Shmita & Parshat Behar Bechukotai 5781

Please enjoy this week’s video newsletter message. Full text transcript is below.

We were thinking we might try and send out some videos as well as just written words, and this week’s parsha seemed like a great time to begin.

(Leviticus 25:1) “Vayedaber adonai el moshe behar sinai leymor,” “And God speaks to Moses on Mount Sinai saying” “Daber el bnai yisrael”, “Speak to the children of Israel,” “V’amarta elehem,” “and say to them,” “Ki tavo el haaretz asher ani noten lachem,” “When you come to the land which I give to you,” “Veshavta haaretz shabbat laadonai,” “The land should be at rest, a shabbat for God,”

“Shesh shanim tizra sadecha,” “six years sow your field,” “V’shesh shanim tizmor carmecha,” “Six years gather from your vineyard,” “V’asafta el tvuata,” “And harvest your produce,” “U’v’shana hashviit,” “And in the seventh year,” “Shabbat shabbaton,” “It should be a full shabbat,” “Shabbat shabbaton yihiyeh la’aretz,” “for the land,” “Shabbat ladonai,” “And a Shabbat for God,”

“Sadcha lo tizra,” “Don’t plant your fields,” “V’charmcha lo tizmor,” “Don’t prune your vineyard.”

Later on, by the way, in the same parsha, famously, we’ve got (Lev. 25:10) “V’kidashtam at shnat ha’chamishim shana” “You should sanctify the fiftieth year,” “U’kratem dror ba’aretz l’chol yoshveha,” which are the words that are on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

So this is one of the places in Jewish tradition that’s introducing the notion of shmita, the sabbatical year, and yovel, the jubilee, and I wanted to just try and explain why this is so exciting to me, and why I and we believe that you should be excited by it, given that on the face of it it’s fairly obscure. Let me say straightforwardly, if you’re here, the questions that underpin all of Hazon’s work is: what does it mean to be a human being in the 21st century? And what does it mean to be Jewish in the 21st century? And does Jewish tradition have any wisdom for the real challenges of living today?

And the more that I’ve engaged with shmita as a concept and the more that I’ve thought about it, the more that I think it holds within it extraordinary truths, extraordinary wisdom for the world that we live in, and frankly, extraordinary teaching about the nature of Jewishness itself.

And there are a few different reasons for this. One of them is that everything that’s within shmita is a frame for the key issues we face in the world today and especially coming out of Covid. It’s about our relationship to time, it’s about work and rest, it’s about equality and inequality and how you balance those things out. It’s about debt and the proper use of debt and relief of debt. So there is all of that.

Secondly, it’s really unclear. I hate those places in Jewish tradition that you can say X means Y or just do this – it’s not interesting. The texts of shmita as a civilian, as a human being, as a rabbi, as a teacher, if you start to look at these with friends and learn them and say, just read them, ‘what does this mean?’ If this was the only record we had of what it meant to be Jewish, how would we understand jewish values? It opens up amazing conversations.

I also think that shmita is just an amazing frame in time. Every other piece of the Jewish calendar we observe, Tuesday is different from shabbat, Chanukah is different from Pesach. Well, this year on September the 6th on Rosh Hashanah is the start of the shmita year. How is the shmita year going to be different for you, for your family, for your Jewish institution?

Just one thing: this behind me is that – seven years ago in the lead up to the last shmita year, I somewhat randomly was trying to think about how I was going to remember that this was the shmita year, and although there was nothing that I had to do here in New York, I randomly decided that I wasn’t going to buy any book for the whole year.

This was so stressful to me that from about five months before the shmita year, I started going around the apartment, picking out books that I either hadn’t read or had read but I wanted to read again, and wrapping them in newspaper so that if I couldn’t survive a year without buying books, I could take one of these things, which are unmarked, rip it open, and go oh my gosh I’ve always wanted to read this book.

Well, it was a great thing to do, first of all, I actually didn’t buy a single book during the whole of the shmita year. You may think that’s not a big deal, but I buy lots of books and I love books, it’s not a terrible thing, but the act of not buying books reminded me every day that it was the shmita year, and what’s more amazing is I didn’t open one of these books, they’re all still here six years later. I don’t know what’s in there. It’s one of the lessons of shmita: that we have enough. It comes to teach us that we have enough.

Shabbat shalom. I want to bless you and me and all of us that we engage with the tradition, that we learn from it, and particularly in the lead up to the shmita year, that you start to think about it, we all start to think about it, figure out how, personally, you want to make this year different for you, and institutionally, how to register it within your Jewish community.

Shabbat shalom,