The Seven Practices of the Shmita Year, and Why they are So Desperately Needed Right Now (Rosh Hashana 5782)

My sermon delivered on Erev Rosh Hashana at Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, WA on September 6, 2021

Here we are, once again. We are welcoming the new year, again impacted by the COVID pandemic. I stand here in an empty sanctuary, you sit there in front of your screens. While knowing this is the right thing to do in order to safeguard the health of our community, once again we are forced to figure out new ways of connecting, of maintaining community, even though we are physically apart. Thank you for all you have done to maintain our community connections over this past time, I know it hasn’t been easy. We have done it for a year and a half, and we can continue to do it.

While the first time last year was a novelty perhaps, this second time gives us the somber opportunity to deeply reflect on what this time means, and what it reveals to us. We have learned so much. This pandemic and the changes it forced upon us were not only inconveniences, but they revealed important truths about ourselves and our communities.  

There is another aspect to the uniqueness of the new year, which would have occurred this year regardless of how we gathered. That is, this year on the Jewish calendar Rosh Hashana ushers in the shmita year. The Torah teaches that just as we take every seventh day—Shabbat—as a day of rest, so too we should take every seventh year as a year of rest. It is a year of pausing, a year of reset that in its ideal form impacts all levels of our society.

In reality, unlike Shabbat, the shmita is not observed in contemporary practice as it is envisioned in the Torah. Aspects of the shmita are time and place specific to biblical times, and based on an agrarian community rooted around a centralized religious system located in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. However, like many aspect of Biblical practice, they can be observed in its spirit if not its letter, and the shmita year deserves our attention, especially at a time such as this.

So while I generally come to you on Erev Rosh Hashana with a list of things I have learned over the past year based on something that is going on in my life, this year will be slightly different. Yes, I am bringing you a list of seven things. But this year, we are looking forward, not back. This year, we take this unique opportunity to look at our calendar and think about how this moment in time is proving so crucial. Tonight, I invite you to join me in thinking about the seven practices of the shmita year, and why they are so desperately needed today.

For the first one we turn to Exodus in the Torah, the first mention of Shmita: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.” (Exodus 23:10-11)

There are actually three practices embedded in these two verses, and we will take them in turn. The first is letting the field lie fallow. Just as we are meant to take a rest from our labor every seven days, the earth is meant to rest from labor every seven years.

Now I know that this might raise up questions about how an agrarian society that does not grow crops for a year survive—trust me, the Torah has an answer for that—but that should not distract us from the idea in this verse, that the earth needs to rest and part of our stewardship of the earth is to not overwork it.

This summer particularly it has become abundantly clear the realities of climate change and what our human impact has wrought. We prepare now not just for summer but for smoke season. We experienced extreme heat like we had not before resulting in loss of crops, loss of animal life, and loss of human life. The hurricanes that affect the south and east are stronger than ever, and accompanied by flooding that killed people in their cars, in their homes, in their apartments. We are in a climate crisis.

I like to think at times with humility that this extreme weather is extreme only to us, and our ability to live with it and through it. The earth will adapt and survive, it is we as humans that might not. We don’t need to save the earth, but save ourselves.

What that requires is a shift in attitude, in approach to how we are in the world. For so much of human history we have seen an exploitation of the earth for human gain, and the impact we have made in our relatively short time on this planet has been disproportional. Genesis 2:15 teaches that we are to “till and tend” the earth, but we have neglected that second part.

By centering the earth during the shmita year, by declaring it “off limits” to human consumption during this period, the Torah is guiding us to a new understanding of our relationship with our world. That we are not above the earth, that we are of it.

The second teaching from this verse about shmita is that during the year that the fields grow on their own, then the resulting growth from those fields goes to the poor. In other words, shmita teaches that we are to have responsibility for those in need in our midst. It is not just about letting the earth rest from potential overconsumption, but as a check on the inequality of wealth. The poor are given priority during shmita.

One thing that the pandemic showed us is that we are lacking a true social safety net in our country, and yet through policies, albeit temporary, that provided direct payments to people, we have shown that it is possible to redistribute wealth. Can we continue to live into this when it is not a crisis?

This is an issue writ large. And yet is also one we can look at on the local level. Homelessness and housing are issues here in Olympia, ones that we have engaged with in the past but not as much recently. Having made the tremendous step to more than double our footprint in downtown Olympia with the purchase of the adjacent lot—and I am so proud of our congregation for this achievement—we can also reexamine our role as downtown citizens and neighbors and recommit to work with our partners at Interfaith Works to help create and maintain space for all of Olympia’s residents?

