“Realistic hope”: Scotland, climate change, shmita & the call of the shofar

Yesterday Lord Sacks, in a teaching for the Wexner Foundation on teshuvah, described Jewish tradition as “a religion of realistic hope.” I was struck by this phrase and wondered if he had used it before. He seems not to have done; but Rabbi Levi Olan (rabbi-ing with a different theology in a rather different time and place) used it as the title of his commencement address at HUC-JIR in 1953. I doubt very much that Rabbi Sacks was quoting Rabbi Olan; rather they were each drawing on their own understanding of our shared tradition. It is a beautiful, accurate, and useful phrase, and never more relevant than at the remarkable time in which we now find ourselves.

Yesterday Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. That signifies realistic hope on the part of the Scottish people – trusting that significant constitutional and thus existential change will be possible, without having to blow up a centuries-old union. I pray that in the coming year such peaceful evolution will be possible in other parts of the world where the boundaries of legal border and personal identity do not cleanly coincide – not only in Canada or Spain, for instance, but also in the Ukraine, and also in rather more fissile parts of the world.

And I pray that we have equivalent realistic hope for centripetal forces to re-assert themselves within Jewish life, so that we not blow up our centuries-old union. This needs to be a year in which we work to strengthen not only the Israel-diaspora relationship, but also, so to speak, the intra-diaspora Israel relationship. For those who are interested in this topic I especially commend Yehuda Kurtzer’s thoughtful piece last week. This determination to bridge difference and build relationships and serious conversations is central to our work, and it lies at the heart of our Siach program, our Israel Ride and our Israel Sustainable Food Tour (for which a few slots are still open if you want to learn-and-eat your way around Israel at the end of next month.)

Meantime – speaking of realistic hope – tomorrow night is selichot (penitential prayers); Sunday is the People’s Climate March; and Wednesday night is not only Rosh Hashanah but also the start of the shmita year.

It is too soon to know what the impact of the Climate March will be. But is it a realistic or unrealistic hope to imagine the worlds’ governments, with full-hearted US support, making this coming year – and the next full shmita cycle – a critical tipping point in this anthropocene era? The answer to that question will partly be determined by the extent to which, individually, institutionally, and communally we act and speak up for change. Hazon and the Shalom Center were the first two Jewish organizations to sign on to the Climate March, when some people either hadn’t heard of it or perhaps assumed that it was an obscure thing, not relevant to them or their organization. There are now over 90 Jewish groups signed onand a major Jewish turnout is expected for a march that should be headline news across the country and beyond. That Jewish turnout is partly testament to the staff and alumni of Hazon’s Jewish Greening Fellowship helping to coordinate things, and more than partly it is testament to the chord that has been struck on the ground. If you want to join us, meet at 58th St, between 8th St & 9th Avenues, at noon on Sunday. Wear a Hazon t-shirt or jersey – or your youth group t-shirt or your birthright hat. On FB, go ahead and like the Jewish Climate Campaign where you can find updated info on what’s happening. If you have a shofar – bring it and blow it, and tag your photos with #jewishclimatecampaign.

And thus to Rosh Hashanah and the shmita year. I’m so proud of the work that Hazon and our partners have done over the last six years to start to take shmita off the shelf and bring it back into significant discourse in Jewish life. This shmita year will be, in critical ways, quite different from previous shmita years. If you haven’t yet ordered our Shmita Sourcebook, you can get it here. And we are absolutely thrilled that last week we published our first book: a really beautiful annotated edition of the introduction to Rav Kook’s Shabbat Ha’Aretz. It is short and eminently readable; if you want to take a small volume to read while you’re at services over the next few weeks, I commend it. (And – yes – you can get it easily and more cheaply on amazon – but if you do that, set up a smile.amazon account – it is super easy – and make Hazon the [minor] beneficiary of your purchasing.)

