Shmita: With All Your Heart, With All Your Soul, With All Your Might

pomagranites and oranges

“With all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might”. This is my mantra. Not because I am a person who davens three times a day reciting this phrase from its original source in the Sh’ma, but simply because I think it’s beautiful. Imagine a world in which we dedicated our whole selves to every mitzvah we preform, every fleeting thought we have. In a gemara in the tractate of Brachot, the Rabbis expound upon each of these segments: “With all your heart” they explain as what Freud might call the “id”—that is the most instinctual, animalistic parts of ourselves, “with all your soul” refers to our actual life, and “with all your might” commonly refers to our physical possessions. I strive preform every action with all my heart, soul, and might whether it’s loving God as the original texts indicates, loving a friend or a stranger as some scholars interpret, doing a project at work, or even something as mundane as grocery shopping (I said strive!).

In the final Shmita class held at the Hazon office we learned a commentary on these seemingly-agricultural laws from the Ishbitzer Rebbe, the Mei HaShiloach, which he also divides into three paradigms: Shmita, Yovel, and Ribit, which is in its most basic form is the release of land, the release of slaves, and the release of debt, respectively. He says that the very essence of these three components is to remind the people of Israel not to put their trust fully in anything except God. These three practices of release, of giving up things which seem so essential to survival, remind us that we are not totally in control of what surrounds us; not our land, not our money, and not even our time. No matter how much we try to manipulate our land and our mind to claim that we do in fact have this control, according to the Mei HaShiloach, this fate rests solely with the Divine.

Whether this is your particular hashkafa or not, it is certainly deeply rooted in Jewish theology. The line directly preceding the first ever debut of Shmita in the Torah is “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt” (Ex. 23:9). Why this phrase is so often repeated in the Torah? Why do we, as a nation, spend hours each year reminding ourselves that we were once strangers in a strange land? Why did God even take us out of Egypt? The answer is not to be free, but actually to continue our servitude—only this time directed towards God (Lev. 25:55).

In this way, this foundational Jewish principle and Shmita are intrinsically connected. Shmita is about relinquishing the power that we think we have over our physical surroundings, and accepting entropy. The very foundation of Judaism is, in some sense, that we are not free but rather servants to a higher power.  As Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “Nothing is fixed in the human landscape except the rules themselves—God’s eternal word, calling for justice, equity and compassion, and constantly challenging […] the corruptions of power and the exploitation of the weak” (Sacks, Building a Society of Freedom).

Thus, in Shmita, lies not only the essence of Israel’s agricultural laws, but the most incredible fact about the Jewish people. The thing that has set them apart from and enabled them to outlast many other nations of the world: we aren’t free. We live lives that, in theory, already have a particular path which is guided by halakha, some followed more carefully than others. And along this path, we are meant to walk intentionally, with all our heart, soul, and might.

But that is our reward? What is the incentive to remain a believing servant to God? What do we “get” for following the rules? Shmita! To be more specific: Shabbat, Shmita and Yovel (the Jubilee). In other words, a utopian society in which we can truly experience freedom. To paraphrase Lord Rabbi Sacks, Jews were not the first people to think of living in a utopia, but we were the first to actualize on it (ibid.). Through Shmita, we bring a little bit of this utopia to our earth. In the Shmita year we are reminded that land is impermanent, that wealth is fleeting, that despite our previous predispositions, we are all equal.

The implications for this novel concept are endless, particularly in thinking about their application to a modern society. What would it mean to live in a society like this, where we release and forgive? In the United States, we make it nearly impossible for someone who was incarcerated to ever be released of their debts. What if every 7 years, they were granted forgiveness from their debt and also from our hearts? What if we released our homes, not physically necessarily, but in realizing they are really only a loan, and instead began opening them not only to friends and family, but maybe also to our fellow strangers? What if rape and political assertiveness ended because we realized we are really no better than our neighbor? What if we released ourselves of our enslavement to our money and our technology recognizing there is only one entity we are allowed to be slaves to?

In Judaism, “freedom ain’t free”. We have to work for it, which is why there are so many rules and guidelines for how live, or in the case of Shmita, how to farm. Whether you follow these rules closely or not at all, I hope their essence speaks to you. Together, may we walk intentionally, speak carefully, and live our lives with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might.

 Liz Traison is a recent graduate of The University of Michigan where she received a BA in History and Judaic Studies. She also studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum and Hebrew University. She is thrilled to be a Program Fellow at Hazon and also to be doing social justice programming for MASA Alumni. She likes being outside, particularly on Skeleton Lake. And also being inside, specifically doing creative workshops in prison.