By Rabbi Arthur Waskow
This essay arises from the work of The Shalom Center. For other examinations of the spiritual roots and flowerings of transformative Judaism, see www.theshalomcenter.org.
In the great rhythm of reading Torah, this past Shabbat, May 10-11, Jews read a portion we call B’Har (“On the Mountain” — Sinai itself).
It comprises Leviticus 25, and it calls on us to let the whole land and the entire community rest from working or being worked, for one year of every seven. That year is called “Shabbat Shabbaton” or “Shmita.” “Shabbat Shabbaton” means “Super-Sabbatical,” Shabbat restfulness and calm raised and deepened to the exponential power of calm and restfulness. “Shmita” means “release” or “non-attachment.”
Does this ancient Torah address the greatest dangers of our present and our future?
The three great crises of our society are:
- The worsening destruction of the Earth’s web of life by Global Scorching
- The worsening polarization of our society into divisions between the increasingly rich and powerful –- one-tenth of 1% — and the rest of us
- The worsening collapse of love, compassion, and social solidarity at the levels of family, neighborhood, workplace, and society as a whole
Torah not only warns us against these dangers, but calls for preventing them through practicing the Shmita/Sabbatical Year. It seems to me this points the way toward how to heal our society and our planet, though I think in a hyper-industrial society the specific practices of Shmita would have to be quite different from what worked for shepherds and farmers.
According to the ancient count kept carefully alive through millennia of change, the year that begins on Rosh Hashanah this fall, 2014, is a Sabbatical/ Shmita year.
B’Har explains that since all the Earth belongs to YHWH, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Interbreathing-Spirit of all life, no human being or organization “owns” the land. So we need to let the Breath of Life catch Its breath every seven years. If we do, the Earth will share its abundance with us.
And if we don’t? On the following Shabbat, May 17-18, we will read in B’Chukkotai (Lev. 26) the warnings of what will happen to us if we refuse to let the land and the people rest. In a nutshell, the Torah teaches us that the Earth will get to rest – on our heads – through drought, famine, exile. The need for the Earth and for ourselves to rest is like the Law of Gravity. The only question is whether we will joyfully rest with the Earth, or be forced to rest — by disaster.
In the Sabbatical Year, the people — land-owners and the landless, homeborn and foreigners — were permitted to gather freely from the land’s free produce, but not to organize a regular sowing, cultivation, or harvest. So the people were also released from being either bosses or indentured servants — released from hierarchy.
Indeed, Deuteronomy 15: 1-11, written in a time of intense social upheaval in Israelite society, added that in the sabbatical year, all debts would be annulled. Lenders and debtors, the rich and the poor, would be released from their bondage to repaying and collecting. Social and economic equality would be renewed.
B’Har teaches the rhythmic renewal of “repose” in both the physical and institutional spheres. The cycles affirmed the worth of labor and pointed beyond labor to the worth of celebration. The cycles affirmed the worth of efforts to control and use the earth and pointed beyond that effort to the worth of loving the earth. The cycles affirmed the worth of efforts to accumulate wealth and power and pointed beyond that accumulation to the worth of sharing.
In these ways, the spirals of renewal taught through constant practice that even the best acts of creation and production and accumulation were not the single goal of human effort. Shabbat mattered.
But for the last 500 years or so, the human race has celebrated no Shabbat. We have become intoxicated with our own greatly increased powers of creation, of production and consumption; and in our intoxication we have not paused.
What we have been able to create with these powers have included good tools to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and heal the sick. The work has been more than good; it has been vital, life giving. So for 500 years, we have thought that it would be a waste of time — indeed, literally a waste of time — for us to pause, to contemplate, meditate, share, reevaluate. Far better to stay busy at our work.
And therefore, our creativity is on the verge of de-creating the world. On the verge of drowning it in a Flood of Fire, returning it to the primordial void and chaos.
If Shmita is a worthy vision, how do we begin to make it real? Let us start with an “impractical” vision: creating nine-day Shmita/ Sabbatical Festivals in all our neighborhoods.
All too few are now “neighborly” as the assumptions of compassion have broken down in the face of both the content and the form of the mass media, the de-funding of face-to-face education, despair over permanent impoverishment juxtaposed to quick riches from illegal drugs. How do we transform them?
Imagine this “impractical” scenario: Our government empowers all our neighborhoods to hold a nine-day neighborly Shmita/ Sabbatical celebration, once a year from Friday through the Sunday a week later. We give seed grants to neighborhood institutions to plan such events. We make the Shmita Festival a decentralized but universal event, a universal national “Shabbat” on all but life-preserving emergency services.
We close down highways, trains, hotels, television stations, newspapers, along with factories and offices. We rediscover walking and talking, singing and cooking. We rediscover our nearby neighbors.
Such a festival would give our society in a regular, chosen rhythm what only a few cities now experience only in a random, unchosen way. For such “festivals” now occur only when a great blizzard clogs the whole town with snow. Observers report that the first reaction is panic, an hysterical attempt to get to work. When it becomes clear that no one can work, a mood of joy and festive calm spreads across the city. Everyone shares: food, stories, emergency assistance. People play in the snow.