Shmita is a remarkable part of Jewish tradition. I cannot begin, here and now, to do justness to its richness; I have said some of what I want to in the introduction to those two books. But it is a process, not a one-off; it begins on Wednesday night, but it will be part of our conversation throughout the year. What does shmita reveal about the political economy of Jewish tradition? How does it inspire us, how does it challenge us, what new ideas does it provoke? Shmita is, more than almost anything in the tradition, a crucible of realistic hope. It offers encouragement to slow things down and let things go. It invites us to plan for things, not just dive into them. It makes clear that the differences between us are not permanent; that, on the contrary, we have endless ways to take down fences between people, literally and metaphorically. (I vividly remember Reb Shlomo Carlebach z”l teaching that the chagim end with us dancing around, arm in arm, at Simchat Torah, precisely for this reason – to make manifest the connections between us when human fences are dissolved.) And it suggests – very strongly indeed – that for one year in seven we should live more simply, for ourselves and for the world around us.

I want to give you just one very specific example of that – not specifically because my example will be the right one for you, but rather to give a sense of how broadly we might choose to apply shmita in our lives this coming year.

Despite my link to enable you to buy Shabbat Ha’Aretz on amazon, earlier this year I started making plans to declare a sort of amazon-book-fast during the shmita year. As addictions go, a book-buying habit is a notch down from smoking cigarettes. But doing this feels right to me. So months ago I started taking books off my shelves and wrapping them, individually, in newspaper. There’s a stack of them now in my study, sixty or seventy of them; each of them books that were on my shelves and unread. My idea is that every time I have the desire to buy a book I’ll instead go into my study, randomly take a wrapped book – each of them unmarked and unidentified – open it, and go “wow – I always wanted to read this!”

And so one of the last things I intend to do on Wednesday afternoon, just before Rosh Hashanah begins, is to go to my amazon account and disable my 1-click settings; then I’m going to delete my credit card information; and then I’m going to delete the amazon app on my phone.

And it’s not that I won’t spend any money on amazon at all – I assume in the end I will. But I do intend not to buy any books, and I do in general want to make it a little harder for me to immediately gratify my desire to buy.

So how will you mark the shmita this year? Will you create a shmita seder plate for your Rosh Hashanah table? Is there something you want to give up? Or something you want to stand up for? A debt you want to release – literally or figuratively? (If you like the idea of marking the shmita year by letting go digitally, check out Amichai Lau-Lavie’s phenomenal “Fallow Lab.”) Where were you in 2008 – when the last shmita cycle began? Where do you, or your institution, want to be in September 2022, when the next seven-year shmita cycle ends? What are the realistic hopes you have for yourself, your family and your community? Ask these questions around your yontef table, and see where the conversation goes; it will be a fitting way to begin the year. For a bunch of other ideas, we’re grateful to the Forward and UJA-Federation for this shmita supplement.

I want to end by thanking Hazon’s staff members and volunteers for a really remarkable year. They – you – have worked so hard, so passionately, so effectively, and with such infectious esprit de corps. There is an energy across the organization which is inspiring and which indeed gives us realistic hope for the year that is to come.

Many of you, reading this, are already significant stakeholders in Hazon. To each and all of you: huge huge thanks. To any of you who want to become stakeholders, or to become more significant stakeholders, please step forwards. We do not believe that we are the most important organization in the world or in the Jewish community, but we punch above our weight – perhaps way above our weight. The impact that we are having is substantial and vitally needed. If you want to volunteer in some way – please be in touch. Bring your organization to do a retreat at Isabella Freedman. Join us for one of our retreats, including for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or Sukkahfest. And if you want to feel that you are making a difference by supporting us financially – we need your support and we will accept it with great thanks. Click here to make a donation.

Finally, a word about the shofar. It is such a powerful and central motif in all of this. Blowing the shofar both at the climate march and in shul interweaves so many important ideas. It is a reminder that our tradition, like the world itself, is dependent on the natural world that sustains us. It is a reminder of the ancientness of our tradition, and of human civilization. It is something we blow at times of celebration – the climate march and Rosh Hashanah are both times of celebration, though we may not think of them as such. And it is something also that we blow at times of alarm, and this is in so many ways a time of alarm. Reb Shlomo taught: when we listen to the shofar blast, it reminds us of the many things of which we are afraid. And when we hear the very last shofar blast at ne’ilah, at the very end of Yom Kippur, it should remind us of the greatest fear of all – what our lives would be like if we were truly unafraid. What our live would be like, if we were truly unafraid.

I take that to be, indeed, a realistic hope – for me and you and all of us. May this be a year of health, peace, learning, and letting go.

Shabbat shalom, shana tova.