January 7, 2021

Pesachim 47

There is a beautiful rabbinic aphorism, based on the words of Mishlei 31:14 (הָיְתָה כָּאֳנִיּוֹת סוֹחֵר מִמֶּרְחָק תָּבִיא לַחְמָהּ – ‘she is like a merchant ship; she brings her sustenance from afar’), that דברי תורה עניים במקומן ועשירים במקום אחר – ‘the words of Torah are poor in their place and rich in other places’ (Talmud Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 3:5). What this means is that insights about particular Torah concepts are not always found in the most obvious of places.
I mention this because, in today’s daf (Pesachim 47b), while exploring the halachic principle of הואיל (literally ‘since’ – which relates to the permissibility of performing forbidden actions on Yom Tov ‘since’ the results of those actions may be needed on Yom Tov), we also find a fascinating insight about חורש (plowing) – which is one of the 39 forbidden Shabbat Melachot.
As the Gemara explains elsewhere (Shabbat 73b), the Melacha of חורש includes any act performed to the ground for the purpose of enabling seeding or planting – such as loosening soil or softening the land. However, as noted – en passant –in today’s daf, the prohibition of חורש does not apply to terrain where seeds cannot be sown such as very rocky ground.
Clearly, this is a specific halacha concerning the laws of Shabbat as (randomly) found in Massechet Pesachim is a good example of ‘the words of Torah are poor in their place and rich in other places’. However, I would also like to reflect on this insight, and on the notion of ‘growth’ in the broadest sense of the term, and thereby draw some relevant and resonant messages for today.
We often think that growth can occur anywhere by anyone – and in terms of personal growth this is undoubtedly a truism. However, while we can each grow from particular moments, it is also true that in order for sustainable growth – both individually, and specifically, societally – to occur, we need to have the right terrain for growth.
However, there are times when – for a variety of reasons – the terrain in a society can be unfriendly for growth (eg. it is very rocky), which means that no matter how hard people try, growth cannot occur until those rocks have been removed and the ground has been loosened and softened in order to grow new seeds.
Today, we live in an on-demand society when we think that whatever we want can occur whenever we wish for it to occur. However, such a sentiment is ignorant, and it reflects the hubris that we unfortunately encounter far too regularly in our society and in contemporary politics. Instead, for real growth, and real change, to occur, we must plow – which often first begins with the hard work of removing any fundamental impediments of growth, and which then continues with the hard work of sowing seeds, the effort of watering them, and the patience needed for them to grow.
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