Seventy Faces of Torah Why Is This Rosh Hashana Different? (Nitzavim/Vayelekh, Deut. 29:9-31:30)
The new Jewish year, 5775, which starts next Wednesday night, is not like most other Jewish years. This new year calls us to a radically new way of being, a new way of living, for it inaugurates the “shmita,” the sabbatical year — the seventh year in a recurring cycle of sacred sevens that traces its count back more than 2,500 years.
It is a call to a grand Sabbath of sorts, stretching out over a period of 354 days (the lunar Jewish year is shorter than the solar secular year).
Shmita means release, as in opening up a clenched hand to free what is held there. It specifically refers to a farmer’s hold on his land, for while in all other years he has exclusive rights to his fields and their yield (except for the annual gifts to the poor, the priests and the Temple that the Torah calls upon him to give), during the shmita year, his rights to his land are suspended. His fences must come down; he may not sow or harvest; his fields are thrown open to all; any yield that grows of itself must be shared with whoever comes to glean.
And it includes everyone — rich and poor alike, as well as the foraging animals. During the shmita year, all standard agricultural commerce, which was a major part of the biblical economy, is forbidden. This call for a food-sector moratorium essentially meant a yearlong recalibration of the role of commercial activity.
In this way, old patterns are shaken up, even broken. Relationships to others, work, land, nature, one’s very purpose and goals in life are reset, and hopefully righted. Food and land cease to be commodities, and thus cease to serve as social markers distinguishing rich and poor. People are no longer classified as bosses, consumers or workers. Social categories get scrambled and neighbors are viewed more for their companionship, wisdom, comfort, presence, heart and artfulness than for the flattening metric of their wealth. Land and all the resources it offers are revealed once again for what they really are: unearned gifts from powers that far exceed our own, freely offered to all animate creation.
Even more, during the shmita year, all debts are forgiven, or at least suspended. For what do debts mean in a society without commerce and with resources that are shared?
So what does all this have to do with us today, especially for those Jews who are not observant, or who live in the Diaspora, and for those who are not Jews? The agricultural laws of shmita, after all, technically only apply to Jews in the land of Israel (and even there, Jews struggle to adapt these laws to a modern world). Diaspora Jews and others needn’t worry about their particulars. Even if we wanted to abide by the sabbatical laws, we could not feed the world’s 7 billion people through a food system of gathering and gleaning. Foraging and after-growth only go so far, and with more than half the world’s human population living in cities, ready access to fruited fields is unavailable to most (though the growing urban agriculture movement, which is thriving in abandoned and vacant lots, parks, rooftops, homes and marginal city spaces, can bring some significant portion of urban-dwellers within walking range of homegrown food.)
But if we can’t observe the particular laws of shmita here in the diaspora, we can seek to abide by the ethical messages that lie deep within them, and craft appropriate behavioral responses.
Shemittah seems to be about interrupting the monetary trends that lead to the aggregation of corporate and personal wealth for the few while increasing impoverishment of the many. Such an arc skews all our relationships — to nature, possessions, people, money, laws, value — in the narrowly focused frame of wealth.
If for six years we often see and treat each other and the Earth’s resources as instruments for our own comfort, delight and aggrandizement, and money as a premier element in personal identity, this seventh year provides a corrective. It reminds us that we are not fully the authors and owners of our own lives and that our welfare depends upon the vitality of the Earth.
All are intertwined. The economy is a reflection of all this as much as a contributor to it. The shmita year comes, then, to remind us in this age in which autonomy and economy reign, that the state of our private wealth depends to an astonishingly large measure on the state of our commonwealth.
Every seven years we are called to upend our habits, to shake things up. We are asked to remember who we are and whose we are; to remember that we are here but for a short time, and that the most enduring aspect of our lives is not what we consume but what we leave behind. We need to be reminded of this every seven years for we no doubt forget in the rough and tumble of the other six.
Why are we not asked to live shmita all the time? Because life’s exigencies demand progress and commerce, which in turn thrive on ambition, competition, return-on-investments and exclusive rights as well as collaboration, partnership and interdependence. We cannot uproot these from the human spirit or the path of progress. But we can hold them in check, and remind ourselves that these impulses are there to serve the greater purpose of advancing the well-being of humankind, not creating a privileged golden class.
This week’s “parashah” speaks of this seventh-year fix. It calls us to come together every seven years to hear our tradition’s teachings in their entirety. Everyone — women, men, children, residents and strangers — all members of society are to gather in one place at one time and hear the fullness of the Torah (Deut. 31:12). The message, and the experience, would surely foster an overwhelming sense of oneness, a sense that we are committed to a transcendent purpose that can only be achieved through the equitable participation of all.
Today, we cannot gather millions, or billions, of people into one place at one time. But through social media and global awareness we can use this shmita year as a shared way to pause, explore new economic purpose and possibilities, recalibrate our compasses, reset our goals and emerge with a vision of how to create a healthier society and economy for all.
Nina Beth Cardin is a rabbi, author, environmentalist and founder of the Jewish Women’s Resource Center.