Blog Archive

About Me

Rabbi Chaim Coffman
Rabbi Coffman has helped people from all across the spectrum to prepare themselves properly for Orthodox Conversion to Judaism. His students admire his vast knowledge and appreciate his warm, personal attention and endearing sense of humor.
View my complete profile


Welcome to Rabbi Chaim Coffman's Blog!

I would like to thank you for visiting my blog, Beyond Orthodox Conversion to Judaism.

The conversion process can be a lengthy and daunting one to say the least and I want you to know that I am here to help you through it.

I have been teaching newcomers to Judaism for over a decade and over the last few years I have seen that conversion candidates really lack the support and knowledge they need to navigate the conversion process and successfully integrate into the Orthodox Jewish community.

I created my mentorship program in order to help make this whole experience as smooth and as painless as possible! (Can't do much about the growing pains, though ;)

Feel free to get to know me a little through the posts on my blog and visit the mentorship and syllabus page if you are interested in possible joining us.

I sincerely wish you all the best in your search for truth and spiritual growth.

Looking forward to meeting you,
Chaim Coffman

My Rebbe, Rav Moshe Sternbuch

In case you were wondering why I have all of these articles written by Rav Moshe Sternbuch, he is my Rebbe, and one of the gedolei hador (greatest Rabbis of our generation).

Rav Sternbuch fully endorses me and supports my mentorship program.

He is the address for all of my halachic or hashkafic (practical and philosophical) questions that I or my students may have.

The articles are based on his weekly talks on the Torah portion that the Rav gives in Jerusalem in his kollel. As a member of the kollel I get first dibbs on the photocopies and I type them up for my blog so you can all benefit from the Rav's erudition and insight.
Saturday, September 26, 2015

Sukkos: Living in a Temporary World

As we have finished the month of Elul, made it through the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we now enter the joyous holiday of Sukkos. We are reminded by this temporary world as we go into our sukkah and bask in the glory of the "tzel d'heminusa" (the shade of belief in G-d). What does the holiday represent for us today?

The whole purpose of why Sukkos is in the fall is to show that we are going into the sukkah for the sake of the mitzvah alone. The reason is because during the fall in most places it is usually starting to get cold and most people would not live outdoors during this time unless it was the for the sake of the mitzvah itself!

Even if our sukkah boards are tightened and sturdy, the schach (branches or palm fronds) put on the top remind us that we are subjected to the elements. No matter how much we put on the top of our sukkah, if it rains the water will come in.  This is the essence of sukkos to be reminded that this world is temporary and just a corridor to the world to come.

This is one of the reasons on the shabbos of Sukkos we read the book of Ecclesiastes. King Solomon begins by telling us that this is a world of vanities and that he has searched out all the wisdom of the world and found nothing better and more meaningful than Torah. He constantly reminds us to remember that we live in a temporary world which is what the sukkah represents.

The sukkah itself as we build it and put up the white sheets that are representative of the clouds of glory that guided us as we came out of Egypt and wandered in the desert. These clouds took care of all our needs, gave us light in the darkness and made sure our clothes never wore out or smelled, which is a great feat considering there were more than two million people in the desert!

Since the sukkah is now our home for the next seven days, we do everything in the sukkah that we would normally do in our house. We eat and drink there, sleep there, speak with our friends there or even on the phone; it is our home outside the home so to speak. That being said, we are not allowed to do anything that would be considered disgusting in the sukkah.

This means that we should not bring in dirty pots to the sukkah or make it dirty in any way all the more so we shouldn't speak badly about others or denigrate them in the sukkah either! Not that it would be better if we did that in our own homes but to do that in the sukkah is even worse!

Sometimes the weather does not cooperate and makes being in the sukkah uncomfortable whether it be from the cold or heat. Nonetheless, our temporary dwelling gives us the ability to just be alone with G-d and His world, the "tzel dehemnusa". If we change the letters around in the word "tzel" we get the word "letz" which means to scoff or mock.

If we use the sukkah properly and encapsulate its timeless message, then we get the benefit of the sukkah and all that it entails. If not, then we make a mockery of it and scorn it which everyone would agree is not good,

As we take our lulav and esrog and shake it in six directions representing G-d's dominion over this world and the world above, we are reminded just how fragile life is. We share the joy of sukkos and remember man's purpose in this world by doing everything in our power on a daily basis to tune into His world and do what He wants us to do!!

