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”.
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 following text is a manifesto that represents the spirit behind a fascinating initiative taking place in Israel, Shmita Yisraelit: putting the radical idea of Shmita on the map of Israel’s civil society. Scores of individuals, as well as 22 different organizations, have signed this declaration, with the intent of promoting initiatives that take their inspiration from the sabbatical vision of the Shmita year.
This unique integrative vision combines strengthening communities and renewing the commons, with combating entrenched poverty and debt release, and promoting local and sustainable food systems, with a strong statement of work-life balance. Spearheaded by Einat Kramer of Teva Ivri, and former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior, the organizations that have signed on range in their activities from environmental quality, debt relief, and social justice, to Jewish renewal, student organizations, community groups, and more.
Let’s face it: Shmita has a marketing problem. It comes only once every seven years. It has little name recognition. It treads perilously close to being confused with the handy but derogating Yiddish word shmata – rag. It has no memorable ritual to ground it; no identifiable symbol associated with it; no compelling narrative to frame it. It is – as presented in the Torah and in tradition – just a series of laws.
It’s as if we had to market in one spiritual bundle seat belts, the gas tax and city circulators. Those of us in the know could see the connection – safe, affordable, sustainable and equitable transit. We would know too the greater context: that the flow of people, ideas, goods and services form the backbone of the body politic.
But the whole is not intuitively obvious. Neither is Shmita. So how do we capture the power of the seventh year in an image or symbol that can move the spirit?
“What is enough” seems to me the eternal question underlying the exploration of Sova and Shmita. This question calls out from every corner of our lives: Is there enough knowledge? Enough piety? Enough resilience? Enough money? Enough food/ land/water/oil/ copper/ iron – you name it? Enough time before things get worse? Enough community? Enough love? Enough faith?
How do we know if there is enough? How do we respond to this question when everything around us seems to be limited and running out? How do we take action that is not riddled with the anxiety of scarcity and absence?
An agrarian practice is embedded in all of the Jewish seasonal holidays. This is a rich trove to reclaim in our times, when we strive to see and practice our Judaism in a way that corresponds to the needs of the hour.
While they stood, the Jerusalem temples functioned as the geographic centers of a sustainable regional food system. This simple fact evades our attention because our “temple” practice, our observance of seasonal Jewish holidays, is not tied up as intensely with our food system as it once was.
This is the conclusion of Jeremy Benstein’s in-depth look at sustainability and the forces, fundamental to our current way of life, that need to be examined and changed in order to move towards a true sustainability.
The linearity of our technological society has erased or overridden the cycles in our lives in so many ways. It is the rhythms and cycles – day, season, year, life – that allow us to pause and take stock, to see where we have been and where we are going, to feel the pace and pulse of our lives. This erasure is largely responsible for the ‘cult of speed,’ the highly unnatural tempo of life, including the turbo-charged rate of resource use, that is part and parcel of the lifestyle critiqued previously.
It’s no wonder that traditional tribal and religious societies emphasize cyclical views of time. The Bible itself begins not only with the description of the creation of the physical world, but of the creation of the week, of cycles in time. While the seven-day week is not a pre-existing natural rhythm, this spiritual-cultural cycle of the days of the week is the most integrated into our workaday lives, which for a Jew means from shabbat to shabbat.