Make like a farmer and prepare!

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The opening lines of Hilchos Yamim Noraim from the Maharil includes the following idea:

The Mahari Segal expounded upon the statement of Yirmiyahu (4:3), “Plow your fields, plant not amongst thorns.” Accordingly, a person must remove the negative traits and acts from within their hearts before the day of judging, Rosh HaShanah. One should accustom themselves to this during Elul in order that it should become habit by the Eseres Yamei Teshuvah (1). He also said that the Orchos Chaim writes that for the entirety of Elul a person should sit before eating or leaving their home and be astonished with themselves. He should analyze his actions in order to repent during the coming days.

Over time, I’ve come across a number of sources ranging from verses in Tanach to commentaries on the siddur that utilize agricultural themes and imagery to convey various ideas. I find them particularly interesting as well as helpful. This quote about repentance is no exception.

There are a number of lessons that can be drawn from the use of such imagery when speaking about repentance:

  • It frames a spiritual act as something very worldly and natural. 
  • Farming is hard, painful, and time-consuming. Quite frankly, so is changing ourselves. 
  • Faith is a must. Even the most knowledgable farmer is at the mercy of nature. This is exactly why the Gemara Shabbos 31a gives the unit of Mishnah that deals with agricultural law the nickname “faith” (2).
  • Planting a seed is not the first step. First the ground must be prepared to receive and provide a suitable environment for the seed.

This last point is exactly what Yirmiyahu and, in turn, the Maharil’s are focused on. First, it’s necessary to “pull the weeds” from your heart and only after doing so can you plant seeds and set out on a new path. It’s really a simple idea, but one that is easy to forget when setting out to actually grow as a person. 

(1) The Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

(2) Tosafos ad loc. writes that a farmer has faith in the Creator and therefore puts a seed into the ground. Rashi, however, explains the nickname differently. He notes that taking the requisite tithes after harvesting requires faith. After toiling to nurture the growth of the plants and carefully harvest them, the farmer must relinquish ownership over a portion of them. Faith enables him to do this even in the face of uncertain returns.

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