Have a great Sukkos!!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Parshas Haazinu: You think you know better than G-d?

"He is the rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice: a G-d of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he" (Deuteronomy 32:4-5)

Rav Moshe Sternbuch Shlit"a in Ta'am V'Da'as writes that mankind is baffled by the hiddenness of G-d's ways and how He runs the world. There are righteous people that suffer and evil people that seem to have it easy and they lack nothing while the righteous constantly suffer and seemingly have many difficulties in this world. Not only that but they see G-d's chosen people who have constantly suffered and gone through pogroms and holocausts!!

Rav Sternbuch explains that this world is just a corridor to the next world. What we do in this world matters only in context of the next world. We will only understand and have clarity at that time but when we live on this world in a physical body it is impossible to comprehend G-d's ways! Sometimes we may get a glimpse of why some things may occur but in general it is impossible to fathom what transpires here!

If we understand what transpires in this world on a soul level, things become a bit clearer. This means that each soul has a unique purpose that only it can fulfill here. It has to go through certain trials and tribulations to perfect itself in this world and then return to the next world. The soul has great difficulty though shining here because it is stuck in a physical body!

For the body and soul to succeed it must be steeped in Torah and mitzvos to reach that perfection. Just like the body needs nutrients for it to survive, the soul must also otherwise it will die. Even if we understand this idea to a certain extent, it still doesn't fully explain what we see; some die young, some suffer from horrible diseases and others seemingly have no issues or minor ones at best as they muddle their ways through life.

Where is the fairness and justice you may ask? It's there we just don't have the eyes to be able to see what is directly in front of us! Can it really be that G-d's chosen people, who He loves like a first born child really suffer so much throughout the millennium? At face value a lot of what we see doesn't make any sense whatsoever.

At the same time, it is as if we are in the army; we do what we are told and have an obligation to serve. G-d has manufactured a book for us to live by and grants us life; because of things we see that we don't understand we should have the chutzpah to think we understand Him and his ways?

Everyone should read carefully the end of the book of Job to see G-d's response to him about the suffering that he endures. Just read the vivid description of the Leviathan to see how great G-d's creation is and how He controls nature. We need to learn to be more humble and understand there is something that controls the world and keeps things at an equilibrium.

How dare we think we can figure Him out and claim to know what's right and fair. We have no idea how things play out the way they do. This does not mean we are just blind sheep following We have to admit when things are beyond us and when to put ourselves on the line for Him!

As I have heard many times, if you are happy with the way G-d runs the world 95% of the time, then the 5% that we don't understand we won't come to understand them in 10 lifetimes. This is not a leap of faith but a reality. When we realize this we will be able to serve Him better and understand our place!!

Shabbat Shalom
Thursday, September 17, 2015

Parshas Vayelech: Let go of your Ego!!

"Moshe summoned Yehoshua and said to him before the eyes of all Israel 'Be strong and courageous for you shall come with this people to the land that Hashem swore to heir forefathers to give them, and you shall cause them to inherit it". (Deuteronomy 31:7)

Moshe in front of the entire nations tells Yehoshua that he will take the people into the land that G-d swore to our forefathers. This is truly amazing as at the very end of Moshe's life, he strengthens Yehoshua in the eyes of the people to lead them into the promised land. Why is this so remarkable though? After all, Moshe is told he won't be going in the land so why should he not praise his successor in the eyes of the people?

There are different interpretations as to why Moshe is not allowed into the land and what exactly the desecration of G-d's name was. Even if Moshe hit the rock, why should that be any less miraculous that water comes out from it instead of speaking to it? Not only that, but for that seemingly small infringement Moshe is not allowed into the land.

The Torah tells us that Moshe was the most humble of all men. That being said, when G-d tells Him he is not allowed in the land Moshe prays and prays and prays to have this decree overcome but G-d tells him enough prayer, you are not going in, period! Moshe definitely did not have it easy with the Jewish people.

He came under fire from them many times, making his life miserable. At the same time, he understood his position and he understood what it meant to be a leader. He could have told this to Yehoshua privately and not made such a big deal about it This could have looked like having sour grapes though in the sense that he was still upset about not being allowed into the land so why should he make such a big deal to give Yehoshua that big boost of confidence in front of the people?

