Shanah Tovah. Happy Day After Labor Day. And Sh’nat Shmita Tova!
I imagine two of these greetings are familiar. Shanah tovah I wish you every year. Happy Labor Day, you might not hear from me every year, but it does happen every year on the first Monday of September, so I imagine you’ve heard it many times before. But Sh’nat Shmita Tova: what does that mean?
It means Happy Shmita Year.
Okay, what does that mean?
Shmita is the name for one out of every seven years in the Jewish calendar. In English, Shmita is often translated as Sabbatical. Sometimes Shmita is called the year of rest and is compared to Shabbat. It is called a Shabbat HaAretz, a Shabbat for the land. Six days we work, one day we rest. Six years we work, one year we rest. We don’t plant or prune. We harvest only what we need to survive. We let the land lie fallow. It’s a time where the normal agricultural order was totally upended.
When I have mentioned to people over the past few months that this coming year was a Shmita year, sometimes I have gotten the response, “Didn’t we just get through a Shmita year? Didn’t we just let our lives lie fallow? Aren’t we through this already?”
When I think about this past year, what has come to mind is not our texts about Shmita but rather our texts from Lamentations:
Zion’s roads are in mourning,
Empty of festival pilgrims;
All her gates are deserted.
Her priests sigh,
Her maidens are unhappy--
She is utterly disconsolate!
No one in casual conversation has actually said these words to me, but I feel like they might have. The book of Lamentations describes the destruction of the first temple. It describes the profound disorder, disorientation and dislocation that comes with losing the fundamental basis of our religion. What was Judaism without a temple? I think of it like an out of control wildfire raging through the land, a world totally transformed. Indeed, we continue reading in Lamentations:
He has ravaged Jacob like flaming fire,
Consuming on all sides.
Until the 20th century, it was commonplace for fires, caused by lightning or lit by indigenous tribes for various reasons, to shape and reshape the landscape. The fires were part of the landscape’s natural cycle. However, when there is fire suppression in an area—meaning, when people prevent fires from happening at all costs and put them out immediately—you end up with more extreme fires that fundamentally change the ecosystem. This was the policy taken by the US Forest service starting in the early 1900s: fire was viewed as the enemy of humans and forests alike, and wildfires were quickly extinguished whenever possible. The federal government promoted a policy called the “10AM Policy”: requiring fire departments put out all fires by 10AM the next day if possible, and if not 10AM the day after that. After about half a century of this policy, in the 1960s ecologists brought the country’s attention to the fact that by putting out all of the fires immediately, the landscapes were becoming far more susceptible to increasingly severe fires. The forests were filled with dead trees and other highly combustible material around, just waiting for an initial spark to set an entire landscape on fire. Since then, ecologists have continued to advocate for less stringent policies that allow more controlled burns to return to the ecological cycles of various forests so as to reduce the amount of exuberant fuels in the landscape and reduce wildfire severity.
Both the destruction of the temple and the pandemic were unprecedented turning points in history. Huge, raging wildfires in highly combustible environments. In both cases, society was dramatically transformed in ways that we could never have expected. Sometimes we have this longing for the “beforetimes”, but we are living in an entire new ecosystem now. There is no going back.
But Shmita is not like this. Rather than being like a wildfire, I see Shmita as a controlled burn. Yes, it involves disorientation and dislocation, but in calculated amounts according to a natural rhythm. Shmita is not meant to be a radical, unpredictable disruption that causes a permanent shift in the landscape but should be a natural part of the environment’s rhythm. My friend Carrie Levine who is a fire ecologist in California taught me about the Illouette Creek Basin in Yosemite National Park, where there has been great success with allowing fires to run their course. As a result, there have been massive ecological benefits including including boosting plant and pollinator biodiversity, limiting the severity of wildfires and increasing the amount of water available during periods of drought.
It is the duty of policymakers to acknowledge that fires, whether we like them or not, are a part of our ecosystem, and it is not sustainable to advocate for shutting down every fire as quickly as possible if they are just going to cause greater damage later. Instead, fire ecologists and policymakers must make decisions that advocate for their highest values: minimizing danger and promoting a sustainable forest ecosystem.
