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Jewish learning In These Turbulent Times

By Rabbi Natan Margalit

In these turbulent times, when we feel bombarded by crises of politics, society, health, climate and more, all the while sitting isolated at home—-we often don’t know where to turn. We can get caught up looking every few minutes at the latest news update, jumping up to raid the refrigerator or . . . or we can take a deep breath (maybe a few deep breaths) and look more deeply into how we got into this mess, and how we can move in a more sane, healthy direction. Our Jewish tradition has wisdom to offer even—especially—in these turbulent times.

Starting in the fall of this year, 2021, the Jewish world will enter its “sabbatical” or Shmitta Year. Shmitta means “letting go” or “releasing.” It originated in biblical times with Israelites releasing debts, land, and property–to press “reset” and restore society to a more equal setting. But Shmitta is more than an economic justice program.

At the heart of Shmitta is the insight that we are not the owners of this earth. All the benefits we enjoy–food, shelter, the beauty and bounty of nature, life itself, are gifts. During the non-Shmitta years, we act “as if” we own property, but the seventh year comes (like the seventh day, Shabbat) to remind us that everything we have is not ours, but has come to us as a part of our relationship with the Source of Life.

When we hold the attitude of owners, even masters, of the earth we stand apart, aloof and disconnected. We can think of all this bounty as “resources” and even of other people as means to an end.   But when we frame all we have as a gift, we enter into relationship, not only with the Source of Life, but with all life that is animated and shines with the holy sparks of that Source of Life.

These relationships, with our family, neighbors and community, with the earth, the plants and animals, with the air and sky, oceans and clouds, embrace us, give our lives meaning, hold us responsible, make us feel at home in the world.

Even in biblical times the lure of thinking we were owners, masters of the earth, was strong – that is why a reminder every seven days—Shabbat—and every seven years–Shmitta—was necessary. All the more so today. For all its advantages (which I do enjoy!) modern, Western civilization has bought into the idea that we are masters and owners—and look where it has gotten us! Separation and alienation from one another in our nation and communities is at a crisis level. Separation and alienation from the earth and our living non-human fellow creatures has brought us to ecological and climate disaster.

Shmitta, reminding us that we can release our ownership just a little bit, share and recover that sense of belonging, relationship and meaning—can be just what we need in these turbulent times.

Rabbi Natan Margalit is an instructor in Hebrew College’s Open Circle Jewish Learning program (now enrolling winter/spring classes). Learn more about Natan on his website

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