The answer is that great spiritual and moral leaders look beyond themselves and their own egos for what is best for the people. In this case, although he is not allowed to enter the land, he backs G-d's decision one hundred percent by demonstrating his confidence in Yehoshua in front of the nation.

Although the people would be missing Moshe's leadership he thoroughly backs Yehoshua which will put the people at ease in his absence. This is truly remarkable because most people would not be able to do this. Keep in mind as well that G-d tells Moshe that he will die after the Jewish people go to war against Midyan. What does Moshe do?

He directs the people to war immediatley knowing that once they are successful he will no longer be in this world. Many of us would put off such a thing for a few more moments to live here but Moshe goes full force knowing that it will quicken his days here.

Shouldn't we all live up to these ideals? Definitely easier said than done but if we truly want to be the people we can become then the first thing we need to do is become more selfless and let our egos go out the window. That doesn't mean that we have to be walked upon and abused; we should have self-esteem but the more we learn to forget about ourselves, the more godlike we will become.

We get ourselves into trouble many times by refusing to let go of that. This is something very hard to do because we have pride and we don't want others to step on it or try and destroy. No one ever said the Torah was easy to live by but our goal in this world is to do just that.

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 5 Mishna 14: The Repentance Process in the Eyes of G-d and Man

"There are four kinds of dispositions: Easy to become angry and easy to be pacified, his loss is compensated by his gain; hard to become angry and hard to be pacified, his gain is offset by his loss; hard to become angry and easy to be pacified is godly; easy to become angry and hard to be pacified is wicked".

The Mishna discusses the benefits and weakness of anger and pacification. Anger is one of the worst character traits a person can have and the Talmud tells us that when a person is angry even if they were standing over the pit of gehinom (hell) they wouldn't repent because they are caught up in the moment and lose themselves.

Obviously it is forbidden to be angry but there are times when something happens and a person is caught off guard that they lose it in some way. The Mishna here tells us that even if this happens some times but not often if a person is hard to be pacified then his gain is offset by his loss. Pacification is something we all need to learn and not to stand on principle.

This is much easier said than done because if someone has wronged us in any way, most often we will not forgive them fully and the relationship has totally changed. This is a major difference between man and G-d and how the entire teshuva (repentance) process works.

Before Yom Kippur, a Jew is obligated to forgive immediately for the wrong that someone may have done to them. The Talmud tells us that we should forgive that person immediately because if we look past what someone has done to us then G-d will look past at what we have done against Him throughout the year. How does this work exactly?

When we ask forgiveness from someone we don't say "well I did this and that to you, do you forgive me?" That most likely could get you a well deserved punch in the nose. What a person should do is to tell them that if you have done anything against them, will they forgive you and they should immediately forgive you because if they don't then you could end up bearing a grudge and taking that transgression with you into Yom Kippur which is something you don't want to do.

G-d gave the Jewish people this novel idea of teshuvah but in reality it should never work for a number of reasons. First of all, if someone has wronged us and they try to make amends how can we truly forgive them? After all, look at the damage that has been done; the relationship is never the same. At the same time we should forgive them but that doesn't mean I have to be best friends; it just means that I can't hold a grudge which isn't a good thing either.

As for our relationship between man and man repentance and uprooting what has been done doesn't set the relationship back to where it once was. When we sin against G-d on the other hand, our sincere repentance not only uproots what we have done but we are even closer to G-d afterwards.

This is truly remarkable because when we transgress against what G-d wants us to do, we draw a wedge between us and Him. We pollute the universe spiritually and physically. Even if we do things wrong over and over and over again, if we repent, G-d looks at us as not only with a clean slate but we are even closer to Him. How does this work?

G-d understands the nature of man and the fact that they were created from the ground and from this world they will sometimes give in to their evil inclination. This is nothing more than rebellion against Him whether we do things on purpose or by accident. At the same time He has a tremendous amount of patience and allows us to come back to Him by admitting what we did was wrong and how we are going to fix our ways.

We could understand this by someone who only transgresses some of the time. In reality we all transgress and after the first number of times G-d can so-to-speak cut us some heavenly slack but after the 10th, 11th. 12th time...why should He not react and allow us to come back to Him and wipe the slate clean and uproot what we have done totally?

