My new year’s resolutions for Rosh Hashanah will look a bit different this year.
They will include: eating more perennial foods; reducing new acquisitions whenever possible, and frequenting resale shops or borrowing from family and friends when not; paying all monthly bills in full and on time; cleaning out my closets and giving away to family, friends, and philanthropic causes all that I do not need (using a complex calculus that includes decluttering, divesting, bequeathing, reducing, downsizing my appetite and simplifying my life), and planting berry bushes and fruit trees.
I will do this because this year is unlike other years. This year is shmita — the sabbatical year, the seventh year in an ancient cycle of recurring sevens whose chain reaches back to the generation of Sinai.
Shmita is a year of environmental, economic, and social reboot. It is a year when lands lie fallow, private fields become public domain, physical (and social) barriers are torn down, personal loans are forgiven, debts are erased, and human relations assume a social — not transactional — quality.
While standing at Sinai, our ancestors were told: When you enter the land of Israel, “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat.” (Exodus 23:11)
Leviticus expands on the shmita laws this way: “When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land. It is God’s sabbath, during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards.” (Leviticus 25)
Deuteronomy adds the erasure of debts: “At the end of every seven years, you shall celebrate the year of debt forgiveness… every creditor shall remit any debt owed by his neighbor and brother when God’s year of debt forgiveness comes around….” (Deuteronomy 15:1-6)
Each book adds a layer of freedom and equity. They all add up to a vision that creates a world of sharing and release, satiety and ease, sufficiency and equity — at least temporarily.
Ever since Sinai, the observance of shmita has largely been limited to the land of Israel. But this year, through a confluence of reasons — the growing crises of environmental degradation, climate destabilization, radical wealth inequality, the global obesity epidemic, global food insecurity, and the false promise of the marketplace that having more things will yield more happiness — shmita has grabbed the attention of Diaspora Jews.
This year we ask: How shall we, those of us guided by Torah but unencumbered by the literal constraints of the law, live a year of shmita? That is, beyond the technical biblical and rabbinic laws that are observed in the land of Israel, how can we understand, honor and observe the deeper meaning and ethic of the shmita year, both as individuals and as a community? (Actually, many Israeli Jews are going beyond the letter of the law and engaging in this broader question as well.)
Shmita encompasses three areas of essential ethical behavior and unavoidable engagement: food, money, and people. It is hard to pass a single day without encountering every one of these. Thus, each and every time we eat, conduct an economic transaction, or encounter other people, we are facing a shmita challenge. At each encounter of food/money/people, we are asked to consider two questions: First: How is my behavior at this moment contributing to — or detracting from — a more equitable and enduring world? And second: What changes in society should we implement to create the scaffolding to bring about such a world in the other six years?
These are urgent questions. Through an exploration of a year of living shmita, we are being asked to do nothing less than to reimagine and realign our economic and consumer trends, which will, in turn, change our fundamental sense of self and the values we have lived by since the end of World War II.
We are being asked to take a leap of faith and seek to:
- Build a robust economy while making and buying less stuff,
- Enhance and appropriately reward the service sector of the economy,
- Create greater economic equality,
- Reverse the trend toward privatization and return to and celebrate the concept of the “commons” (those natural and cultural resources that belong to, and should be equally accessible to, all of us),
- Create a marketplace for people instead of using people to enrich the titans of the marketplace,
- Strengthen local ties and local economies,
- Personalize the exchange of goods, and
- Reimagine a just construction of debt.
This leap is difficult, and that is why shmita comes only once every seven years. The first step is to commit to living intentionally this shmita year. Then, we must take the lessons we learn and begin to build them into the other six years. Throughout the year, in this space, Sh’ma will run a column focusing on the ethics and questions that living intentionally
in a shmita year raises.