Writing the third essay in a yearlong Sh’ma series on shmita, I assume you are not, as it were, a shmita beginner. More has been written about shmita in the American Jewish community since this shmita year began than in any previous shmita cycle. Rabbis spoke about shmita during the High Holidays; Jewish newspapers ran cover stories on shmita; the Forward (with Hazon and UJA-Federation of New York) inserted a four-page shmita supplement; Amichai Lau-Lavie launched his fallowlab.com project; and the New York Times published a thoughtful piece on new shmita initiatives, both in Israel and the United States.
Shmita is coming into our consciousness in new ways. So now we must ask: How might this shmita year inform a contemporary Jewish ethics?
This is the primary focus of Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook’s introduction to the laws of shmita as outlined in Shabbat Ha’Aretz (translated by Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair and published by Hazon). The main body of Shabbat Ha’Aretz focuses on the heter mechira, the halakhic circumvention of the agricultural prohibitions of shmita in the Land of Israel. But in his introduction, Rav Kook offers a different focus entirely. He argues that shmita underpins a deep understanding of the nature of Jewishness in the world:
“The image of a world that is good, upright and godly — aligned with peace, justice, grace, and courage…. What Shabbat does for the individual, shmita does for the nation as a whole… The forcefulness that is inevitably part of our regular, public lives lessens our moral refinement. There is always a tension between the ideal of listening to the voice inside us that calls us to be kind, truthful, and merciful, and the conflict, compulsion, and pressure to be unyielding that surround buying, selling, and acquiring things. Such a life, full of frenetic action, veils the glory of our divine soul… We need to stop and shake off the bedlam of our daily lives…. This once-every-seven-year illumination carries an afterglow of divine ideals that will gradually shape our ethical characters…”
Rav Kook wrote this in 1909, many decades before the digital age ramped up our lives. It is partly because of this that, today, shmita is getting more attention than ever before. But Rav Kook did not understand shmita as “self-help” or “detox” or “unplug” — slowing down for its own sake. Rather, he saw a deep and inextricable link between the provisions and implications of shmita, on the one hand, and the nature of living ethically on the other.
The specific ideas we may generate — how we plan to observe this shmita year in terms of eating, working, taking time off, etc. — are not halakhic observances, but rather behaviors tied to a religious sensibility that deepens our understanding of Jewishness. I hope that this shmita will bring us closer to the “divine ideals that will gradually shape our ethical characters.”
Let me give two examples of how the specific connects to the larger frame. First, I decided not to buy so many books during the shmita year. So, just before Rosh Hashanah, I deleted my saved credit cards on Amazon.com and then I deleted the Amazon app on my iPhone. If I hold to this, I may save a few trees, and my home will be a bit less cluttered. But the deepest impact I intend and expect is rather different: I am forcing myself to remember shmita — to remain aware of shmita — throughout the shmita year. And this awareness should, in turn, inform my actions in all sorts of other ways. The second example relates to a friend of mine who has decided not to paint her toenails during the shmita year. Though it sounds like a banal and almost ludicrously insubstantial way to observe her shmita year, her intent is similar to mine: She sees this as a way constantly to remind herself of the shmita year, and thus to strive to improve her behavior in deeper ways. The rabbinical understanding is that the observance of shmita outside the Land of Israel is midat chasidut — something that is not required but that we should aspire to — and my friend’s giving up of nail polish is indeed, in this sense, midat chasidut.
Specific shmita observances remind us of the deeper questions and issues — both personal and communal — we should pay attention to: How does the tradition of shmita inform our relationship to land, food and inequality? What might be the 21st-century analog of throwing open our fields to those who are hungry or in need? Whose debts do we need to annul? How should remembrance of shmita shape our sense of radical empathy? A very contemporary shmita-inspired question for Jewish communal leaders might be: How should we respond to the growth of student debt in the United States over the past several years?
These are not sound-bite questions; they go to the very heart of Jewish tradition in the 21st century. I hope and pray that this year’s observances of shmita — large and small — will bring Rav Kook’s messianic vision, inspired by the Torah’s messianic vision, to fruition.email print