The reason is because He is G-d and not man. He lives and acts in ways that we cannot begin to fathom and the miracle of teshuvah is that if we admit what we have done wrong and sincerely want to draw close to Him He grants us that. Nothing short of miraculous because in human terms this doesn't exist.

How many second chances is a person going to give someone after they habitually do things against them? This is the hope and prayer we have at this time before Yom Kippur to remember G-d's infinite mercy. At the same time, though if we have wronged someone else we should ask their forgiveness and grant it to others as well, immediately!
Thursday, September 10, 2015

Parshas Nitzavim: The Covenant between G-d and the Jewish People Never Ends

"For you to pass into the covenant of Hashem, your G-d, and into His imprecation that Hashem. your G-d, seals with you today, in order to establish you today as a people to Him and that He be a G-d to you, as He spoke to you and as He swore to your forefathers to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob" (Deteronomy 11-12).

The Torah here tells us that the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people is as valid as it is today as when G-d swore to your forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This covenant is not only the same but the Torah itself is the same as well and has not changed. This is one of the thirteen principles of faith: "I firmly believe that the whole Torah which we now possess is the same which was given to Moses our teacher, may he rest in peace".

Moses has passed this on to the Jewish people and after Moshe's death, Joshua will lead the Jewish people into the promised land, Torah and its timely message intact. Nowhere in the Torah is it stated explicitly or even hinted to that this has changed in any way, shape or form. This is what has kept the Jewish people together throughout the millennium.

People often make the mistake and think we have the ability to change it, make it more modern for today's age or even G-d forbid throw things out that seem antiquated and old fashioned. If that were to be true, then the more the Torah has changed and the more innovative we are, the masses of Jews would be flocking to keep whatever is left of it, right?

Out of all the so-called movements within Judaism the only one with any capability of passing it down to the next generation is the Orthodox. With seemingly no intermarriage rate as opposed to 60% or more by the other movements, Orthodoxy is thriving!

This does not mean that they don't have any issues but in the bigger scheme of things, they seem to have the formula that works and that is all that matters. At the end of the day, philosophy mumbo jumbo doesn't really matter if the message cannot be passed down to the next generation.

When we see the direction in which the world is going (and it has been a downward spiral for a while) morality and honesty is needed now more than ever. If the family structure is threatened, then the hope of attaining any morality now dissipates exponentially.

If we would take the consequences of these actions to their logical conclusion then the United States as we know it would not cease to function. The reason is that there would be less children brought into the world (even less than the average now) which would mean even less kids and the future generations would look bleak at best.

With this said, because of the death rate and the almost non-existent birth rate that would exist, where would we have workers for the next generation? People will say that this way of thinking is archaic because there will be people that will have children and men and women will still get married so what is the big deal if this is passed?

The Torah here explains that the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people is forever and it doesn't change because if we do decide that we need to spruce things up or take thngs out then the results are catastrophic!

The purpose of the Torah is not only to keep society functioning properly but to change man and help them reach their potential. The laws are not set up just to make sure that society functions properly which is why we the secular laws exist otherwise there would be even greater chaos than what we witness today!

The Torah is not a five year obligation to renew and if we feel like doing it we will if not not. It is G-d given and we have to the best of our ability to live up to its high standards. This world is not a world of fairy tales, sports or movies but bringing G-d's presence to this world and absolute morality!

This is what the essence of Rosh Hashanah is. We are in synagogue most of the day proclaiming G-d to be king of the world and we are fighting for our lives that G-d should give us another year of life, health and livelihood. As we read the Una Sana Tokef in Musaf we are inspired by its chilling words.

Who will die by fire, water, starvation, who will become rich, who will become poor... When we look around and see that there are others that not among us, why do we brazenly think that we will be here next year? The only reason that will happen is if G-d grants us life!

Life means physical life but also spiritual life as well. We get judged on the Torah we learned last year. Did I put my best effort when learning? Did I learn when I had time or did I waste it away doing other things? Did I implement what I learned or did I just learn it for intellectual stimulation but the implementation I just gave lip service?

We are just a few days from Rosh Hashanah, shouldn't we be taking stock of this now more than ever or do we just lull ourselves back to sleep thinking that G-d will continue to give me live and satisfy my every need. There are no guarantees and we certainly cannot rest on our laurels.

