Why does shmita matter? (6 of 7)

Friday, August 20, 2021 | 12 Elul 5781


Dear All,

I admit that I am baffled by Jeopardy!, and why people care about it. (What’s wrong with University Challenge?) But Jeopardy does remind us to ask this: what questions does shmita come to answer?This led me, a couple of years ago, to amend my own observance. It is true that last time I didn’t buy any books, or any liquor, for the whole year. Doing this reminded me that it was the shmita year, and that I had enough.But then I realized that this failed, even metaphorically, even as just one individual, to address one of the central questions that shmita comes to answer: how do we reduce inequality?  Because shmita is not just about “letting the land go, letting it be.” (Shmot 23:11). It’s about doing this “that the needy of the people may eat.” (same verse). So for this forthcoming shmita year I’ve decided, bli neder, to 

  1. Not buy books, not buy liquor, and (after the last 17 months of covid-wear) not buy any clothes, but then also 
  2. To figure out roughly what I spend on these three things, in a normal year, and give that money to people in need. And not just write a check to an organization, but sometimes to give a solid chunk of money, not just a few shekels, but a few hundred shekels or whatever,  to someone who’s really in need.

So first, if you’re minded to, I invite you to join me in this.  

Because: the shmita year starts in two weeks on Monday (!).
Let’s see if something like this will be easy or hard. Obviously the Torah doesn’t mandate it. You don’t have to do this. But we are people who care about Jewish tradition, who in many ways are Jewish leaders and who, at the least, have a core commitment to making the world a better place. Many of us are well-enough off that we’re able to try to do good in the world without it, frankly, diminishing our own standard of living, or biting in any discernible fashion in how we live. (And I entirely describe myself in this way.)

So this is an opening invitation for the shmita year.

And you might say: Nige; you know it’s not a big deal if you don’t buy books, don’t buy liquor, don’t buy clothes; and if you give the money to other people. You could do a lot more. To which my answer is: for sure. Entirely agreed. And yet we each have to start where we are, and push ourselves how we can. 

What’s the psychology of this? The presumption of Jewish tradition, I think rightly, is that habits are significant. Getting in the habit of giving is a good thing, and it grows in us over time.

But this too – even if I do it, even if you do it – is barely a partial beginning.
Because shmita is not an individual observance.
Or rather, it is – I can observe it, and so can you.
But, going back to the question it’s addressing, shmita is very clearly communal and societal, not individual. The core question it is asking is, how do we address inequality?
And although there are biblical provisions, every day of the year, about enabling poor people to help themselves to your produce, shmita nevertheless comes as a septennial break, a societal rebalancing.

This is why, in our hyper-individualistic world, an individual observance of shmita is a worthwhile self-consciousness-raising beginning, but it is only that – precursor to the questions, what is my synagogue going to do? What is my school going to do? What is my community going to do? How might the values of shmita inflect public policy?

This shmita year comes after 17 months of Covid. People are fried. Change, and change, and more change. Kids, parents, work, travel, sickness.  Are there ways to give people more time off? Can we give people some extra vacation the intermediate days of Sukkot or Pesach, or July 4th week, or a longer Thanksgiving or Christmas week? Or an extra number of Fridays off?

And then (whole different scale): Why not set aside money every shmita year to fund bail funds in Jewish institutions? Because if shmita is about reducing inequality (it is) and it has provisions about money and debt (it does) and it’s about periodicity (check, again) then wouldn’t a revolving bail fund, replenished and strengthened every seven years, be an appropriate way to seek to ameliorate one of the most glaring inequalities in contemporary society?

I want this email to be short. There is so much more I could say (!). But we have our whole lives for this. 

Because the world is burning up, and as I wrote two weeks ago, that’s overwhelming. And this is why shmita is so vital. It’s way more central to Jewish tradition than we realize. It challenges us individually. It inspires and provokes us communally. It asks of us huge questions.  It is about ecology and balance, and it is salient to our crises of sustainability. But it is, for sure, not just for farmers, and not just about land. It radically re-imagines how we relate to one another. It critiques contemporary post-industrial late capitalism in a way that is small enough for us to start to enact individually, and yet large enough that it can really help us, really help us, to radically change the world.

This is why I and we have worked so hard, and so steadily, these last 14 years, to advance a conversation about shmita, in so many different ways, in so many different places, with so many different people. Hazon created and funds the Shmita Project, but we don’t own it. 

And it’s not only that it’s a public trust, and open to anyone, and available to anyone, and growing and broadening. It’s that it’s a multi-decadal project. Someone was asking me a little while ago about measures of success. I said, well it’ll be a success if, within a reasonable time – within two centuries, let’s say – this concept has broadened and broadened, every seven years and every seven years, so that its ideas and teachings and provisions have been incorporated in material ways in public policy across the planet. 

This is why this crazy phrase, “tikkun olam,” which as we know doesn’t really mean what we assume it means, or mean by it today, enters the daily liturgy from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. We bow down to the ground, and have just a small taste of what it might feel like, psychically, to prostrate in prayer every day. We enact humility, we reconnect to the earth from which we come, and we do so not by ourselves but surrounded by all these other people around us. The ancient practice has grown in recent years, and it is just one strange and fleeting and curious moment. But like so many fractals in Jewish tradition, it seeds within us some kernel of something that we-know-but-don’t-quite-know-we-know. 

And shmita, shabbat, counting the omer, the yovel (jubilee) year, the seventh month (i.e. Tishrei, the month of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkot) – each of these is a fractal of the other. Each reminds us of all the others. The shabbat morning kiddush – pay attention to the actual words, the next time you say it. They mirror, almost to the penny, the provisions of shmita. We are meant to hear that echo!

And so: everything connects. We cannot properly understand Jewish tradition if we don’t pay attention to the centrality of shmita. Its motifs; the questions it comes to answer; its periodicity. Its strangeness. The interweaving of money, land, Israel, people, wild animals. The particular and the general. The physical and the fiscal. Provisions, exemptions, expansions, prohibitions and permissions. We have to marinate them, read, discuss, ask why? And then what? And then when?

So we have two weeks to make some opening intentions for this shmita year. And then a whole whole shmita year to look back over the last six years and to use this year to make a deep institutional commitment to addressing sustainability over the next seven years.

I’ll share one last vignette. A few years ago I went to an amazing farm in Jordan. It was such a kiddush hashem (an honor to G!d) that it was pretty much kept out of the papers. A sort of Israeli-Jordanian co-production, it was growing almonds (and etrogs!) and a bunch of other things, providing not just employment and fair wages but also education to Bedouins, a place to live for Syrian refugees. And it began with a market opportunity – growing produce for the shmita year, outside of the land of Israel.  When I went to see it, the focus of the trip wasn’t shmita, it was the miraculousness and impressiveness of the whole project. But I was struck how, yet again, this strange idea, this forced breach in our “normal” rhythms, continues to have the power to effect unexpected change, for good.

So make this a part of your Rosh Hashanah table, and of your Rosh Hashanah conversation, and of your shmita practice. Take some time to look at some of the extraordinary submissions to our Shmita Prizes. (We extended this through into next year to allow time for the Shalom Hartman Institute to educate around this in Israel.

Allow this to shape your post-Covid evolution. And may it ripple outwards, person by person, institution by institution, community by community, so that together we genuinely help create a healthier, a more equitable and a more sustainable world for all.

Shabbat shalom. Shnat shmita tova.