be overworked and not consistently fruitful.
Our crops and trees sustain us and give us the basics that we need to survive such as food and shelter. Other staples of life are education, work, and hobbies. While plants offer physical necessities, these activities offer spiritual, emotional, and intellectual enrichment. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to let those activities rest. Or at the very least, change. While this change of pace was abrupt and the fallout was devastating, we were able to finally take a break. In-person events were cancelled, and we were told to stay away from other people. The anxiety and restfulness we felt coexisted in our quarantine. People found new interests and made new connections through the virtual world.
This is not to say that there are no downsides of rest. The pandemic saw mental health problems grow and many people felt isolated from their social life. Similarly, during the year of letting the land rest, we must rely on the food we have saved up and hope that it is enough to get us through the year. Nonetheless, the break from pre-pandemic life has allowed each of us ample time to reflect and grow. Rest is good. Rest is necessary. And although our year of rest came during waves of devastation, there may be a silver lining to our changed world.
In somewhat stark contrast to Parshat Behar, Parshat Bechukotai talks about the blessings we shall receive if we live our lives according to the standards and expectations that the Torah sets for us. It also notes that if we fail to follow those rules we will be punished with horrible curses. The theme of rule following and consequently being blessed or cursed has its origins all the way back to the Book of Genesis and Adam and Eve. While returning to a theme from Genesis may seem strange, it makes sense because Leviticus talks a lot about the traditions, rituals, and practices the Jewish people must follow. The theme closes out the book of Leviticus to remind us of the essential nature of rules and regulations. All rules have consequences, natural or not if one violates them. This is what we saw repeatedly since the pandemic first began.
Initially, when COVID-19 first reached the US and lockdowns started, there was a lot of confusion and panic, and often there were violations of the rules first established. As time passed and the pandemic drew on, it was commonplace to see businesses break restrictions such as the mask mandate, or for allowing customers to eat inside a restaurant. In a way, we can draw parallels from Parshat Bechukotai punishing those who break important laws, to the local governments punishing businesses for endangering public health. That parallel helps us to understand how much an individual person can affect a society with their actions.
As the pandemic is slowly winding down due to the successful rollout of vaccines, it is still important to remember to allow your land and life to rest, and follow rules established for public health. It is our responsibility to make sure that something like a pandemic never happens again, and to follow the guidelines we are given.
Lonestar Shlichim, Abby Seigle and Josh Natelson
Read commentary on this week's Parsha from BBYO teens around the world.
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