May we all be inscribed in the book of life and have a meaningful Rosh Hashanah

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 5 Mishna 13: Learn how to Give with a Full Heart and not Take from Others

"There are four characters among men: He who says 'what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours' is the average type, though some say this is a Sodom -type; he who says, 'What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine' is ignorant; he who says, 'What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours' is godly; he who says 'What is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine' is wicked". 

The Mishna describes the character traits of a person and whether they are good or bad. The first one is the average type because he does not want anyone to benefit from what he has but at the same he does not want to benefit from someone else's things as well.

It is interesting the Mishna here calls it average because you also don't want to get benefit from an object that someone else has. The fact that you don't want to share is not so uncommon because we always want to watch over what we have  but not wanting to benefit from someone else is praiseworthy because we are supposed to hate gifts in general. Why so?

The reason is that our nature is that if we benefit too much from others then we will not only get used to it but we will feel obligated to give to them or help them as well. While this may not seem so bad, it could lead a person to rely on others too much!

Why is this called by some the Sodom type? This case is talking about a person who gives charity out of obligation because of fear. Why fear? He realizes it is the right thing to do but he doesn't it only for the mitzvah and not because he has a desire to help others.

Others say that the essence of this person is bad and therefore should be called a rasha (evil) because in reality they don't want to help the person in the first place. This teaches us that even if a person gives charity but they give it with a sour face, they don't get the mitzvah. This is truly unbelievable because at the end of the day they are giving!!

The next part of the Mishna speaks about an ignorant person who gives and helps others but at the same time, takes things from others when he should realize that this is not the best thing for a person as we explained earlier. While he wants to help others, he loses out by benefiting in a way that will have negative effects on his life!

The last part of the Mishna tells us of the godly person who helps out others but does not accept gifts. He displays his ability to give to others and is willing to do so without getting benefit from others. This is praiseworthy and the correct path to choose as we try and navigate this world without getting used to gifts from others.

This will help us in life as we realize the importance of what it means to give and help others. Taking from others should be done as a last resort; the last thing a person needs is to feel indebted to others. When that happens it lowers their self esteem and causes many problems as well!
Thursday, September 3, 2015

Parshas Ki Savo: Do we really have free will?

"It shall be that if you listen to the voice of Hashem, your G-d to observe, to perform all of His commandments that I command you this day, then Hashem your G-d will make you supreme over all the nations of the earth. All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you, if you listen to the voice of Hashem your G-d" (Deuteronomy 28:1-2)

 If we look at this verse and many similar to it throughout the Torah, there is a fundamental question we must ask: what happened to free will? If we keep the commandments and do what G-d wants us to do, what will be our reward: we will be supreme over the nations and get all these blessings. Great, where do I sign up, how hard can it be, right?

If only it were that easy. The Torah continues and tells us the curses the Jewish people will receive if we don't live up to its expectations. This again begs the question that if this is true and we receive these curses, what happened to free will?

The answer is nothing happened to free will because we still have it!! Even if the Torah promises us the greatest wealth, fame and everything that goes with it for keeping the Torah and mitzvos, we still have the ability to walk away and do nothing. Even if we know that we will G-d forbid receive these curses, no one is forcing us to walk in either direction.

This is important because regardless of what trials and tribulations are thrown in our directions, we are the ultimate deciders whether we are going to go in one direction or another. That being true, although we may say that this free will is limited because in reality G-d is orchestrating everything behind the scenes putting ourselves in these situations, we still have to go through it and react!

How we react will determine the judgment G-d is going to give us through the actions that we do. You will say though if G-d is omnipotent and omniscient then He knows what I am going to do anyway, so do I just go through the motions anyway and let what happen, happen?

The answer is that we are given an opportunity on a regular basis to either raise ourselves to higher spiritual levels or G-d forbid to degrade ourselves and our souls! No one holds a gun to our head telling to act in a certain way or we are going to suffer the consequences.

As the old cliche goes, we make the beds that we sleep in. Our actions whether they are good or bad will have repercussions. An example of this is a pregnant woman that smokes crack and her baby comes out deformed. Is it the baby's fault?