It is a day of unemployment but in a mood of holiday, holy day. Much more a holy day, in fact, than most of the commercialized holidays that have been made occasions not of rest but of turning on the “consumption economy.”
How could we begin a “miniature” Shmita, before the nation as a whole is ready to “waste” its time?
Suppose that in a few cities, a group of synagogues, mosques, and churches held a Shmita Festival for three days (Friday through Sunday), or for nine (Friday through the next week into the next Sunday).
Such a Shmita Festival would address the economic, political, and spiritual renewal of the city and its neighborhoods —-
- by inviting co-ops and worker managed firms, innovative small businesses, etc., to explain their work;
- by demonstrating equipment for energy conservation and the local generation of solar and wind renewable energy;
- by turning empty lots or part of the church, synagogue, or mosque grounds into communal vegetable gardens;
- by holding workshops on how tenants can buy apartment houses and turn them into co-ops;
- by setting up a temporary food co-op and helping people organize a more permanent one, etc.
- by sharing home-cooked foods, songs, dances, story telling, etc.
- by gathering people to discuss in open town meetings some of the major issues of our society: schools, energy, jobs, climate, prices, families, etc. and how to apply the Shmita approach to them in national and international as well as local and neighborhood ways.
It would encourage all the people of the neighborhood to pool and exchange their talents, skills, and memories.
Obviously this would not be a one-to-one transcription of the Biblical Shmita, even for nine days; but it would be an experiment in translating Shmita into modern terms. Approaches that began or were stimulated by the Shmita Festival would continue and grow through the year. Their work would intertwine the day-to-day problems of people in the neighborhood with study of both the Biblically rooted religious traditions and the modern analytical knowledge of social relations.
People who experienced just a glimpse of Shmita could use that moment to begin imagining how to translate Shmita into post modern practice. And they could start building the political power that could bring about the kinds of change that they imagine.
How to get the Shmita Festival process going? In a given city, some of the rabbis, ministers, priests, imams, and also the lay members of synagogues, havurot, churches, mosques probably know who in the various religious communities share their vision.
If they created a local Shmita Committee and got a few congregations to agree to host or to sponsor the Shmita Festival, the project would grow through outreach to co-ops, labor unions, innovative businesses, and to singers, dancers, story tellers, and cooks of the local traditions.
In all these practical proposals, there is an underlying thread of belief: that “ritual” and “politics,” should not be separated from each other, but rather intertwined. This may seem fuzzy minded to the practical politician and irreverent to the ritually observant; but those responses are both symptoms of the modern age.
What the Shmita passages in the Bible teach is that the most effective politics has a powerful ritual element in it, engaging not only material interests but deep emotional, intellectual, and spiritual energies; and that when ritual is made fully communal and focused on reality, it becomes precisely politics.
Readings from the Hebrew Bible & Related Materials toward a Shmita Economics::
Strand on Shabbat, Eden, and Eden for Grown-Ups
Gen 2: 1-4
Gen. 2: 14-19
Ex 16: 13- 36
Ex. 20: 8-11
Deut 5: 12-15
Song of Songs (if possible, translations by Marcia Falk or Chana & Ariel Bloch or Shefa Gold)
Strand on the Sabbatical Year / Shmita
Ex. 23: 9-12
Lev 25: 1-55
Lev. 26: 33-35, 43-45
Deut. 15: 1-18
Isaiah 58: 1-14
Isaiah 61: 1-11
Jeremiah 32: 6-44
Jeremiah 34: 8-22
II Chron. 36: 20-21
Strand on “Corners,” Gleaning, etc.
Ex 23: 20 to 24: 9
Lev. 19: 9-10, 23: 22
Deut 24: 10- 20
Book of Ruth
Abraham J. Heschel, The Shabbat (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1951).
Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language (1951), Appendix on the Shabbat; You Shall Be as Gods (1966).
Arthur Waskow, Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life (Morrow, 1995), pp. 148-152, 162-165, 353-381.
Arthur Waskow, Godwrestling — Round 2 (Jewish Lights Publishing of Woodstock, VT, 1996), pp. *245-258, 259-272, 282-286, 301-313.
See also Luke 4 in the Christian Gospels and John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, on Jesus’ call for a Shmita.
For a guide to study and action in response to the Torah of shmita, see http://www.hazon.org/resource/behar-week-of-shmita-study-action/
For an intensely text-focused analysis of the Biblical tradition of Shmita, Shmita, and the Eden story, see Rabbi David Seidenberg’s writing at
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D. founded (1983) and is the director of The Shalom Center. Rabbi Waskow has written or edited about twenty books on US public policy and Jewish thought and practice, the newest of which include a new and revised edition of Seasons of Our Joy (Jewish Publ Soc, 2012) and Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights Publ., 2011). He has also taken a vigorous part in public advocacy and nonviolent protest (including about twenty arrests) on behalf of peace, civil rights, full equality for women and gay people, freedom for Soviet Jewry, and healing for the wounded earth. For a full life-history, see here.
The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations. All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.