We, here on the East Coast, might not live in forests and fires might not be our greatest source of danger, but our worlds are also precarious. Shmita is our method of making space for that precariousness, and of proactively giving ourselves space to look at that precariousness and to reorient our values in light of it.
Shmita in its Biblical context offers a vision of radical equality:
This is Shmita, what is sometimes called the most radical of all Jewish laws. For six years we dedicate our energies to the work needed to survive. We engage with systems that are maybe not ideal: agriculture, borrowing and lending money. In the seventh year, there was a letting go of the grip of those systems. Shmita literally means release.
This releasing is intense. It is disorienting. It might even be as scary as a forest fire; it poses a very strong counterculture to how Israelite agricultural society generally operated. And yet, it is meant to help people reorient around more fundamental values of social and economic equality and of obligation to care for the Earth.
In a midrash from Vayikra Rabba, Rabbi Yitzhak describes how hard it is to observe Shmita even when one is in the routine of doing so:
In the way of the world, a man may be willing to observe a
commandment for a day, a week, a month, but is he likely to continue to do so through the remaining days of the year? But throughout that year this mighty man sees his field declared ownerless, his fences broken down, and his produce consumed by others, yet he continues to give up his produce without saying a word. Can you conceive a person mightier than such as he?
Even if we aren’t going to observe Shmita in literally this way, Rabbi Yitzhak reminds us how hard it is to give up our normal social order, especially when it is how we have organized our economic lives. Shmita leaves us with a profound sense of unknown as we look out at our lands without their normal borders, our fences. It asks us to see these divisions as temporary and asks us to face it with might. The invitation is to use this year to step away from the forces that get in the way of seeing our unequivocal equality with every other individual.
As I stand before you today at the very beginning of this Shmita year, I am not advocating for a strict return to Shmita practices of old, but rather that we explore practices that embrace the values that Shmita stands for.
There are many ways to do this, and the Jewish environmental organization Hazon, which has recently merged with The Pearlstone Retreat Center, has an initiative called The Shmita Project which is compiling and promoting ideas for how most meaningfully to bring Shmita values into our lives even as we live in a non agrarian society.
One additional Shmita initiative that I in particular want to lift up is a particular policy issue, the issue of Paid Family and Medical Leave which has been selected as a focus this year by Jews United For Justice and our very own Social Action Committee. This year, there is a piece of legislation that will be presented in the Maryland legislature called the Time To Care Act, which provides workers with paid leave when they are welcoming a new child, caring for an injured or sick family member, or caring for themselves. The Shmita cycle recognizes the tendency of societies to allow labor to take precedence over caring for loved ones in need. This bill, like the laws of Shmita themselves, seeks to restore a little of the balance. Paid leave keeps working families from having to choose between putting food on the table and taking care of a loved one. We have the opportunity this year to make this a reality for Marylanders. The Shmita cycle also recognizes that we can only control and plan for so much in our lives. Newborn children, injury, illness, or caring for others that we are in sacred relationship with, these all add in some unpredictability to our lives. Often though, this unpredictability, these moments where we show up for one another, can feel like what our lives are truly about. This legislation that could enable family members to better care for each other is one step to reorienting our society toward our highest values.
No matter who you are in society, whatever your social class or position, you deserve time away from work to care for your loved ones or for yourself without risking losing your job. This is what it means for our fences to come down, for our fields to be declared ownerless, and for our produce to be accessible to all. To know that it is not just some people in some jobs who deserve access to time to care for one another, but that truth is universal. Because in the end, we are all mortal.
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire
My friend Hannah Coolidge is a firefighter out west. She once wrote:
But even as we accept or encourage the presence of fire in the landscape, this acceptance is premised on one assumption: that if a wildfire or prescribed burn “gets out of hand,” we’re prepared to put it out. And so even as the perspective on wildfire has changed dramatically over the last century, the job of wildland firefighters remains much the same: fires are burning as fiercely as ever, there are ever more homes built in areas affected by wildfire, and nobody wants fire in their backyard.
Embracing fire as a part of our ecosystems isn’t easy. Neither is accepting that sickness and death is a part of life. But this what we are called to do on the high holy days. But when we accept life’s precarity, we become better prepared to embrace the humanity of one another and to advocate for a more just world.
Rory Katz is the rabbi of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore. She was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in May 2019.