No, but there is a reality, that if this action is done, the results will be disastrous. No one told this woman to do what she did but the baby ends up paying the price for this callous action. So too, spiritually speaking our actions have repercussions.

An example of this is a mamzer (a child born from a forbidden union) who can only marry someone from the same status or a convert. This child did nothing wrong to deserve this but there is a spiritual reality and that is that this person is stuck and can only marry someone that came into existence from a similar union!

As we see from this parsha, a person has a choice to go into one direction or another and the result of that decision can have tantamount repercussions! G-d gave us free will for a reason, regardless of what the reward or punishment would be for our actions. We don't always do the right thing and for that we will have to pay a price but even if we do the right thing, we are not doing it because of the reward and benefit we will receive.

There are so many things that occur in our lives that we have difficulty making sense of that even if we saw reward and punishment directly meted out for our actions that still wouldn't negate our free will because of all the other things around this.

How can this be so? The reality is that most people at one time or another have had a miracle occur for them. This miracle though may have made some impact on the person's life but we very easily forget these things! That being said, we could say that takes away our free will but G-d gave man an uncanny ability to forget and go back to our "everyday" lives.

May we live our lives to the fullest, never taking anything for granted!!

Shabbat Shalom

Ethics of our Fathers: Chapter 5 Mishnah 12: The Farmers that Keep Shmitah (Sabbatical Year) are the Real Heroes!

"At four periods pestilence increases: in the fourth year, in the seventh (sabbatical year); in the year following the sabbatical year, and at the conclusion of Sukkot in every year. In the fourth year, for having failed to give the tithe to the poor which was due in the third year; in the seventh year, for having failed to give the tithe to the poor which was due in the sixth year; in the year following the sabbatical year, for having made forbidden use of the harvest of the sabbatical year; at the conclusion of Sukkos in every year, for having robbed the gifts assigned to the poor (in the course of the whole agricultural year)."

The Mishna begins by telling us that the reason pestilence comes to the world is because there was failure to give the tithe to the poor which was due in the third year and failure to give the tithe to the poor which was due in the sixth year. The fundamental flaw here is that one did not give of their resources that G-d gave them to the poor.

When we look at livelihood, one thing  we need to understand is that everything comes from above. Whether we make a little or a lot, we have an obligation to help others in their time of need, each one according to their means. Even if one cannot give money, they still can give a good word or help in other ways. The main thing we learn is that we have to give!!

Statistically speaking, Jews give exponentially more to charity than any other group,  This is incredible because even though the Jews are a small fraction of the population, they give in such huge numbers! This is a testimony to the fact that Jews have compassion for others and want to help in any way they can!

If a person can give but refuses to, thinking that the money they make really belongs to them and since they earned it, why should they help out others. After all, didn't they use their G-d given gifts to be successful? Others should be able to do the same thing so they just need to work harder and be more sly in their business dealings and they will also succeed!

The Torah explains after the sin of Adam and Eve that man will have to work hard to make a living. Even if we do so, there is no guarantee that we will be successful unless G-d wills it. Regards of our IQ or connections, we have to remember that G-d runs the world as He sees fit. It is not because the person themselves created what they did by themselves; they had someone above watching and helping them in the process.

We learn from here that if we are helped from above and have what to give, then by all means we should be thankful that we can give and the G-d has helped us. This obligates us then to help others and never forget what G-d has done for us.

Even if we under the circumstances we can't give charity that does mean we can't help others. Whe we give of ourselves to others, we strengthen ourselves spiritually by being a partner with G-d in this world. No one ever loses by helping others!

If we forget this lesson, then the Mishna tells us that we will pay a severe price because we are ungrateful for the great bounty that G-d has bestowed upon us. This is also true if we misuse the fruits of the sabbatical year.

The purpose of leaving the land fallow is not to just let it rest so the soil can be replenished to grow stronger in coming years but rather to show our belief in G-d and how He runs the world. The Torah commands us to leave the land fallow in Israel during the sabbatical year which takes a tremendous amount of strength since a farmer has his whole livelihood invested in this, how can they just give it up for a year?

These farmers are the real heroes and are an example to us of those willing to do whatever G-d wants them to. It brings G-d down to this world so to speak when people witness these great men demonstrating their belief in how G-d runs the world. This is a lesson for all of us!