By Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin
We long to live in Eden, that idyllic world flowing with beauty, bounty and equity, the world that is captured in the very first chapters of Genesis. The Bible imagines Eden as a place where gifts flow freely from God to Earth, and emerge from the ground in a graceful partnership between nature and humanity. It is a place where we all have enough; where we keep no accounts, accrue no compounded debt; a place where our exchanges are in the form of gifts, not purchases. It is a world in which we are cherished for who we are and what we choose to offer each other, not measured by what we earn, amass and hold for ourselves.
But that is not the world we live in. Not even close. Instead we live in a world of markets and finance, loans and debts, where our value is what we consume, and our worth in what we “make”.
We live, in short, in a society ruled by the market economy where buying ever more stuff is the civic thing to do. It both keeps the economy humming and promises to make us happy, for, we are told, happiness, coolness, sexiness, status are just a purchase away. (Okay, maybe they didn’t come with this purchase, but no doubt with the next purchase they surely will.)
In this market economy, we have “little sense of the sufficiency of anything,” writes Wendell Berry in Food for Life. “The scarcity of satisfaction makes of our many commodities an infinite series of commodities, the new commodities invariably promising greater satisfaction than the older ones. In fact, the industrial economy’s most marketable commodity is satisfaction and this commodity, which is repeatedly promised, bought and paid for, is never delivered.”
But that is the nature of market economies. Using our insatiable capacity for desire and tapping into our deep-seated social insecurity, they seek to ever grow themselves. Markets are designed to encompass as much of society as they can profitably engage through their efficiency, professionalization, commodification and emotional unencumberedness.
Which is not to say markets are all bad. They have their place. Once we move beyond the village, market economies are essential to fulfill many of our needs. But like a glacier, a market economy is driven by its hunger and weight to engulf everything in its path. In its pursuit of profit, it turns the world into a commodity, and people into instruments of profit.
Left unchecked, market economies will devour themselves.
That is where Shmita comes in. Shmita is a check on the market economy. It is a pause from loans and debts; a break in the hegemony of private land ownership; a year in which everyone is to live equally and equitably off the land that is temporarily owned by none and shared by all. It is a form of gift economy, or perhaps better, Gifted Economy – that is, an economy based on the primordial vision that the earth and all its bounty are gifts from God that are to be used by us all but not otherwise possessed, amassed or hoarded by just some of us. It is a time when the work of the marketplace is held in check, when the dominant economy is one of enoughness and delight as opposed to ever-more and constant desire.
The truth is, we must live in both economies — simultaneously. Each has its essential place. The market economy organizes productivity and distribution, and creates an aggregation of wealth that, when used well, assists in financing the healthy growth of society. The Shmita economy meets the daily needs of all, builds meaning and purpose, bonds together commitment, and disperses any aggregation of wealth.
The question is not which is right and which is wrong, but which is proper when, at what scale, with what objects, in what place among what people.
Our 21st century global economy is clearly out of whack. It incessantly and insatiably increases what it monetizes, thereby increasing the scope, boundaries and impact of the market economy.
It can benefit from a year of the Shmita economy. Shmita is a radical suspension of business as usual. It is the year the Gifted Economy reigns, providing a corrective, a break, a reset to the excesses of the market. For one year, the rules of commercial engagement, exchange, social boundaries, private property, perceived worth and value all change. Land – with all its natural resources – is seen as the ultimate gift given by God and thus an unbounded commons to be shared, not a commodity to be sliced up, sold and consumed. Shmita is a time when everyone – despite their status and wealth during the other six years – has equal standing and equal claim to the blessings of the earth. Not more and not less than anyone else.
It is through this temporarily changed relationship to land and property that we experience a temporary return to the world of Eden, and a changed sense of self, of purpose and each other. If we are lucky, we will have become habituated to that renewed sense of purpose and satisfaction, and take it back with us when we re-enter the six years of market economy.
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is the co-founder of the Sova Project and the founder and director of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, an organization dedicated to greening her local Jewish community; the founder and director of the Baltimore Orchard Project, an organization that grows, gleans and gives away urban fruit; and a co-founder and chair of the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, an interfaith organization that works on behalf of the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and all its inhabitants.
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