Shmita / 146 days to go…

Dear All,

It’s 146 days until Rosh Hashanah and the start of the next shmita (sabbatical) year in Jewish life. That means it’s also, as it happens, exactly 500 days until the start of the next 7-year cycle in Jewish life, starting at Rosh Hashanah in September 2015.

We’re sending this today because this Shabbat afternoon we start to read parshat Behar Sinai, which we read in full the following Shabbat. The parsha begins with a central description of shmita. It’s a good moment – as individuals and organizations – to start to think about the coming year.

As some of you will know, I’ve become steadily more fascinated by – some might say, obsessed with – the shmita year, since the last shmita year in 2007-8. So this week and next week I want to share with you some of what we’ve been thinking about in relation to shmita. And for those of you who are rabbis, educators, organizational leaders; or – also – students, parents, kids, civilians, Jewish or not Jewish – a range of things you could think about or do in relation to shmita.

First: what is shmita? Briefly, the word means something like “release” – letting go. In the Torah it is also referred to as shevi’it – the seventh year; and as shabbat ha’aretz – a Shabbat for the land. One of the reasons I love it so much is because it’s not exactly clear what shmita ever was, what it is, or what it could or should be. As a concept, it contains multitudes.

And amidst those multitudes: something about the sanctity of the land of Israel; something about rest; something about money; something about the commons. And, very quickly, when one starts to learn the primary texts: something about inequality and the nature of ownership. A critique of what we mean when we say that something is ours, or “mine.” Questions about long-run cycles of time and how we register them: the range of our vision, the time-horizons on which we focus. Learnings about food and hunger and who eats what and how the poorest in our communities should come by their food. Intimations about dignity and the relationship between dignity and charity. Profound questions about the nature of community itself: who is in my community? How are boundaries drawn? What obligations do I have, to whom, exercised in what ways?

Many of us take Jewish life at least moderately seriously. We light candles at Chanukah. We give tzedakah. We care about Israel. We fast on Yom Kippur. We don’t eat treif. We read the Torah on Shabbat morning. In the real world in which we live, the range of ways that each of these things is understood and observed is extremely wide. Yet as a central expression of Jewish life, each remains widely observed.

If any of these is true for you, then in writing this email I simply want to add “learning about shmita, and observing it in one or more ways” to the list of what it means to be an aware Jew in the 21st century. It is not just that the concept of shmita is central to Jewish tradition; it is that it is absolutely fascinating; and it bears quite remarkable scrutiny. One may learn and learn it and far from being bored or exhaust the topic discover rather that the more one learns the more fascinating and indeed salient it becomes.

If you’re a rabbi, I warmly encourage you to teach about shmita on the Shabbat of Behar Sinai, and to start to introduce your community to the idea that this coming year will be the shmita year. If you’re involved in leading an organization of any sort – not just a Hillel or a day-school or a Jewish summer camp or a JCC, but also a law-firm, a tech start-up, a gardening business, a bike repair-shop, a non-profit organization, a Congressional office, a government ministry; or if, simply, you’re a human being, Jewish or not, but interested in learning from the depth of Jewish tradition, from the Torah which is held sacred, one way or another, by more than a billion people on this planet; then I invite you to start to think about two very broad sets of questions.

The first is: how will this coming shmita year be different for me and different for my family, my organization, and my community, than the other six years of the cycle?

The second is: what would it be to use the coming shmita year to embark on a seven-year visioning for the full shmita cycle that begins in September 2015. Where would I like to be in September 2022. How will my shul be different? How old will I be? My kids, my parents?

These are not overnight questions. They’re process questions. They’re questions to ponder, to talk about with loved ones, to discuss as a board or a staff.

Rabbi Dr. Arthur Waskow likes to draw attention to the zen paradox in the Talmudic teaching: “which is more important, doing or learning? Learning, because it leads to doing…” (Think about it; it’s a kind of Jewish zen koan.) I mention it in closing because shmita is a particularly strong example of the profound truth of this teaching. There are many, many things that we might do – or not do – in observance of shmita. But before we leap into that, we should begin simply by learning – by actually reading the biblical texts, and then some of the commentary on them, and by allowing ourselves to reflect deeply on what those texts might teach. I especially encourage this before we leap into the realm of metaphor or contemporary example. Before we start to impose our own understanding of shmita on the texts, let’s allow ourselves simply to learn them, in their own terms.

I’ve been thinking about this since the last two shmita years. I was inspired by a Yom Iyun – a day of learning – that Chovevei Torah organized at Lincoln Square, on Christmas Day in 2007; I was provoked by the balagan (“complete mess”) in Israel, that shmita year; and I was catalyzed by Nati Passow’s address on shmita at Hazon’s Food Conference that month at Isabella Freedman. That was when Hazon together with Jewish Farm School, and joined by Yigal Deutscher’s 7 Seeds, launched what became The Shmita Project – an open-ended, open-source, attempt to bring shmita into a much deeper public consciousness.

Hazon is now just one of a growing range of organizations that have been working on shmita in the recent period. Click here for resources on shmita – including our shmita sourcebook. And events have been scheduled in various places through Shavuot. We’d love for you to join us, by bringing shmita learning directly to your own community, local synagogue, school, community garden, etc. Please register your event here or email with any questions.

Next week I’ll share with you seven specific ideas you might choose to think about or plan for in the lead-up to shmita. But for now – before doing that – I simply want to leave you with an encouragement to start to learn about shmita, open-endedly, and to see where for you and your community it might lead.

Shabbat shalom,

PS – If you’re in any way involved in Jewish education, in any capacity, I especially strongly invite you to join us for this year’s Teva Seminar, which will take place June 9 – 13 at Isabella Freedman. Teva Seminar is an amazing experience – people love it and learn from it year after year – and this year shmita will be a central theme. Click here for more info to register.