Godfried Bomans (1913-1971), one of the famous modern Dutch authors, tells the story of a businessman in Texas who suddenly had a brainwave which made him world famous, controversial and ultimately brought him to bankruptcy.
This businessman owned a large factory producing identical kinds of furniture. We are familiar with these kinds of factories. There are hundreds of employees who do nothing else but one specific job throughout the whole day.
They all stand at a conveyor belt and each does but one manual task: One hammers a nail in the wood, the next one adds a screw, another one does nothing else but smear glue on the wood, and another attaches the upholstery and so on. At the end of the conveyor belt a beautiful chair, table or sofa has been created.
This continued year after year. But then, the owner had a brainwave and said to himself: “Why do I need human beings? I can train chimpanzees to do the same tasks – they are intelligent enough to perform these tasks. I can fire all my employees, do away with the high salaries and various associated employee expenses: pension funds, unemployment, insurances, etc. I’ll need nothing more than a lot of bananas.”
So, he bought a few hundred chimpanzees, trained them and put them to work. A huge storm of outrage broke out immediately. All the trade unions objected and organized demonstrations. This was deeply humiliating to all his former employees, after all, they had been degraded to the level of monkeys! (In Dutch people would say concerning foolish people: “Hij staat voor aap”, “He acts like an ape.”)
The outrage and demonstrations, however, would seem to be a strange reaction. After all, the business owner had saved his employees from a beastly life and restored their humanity.
As it turned out, the chimpanzees did a marvelous job and things progressed smoothly. They produced beautiful furniture, just like the human employees had done. However, this was short-lived. One day the employer entered the factory and saw that matters had gotten completely out of hand. The chimpanzees had gone crazy, destroyed the conveyor belt, were hanging from the ceiling, hammering nails in the walls and everything was in total chaos.
The employer was stunned and could not understand what had happened. Why could human beings continue to do these beastly jobs year after year without any problems? Why did they, unlike the chimpanzees, not go crazy doing this beastly work?
The Challenge of Shemita
The answer to this can be found in the failure of the ancient Israelites to observe the Shemita year, the seventh, Sabbatical, year, in which we currently find ourselves.
As is well known, during the Shemita year we are not to work the Land of Israel. We must make its products “hefker”, “ownerless,” and anybody – poor or rich – can take of the land’s produce without paying for it.
Most remarkable is the fact that the Torah promises that one need not worry where one’s food comes from during this year when one may not work the land: “And should you ask: ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ Then, I [God] will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating the grain of old crop, you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in.” (Vayikra 25: 20-22)
While this blessing is not applicable today since we consider the law of Shemita to be of rabbinical nature, since the majority of Jews are not yet living in the land (We are getting close and this will create a whole new, blessed, reality along with challenges for Jewish Law in dealing with a reality we have not merited for thousands of years!).
The remarkable thing is that we know that the Israelites in the olden days often violated Shemita and worked the land when the laws and prohibitions of Shemita were definitely binding by Torah law. Why, then, did they do so?
Who would not be most pleased with the offer of taking it easy for an entire year and receiving returns of three hundred percent? Moreover, this “investment” is worry and risk-free: the 300 percent investment was paid in advance, in the sixth year!
The Misjudged Question: “What do you do?”
The answer lies in one common question we all ask our friends. It is a question which goes to the heart of western civilization: “What do you do?” What we mean is: “What do you do for a living?” The answers we generally get are: “I am a businesswoman/businessman”, “I am an engineer”, or “I am a farmer”, etc. Nearly nobody answers: “I am a parent”, “I am a grandparent”, “I look after my family”, or “I care for my sick parents.” And certainly not, “I am occupied with the deeper/religious meaning in life”, or “I am occupied with how I can become a better, more moral person.” We answer the question with what we do for our living. Not with what we see as our higher task in life.
This is highly symptomatic.
We are seemingly not able to surpass our job. We have been so indoctrinated by the western idea that a human being is identified by what he has, and owes, instead of what he is or needs to become.
In this instance, human beings can no longer separate themselves from their jobs; they are their jobs. Therefore, freeing them from their jobs is a traumatic experience, for this would create an identity crisis. As such, you can offer a human being the highest return, and yet it will not help because it is no longer the money that is at stake. It is his very being that is at stake.
This would seem to be the reason why the Israelites kept on violating the Shemita year in the days of old, even when they were promised returns of three hundred percent on the harvest of the sixth year. They could have taken a year off and done many other things: relax, read books, study, learn Torah, and/or do voluntary work. But they were no longer able to, for the absence of their specific work made them nervous and traumatized since they were nothing more than their jobs. Thus, they needed to continue to work the land in the Shemita year. To take time off undermined their very identities. They needed the monotony of their work; any relaxation unsettled them.
What the human being lost was his most important characteristic: the capability to surpass monotony, to enjoy variety and get involved in matters that surpass their jobs. Instead, they now need the monotony so as not to lose their identity.
This is a great tragedy.
The capacity to overcome monotony is typically human.
Chimpanzees do not have that capacity and the reason is very obvious. When human beings drive a nail into something that will ultimately become a chair, they do much more than just hammering the nail in the wood. They already envision the chair, or the table at the end of the conveyor belt – a creative human achievement!
In fact, they see much more: They see their wives, husbands and children happy because they provide the money to make them happy. They see their daughter getting married, they see their son studying at a yeshiva or university. They see a beautiful synagogue/church where people can worship owing to the money they donate, and so on.
When human beings hammer a nail in the wood, they do something extraordinary. It is a nail with a dream for great things. And so, they can hold out for years; the monotony is invigorated by a great vision.
Their jobs do not define them. The job is only a means to something of infinite meaning.
But once they lose this capacity, they indeed become identical to chimpanzees. The monotony has taken them over. There is no longer a dream behind the nail. And so, they continue to work in the Shemita year, even when God offers them returns of 300 percent in advance.
Shemita: To Break Dullness
The real reason for the Shemita year is to teach human beings to break with monotony. By not working the land, they prove that they can break their tedium, that they are not chimpanzees but human beings who are able to go off to totally different, higher pursuits.
Shemita is to teach people that when they are asked what they do they will not answer that they are businesspeople etc., but human beings – a husband, a wife, a parent or a child, a seeker of higher values.
They are able to overcome monotony because they remained human beings. Blessed are those who are not chimpanzees! Blessed is the real Shemita year!