Sabbaticals, shmita, post-sabbatical…

by Nigel Savage

October 19, 2017 | 29 Tishrei 5778

Dear All,

This week is the start of the rest of our lives the first week after the end of the Jewish holidays, and my first week back at work after my sabbatical. In the next few weeks, I’ll be sending out a short series of essays, reflecting on Hazon and our work in light of my sabbatical things I’ve learned, things I’ve been thinking about. I want to thank everyone staff, board members, funders, stakeholders for enabling me to take this time off. It has been important for me, and I hope in due course it will be significant, in a positive way, for Hazon and for our work.

In this first email back I want to write again about time itself and sabbaticals and shmita. This is the start of year three. Year one (the first year after shmita) was 2015-’16, ie 5776. 5778, this year just begun, is year three. When we get to Rosh Hashanah in September 2021, that will be the start of 5782, year seven, the sabbatical year, shnat shmita.

It is this very curious thing, that being Jewish is so inextricably wound up with the calendar. There is no Jewishness without Pesach, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, Shabbat. We may observe the calendar in different ways, but the simplest and most basic explication of Jewish tradition to a foreign guest, or a three-year-old interweaves theology and history and behavior with the calendar.

For most of recent Jewish history this understanding and explication of normative Jewishness, in relation to the calendar, has ignored shmita. It has not been part of the central understanding of Jewish tradition for most people. That has slowly begun to change there was more awareness of the shmita year this last time, in ’14-’15 but we have barely begun to scratch it.

You might wonder why it is that Hazon did so much work leading up to the last shmita year, and why I’m writing about it today, in this first week back. It is for two reasons, which together add up to a third. These are:

  1. Because shmita is central to Jewish tradition a central motif in the Torah, and one whose multiple meanings are critical to any reflection on what Jewishness is about, the worldview of the tradition, the attitudes and behaviors that the rabbis seek to inculcate;
  2. Because what shmita teaches is central to a whole slew of challenges, of very different sorts, that the world faces today; that we face today. That includes: time & work & overwork; how we relate to land; how we relate to food; how much is enough; what we do about inequality in society; how we relate to debt. How we understand our legal and moral relationships to the physical world. What the relationship is between my rights and your responsibilities, and my responsibilities and your rights; and thus
  3. Because when you put these two points together, what you find is that in being both central to Jewish tradition, and critical to some of the greatest challenges we face today, shmita remains the (mostly unexplored) heart of Jewish tradition’s greatest potential contribution to the world in general and to our own lives in particular.

In other words, if we took the time if, together, we take the time over the next few years, and the next few shmita cycles, to explore these interactions we will have, on the other side of this exploration, (1) a deeper understanding of the nature of Jewishness, and a clearer sense of how Jewish tradition can help us to live better happier, healthier, kinder lives; and (2) we will write a new and profound chapter in the contribution of the Jewish people to the betterment of humanity. 

So this is why I wanted to start with this, today. In the next few weeks I’d like to write about art, about Israel, about the nature of non-profits, about how we could or should address environmental challenges in our world, about leadership, about Berlin & the Shoah a whole bunch of different topics. But I start today on shmita because a sabbatical is just one of the gifts to contemporary life that comes both linguistically and conceptually from the biblical concept of shmita.

A sabbatical is certainly a gift, and a rare one in the contemporary world. It is both a cost for the organization and (unless badly handled) a gift to it. We know that if we work day in and day out, without a day off, we will conk out, and most of us, even as we allow some work to creep into the weekends, plus ordinary familial obligations we nevertheless know that working “24/7” isn’t good for us, or for the outfits for whom we work. A friend pointed out that a decade ago, in some circles, it was a badge of honor to work incredibly long hours; today we have a deeper understanding of sleep as vital to health and wellness. Some of those who took pride in getting by on four or five hours’ sleep are now trying to make sure they get seven, or even eight, if they can; knowing that this is not an alternative to getting more done in the world, but in some ways necessary to it, where possible. (The renewal of Isabella Freedman continued happily in my absence this summer, and as part of that we have started to buy new beds, so everyone can get a better night’s sleep. We have so far bought 30 new Leesa mattresses, and we’re delighted that so many guests have commented about how much they’ve loved them.)

Hazon is stronger because Judith has been acting CEO for four months and because, alongside her, other senior staff, led by Jed Snerson and Adam Sher, have had the chance to step up. Board conversations have been broader, in some ways, in my absence. The pace of the organization has shifted slightly. Where I’m more needed and where I’m less needed becomes clearer. The shape and the organizational structure of Hazon will be different, three months from now, than it would otherwise have been had I not taken this sabbatical.

And all of this before we even get on to the impact on me personally. Leading a non-profit is daunting and exhausting and quite ridiculously hard, given how much smaller non-profit organizations are relative to the size of government or private sector organizations. Every now and then I despair; every now and then I want to weep. I remember, in year four or five of Hazon’s existence, going into Aliza Mazor’s office at Bikkurim (z”l) and saying, ok, that’s it, I’m resigning and I guess Hazon may have to close down. This was in response to a particular piece of news that made me want to give up and run away and retreat to a cave, preferably forever. She talked me down, and life in due course went on. But this is the punchline I have the greatest possible respect for people who lead organizations, year in and year out, without taking an extended break. But I personally can’t do it, and shouldn’t do it, and I think that organizations should no more allow it than we should allow or encourage people to work day in and day out without sufficient sleep. Working flat-out for a little while is sometimes necessary and sometimes good. Done for too long it will harm the person, and if they’re running an organization, it will harm the organization too, in due course.

So in relation to shmita, I would say: mark your calendar for 2021-’22. Remind yourself and your organization, and your spouse, and your kids, and your parents, and your shul that that year is a shmita year. If you’re developing a Jewish educational curriculum any age, any focus make sure you don’t omit shmita. As the calendar of years maps to the calendar of days, this year, year three, is the equivalent of Tuesday, the third day. Just as, by Tuesday, one would start to think: hm, what are we doing this Shabbat?, one should by year three be in the early twinklings of hm, what are we going to do in 2021-’22, for the shmita year? So think about it, and make a note. Shabbat takes preparation, and so does shmita.

And in relation to sabbaticals, I would say: if you’re running an organization and you’ve done so for any length of time, think about planning a sabbatical. If you’re a board chair or a board member of a non-profit, and you have a CEO who’s been in place for a while, ditto. A sabbatical will be better for your CEO she will, we hope, come back renewed and refreshed and it will or should be better for the organization. If I can be of use to anyone on this topic in encouraging you, or your organization, or helping to think through issues or challenges feel free to be in touch.

And to all of us: shana tova. May today be a good day. May this week be a good week. May this year be a good year. May we work hard and rest well and get into balance with ourselves, our communities, and with the world that sustains us.

With all best wishes,

PS And if you are looking for a way in 5778 to really get a good nights’ sleep (plus a few days of nourishing food and renewing programming), join us at Isabella Freedman for the annual Meditation Retreat and/or the annual Rabbis’ Retreat.