From Shmita to Hak’hel: Assembling on October 4

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

In the last several years, many societies and cultures have been stirred by the sense of a great planetary crisis caused by human action to overwork the earth — – the burning of fossil fuels scorching our global ecosystem, the human gobbling up of eco-space bringing on the extinctions of many other species, widespread deforestation weakening the Earth’s ability to absorb the overproduction of CO2, human behavior poisoning rivers and oceans and exhausting many watersheds.

For some, these events have stirred two biblical memories and midrash: the identification of corporate “Carbon Pharaohs” that profit from bringing plagues upon the Earth; and for the first time in Jewish history, a serious exploration of how the Torah of the Shmita/ Sabbatical Year of rest for the land might be applied outside the Land of Israel –- indeed, universally.

The realization of this powerful biblical way of understanding and addressing our generation’s crisis came soon enough before the Shmita year of CE 2014-2015 to stir rich discussion, but not soon enough to make the year a time of public transformative action — a real Shmita. As our present Shmita dwindles down, what can we do now, to keep our planet livable?

Facing this crisis, 380 rabbis from every stream of Judaism have signed the Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis. Among the actions they urge is that Jewish communities do everywhere as Torah commands — Hak’hel/ Assemble! during the Sukkot after this Sabbatical/ Shmita Year of Release to discuss what we might call the Torah of eco-social justice.

So Moses connected/commanded them, saying: “At the end of every seven years, in the celebratory-cycle of the year of Release/ Non-Attachment, in the meeting- time of Sukkot [Huts], when all the Godwrestling folk has come to see the face of YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh [the Breath of Life] your God in the place which The One shall choose, you shall read-aloud this Teaching before all the Godwrestling folk in their hearing.

“Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones, and your stranger that is within your gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn – yes, learn! – and revere YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh [the Breath of Life] your God, and observe to do all the words of this Teaching.

“And so your children who had not fully-experienced — will hear and will learn to revere YHWH your God, for all the days that they live upon the Earth as you cross the River of Justice to inherit it.”

Deut. 31:10-12

The Torah dos not specify what “the words of this Teaching” should be. The Mishna says that when the King and the High Priest assembled the people to carry out this liturgy of learning, there were three major aspects of what we call the Book of Deuteronomy that they read:

  • The “passage on a King,” detailing the limits on the power of a ruler, who must not amass his own wealth, or an aggressive standing army, or a harem of so many wives as to distract him from wise policy to sexual gratification.
  • The Sh’ma, affirming the Unity of YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life, and the passage connected to it that promises that carrying out the teachings of Torah will ensure that the rains will fall when they should, the rivers will run, and the Earth will fruitfully flourish; but that following false gods, afterthought gods, will result in the Earth drying up, the heavens becoming hostile, and the people perishing from the good Earth their forebears had been promised;
  • and the protections of the poor through gleaning in the fields, being paid their wages on time, etc..

These readings add up to teaching eco-social justice: preventing the rise of arrogant top-down power and protecting the poor, the disempowered, and the Earth itself from exploitation. We could all be planning such events in our own cities to focus on the “eco-social injustice” of our climate crisis, the profits it gives huge corporations and the plagues it brings especially upon the poor.

This coming Sukkot, the most auspicious time to do this might be Sunday, October 4which will also be the festival’s seventh day — Hoshana Rabbah,. Why then?

Not only because the Torah singles out Sukkot, the most Earth-conscious of our festivals, for Hak’hel.waskow lulav

Not only because on Hoshana Rabbah, we not only invoke the powerful sacred Sukkot magic of living in the leafy, leaky sukkah and waving the palm branch and the lemony citron– lulav and etrog — but also beat willow branches on the earth. (The willow is a water-thirsty tree, so by connecting it with Earth we appeal to ourselves to heal our endangering of the planet’s water.)

Not only because we create seven sacred dances with the Torah scroll, each of which we could make a celebration of one day of the Creation.

Not only because that day, October 4, is for Christians the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, who famously loved the Earth, the poor, and peace, who opposed the Crusades and met with Muslim leaders, and who has in our own generation become the spiritual guide of Pope Francis — so that Hoshana Rabbah could also be a time for multireligious gathering.

Also, and most important, for the crucial reason that we need to Assemble! — to think, to reevaluate and reenvision, to plan how to build the wisdom and the power to actually heal our planet – to make a real Shmita. (And not to wait till 2020 to start planning.)

I am glad to share the beginnings of a model: In northwest Philadelphia and the near-in suburbs, planning along these lines has already begun within and among several congregations and institutions that are geographically close to each other: Six congregations, plus the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College  and The Shalom Center, are discussing how to Hak’hel — Assemble! – on Sunday, October 4.  Here are some notes from an email discussion of the possibilities:

  • We could all gather  on that Sunday afternoon  at about 1 pm at the largest congregation with ideally several hundred (or more!) adults for both Hoshana Rabbah & Hak’hel liturgy & study focused on climate.
  • In workshops we might explore: How can our households and whole congregations move our money from purchasing electricity that comes from burning coal, to buying electricity that comes from renewable wind and solar power? Could we create neighborhood energy coops, as we now have food coops? Could we choose our banks and our investments with an eye to choosing life, not planetary death? How can we draw on the “Carbon Pharaioh” midrash for public actions to change the balances of wealth and power? How can we connect with communities of color that are already resisting epidemics of asthma caused by the placement of coal-burning power plants in poor and disempowered neighborhoods? How can we convince our state and federal governments to stop subsidizing Big Oil and instead support the swift emplacement of renewable energy ?
  • Some of us have asked how congregations might deal with concerns about school that morning. Classes could fairly easily be made very exciting as experiential education (willows, sukkah, lulav!!— WHY willows? WHY lulav? Etc etc — I have never forgotten how one 10-year-old, asked how it felt to wave the lulav, answered: “I felt like I was myself a tree, my own branches waving in the wind;  I could smell my own fruit!”)
  • Plus several levels of intellectual education — e.g students from 12 up take up neo-halakhic questions as b’tei din facing new issues, like whether ALL trees are fruit trees in light of our knowledge they produce crucial oxygen, and if so can any trees be uprooted?  ; like creating codes of “eco-kashrut” in using fossil fuels for energy; like studying the “Torah texts” of the Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis & the Pope’s encyclical — each of which might be good for grown-ups, too— etc.
  • As for the schools, what about EITHER each congregation doing its own morning school in its own place along those lines and then gathering all of us as above for the afternoon, OR having the congregational schools join that morning in one place, with distinctive classes according to each congregation’s plans, and then meeting in a single kahal for the afternoon?”

These are pointers. If we are to make the next Shmita a true Time of Transformation in the relationships of adam with adamah, then the planning must begin now. So the Torah anciently imagined; so we today must act. Must “Assemble!”



Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Photo! AW blu shirt multi hat!Ph.D., founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center. In 2014 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award as Human Rights Hero from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. In 2015 the Forward named him one of the “most inspiring” Rabbis. His most recent book of 22 is Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights Publ., 2011). His most recent arrest of about 22 was in an interfaith climate action at the White House before Passover & Palm Sunday, 2013. He has written or edited five books on Eco-Judaism, and is a member of the coordinating committee of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate.

See also Waskow, “Jewish Environmental Ethics: Adam and Adamah,” in Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics (Dorff and  Crane, eds.; Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).