This is not the only time in the Torah we are told to protect the vulnerable. Providing for the poor is not something we are meant to do just every seven years. But by connecting providing for the poor with the idea of letting our fields lie fallow, shmita teaches that we must have in mind the fundamental equality among individuals, regardless of status. That property ownership and material goods are fleeting, that ultimately everything is ownerless, and therefore we must provide for everyone’s needs.

The third teaching of shmita also comes from this verse, namely that as the fields are fallow, and after the poor get their fair share, then the “wild beasts” are able to benefit from the land. There is a consciousness that we have a responsibility not only to the earth, but to all life that lives within it.

Again, this is a problem of perspective—of seeing ourselves above the world and not of it. It is what is what Aldo Leopold called the “land ethic,” when he writes, “in short the land ethic changes the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his [sic] fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” We are one, not the one.

Ever since moving to the Northwest I have been taken with the salmon. Every year the High Holiday season is marked by the return of the salmon, who make their way from the oceans to the streams of their birth, to create new life and to die. Their process of renewal and rebirth is timed to our process of renewal and rebirth, and should serve as a reminder that our Jewish tradition is deeply connected to the earth and its cycles. The cycle of the salmon also feeds other animals, the waters in which they live, and the forests that surround those waters. And they feed us as well. And yet it is human activity which threatens them and their existence.

I have been humbled to learn about the deep spiritual, cultural, and economic significance of salmon to Northwest Native tribes on whose land we gather, it is a reminder of a proper and holistic relationship with the world in which we live. The shmita teaching that recognizes “wild beasts” as part of the system reminds us that we need to not only work to make the earth habitable for us, but for other species as well. Salmon are but one of the wild beasts that we need to be mindful of and care for, it is perhaps one that we as a Northwest Jewish congregation can take a particular interest in.

For the fourth teaching of shmita we turn back to the Torah to a different section, to Deuteronomy 15:1-2: “Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that they claim from their fellow; they shall not dun their fellow or kin, for the remission proclaimed is of God.”

What a radical notion this brings: the idea that every seven years, debts are to be forgiven. And we know that we are a society built on debt. The loads of student debt carried by many people in this country, including rabbis. The threat and reality of medical debt as well when, even with insurance, an unfortunate illness or accident can spell financial disaster.

But it is more than just debt itself. I had this epiphany recently reading about the Supreme Court decision to end President Biden’s eviction moratorium. In the article, it said, understandably, that tenant’s organizations were against it, and landlord organization’s lauded it. And I thought, this is the society we live in, we pit people against each other. Whether its landlord and tenant, or have and have-not, or lender and debtor, we favor transactional relationship, and when we do so, usually one person benefits at the expense of another.

This is not a cooperative society. We know that unchecked capitalism leaves people behind. It is not interested in making sure everyone has their needs met. What would it mean, then, to forgive debts in our society? But moreso, what does it mean to create an economy that does not require debt to access basic things like education or health care, that sets up cooperation, not competition. That is the lesson of this fourth teaching of shmita.

Numbers five and six are also contained within a single verse: “If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, they shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set them free. When you set them free, do not let them go empty-handed: Furnish them out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which God has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:12-15)

Every seventh year, we are meant to free the slaves. Without getting into what the Torah means when it is permitting slavery, we can safely say that there is currently slavery today. And I don’t just mean the fact that it is still enshrined in the Constitution as legal punishment for crime, or the persistence of human trafficking worldwide and in our local community, or even how mass incarceration is an extension of slavery in the United States, curtailing the rights and privileges of those who have been in prison, which is disproportionately people of color. That is all there, and needs to be examined.

But the pandemic revealed too how our society is dependent on a class of “essential workers” who do not have access to certain privileges and are in a sense, slaves to their jobs. Ones who can not take off work to get the vaccine, or are scared of losing work to the side effects. Who don’t have access to child care, or parental leave. Those who work in adverse working conditions, who are prevented from unionizing. And in the cruel irony of the pandemic, whose health insurance, if they even have it, is tied to their employment, so if they lose work they lose access to affordable health care during a time when it is most necessary.

Modern day slavery is also in the form of the recent law in Texas, that controls the reproductive choices and health of those who are or may become pregnant. And modern day slavery is draconian voting laws, that seek to prevent classes of people to have a voice in creating the laws by which they will in turn be governed.

As Martin Luther King said, “it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” By including the freeing of slaves as part of the seven-year cycle, the shmita year challenges us to examine who is it in our society that either explicitly or implicitly kept down, whose choices are limited, who can not by design live up to their full potential, and then address and repair those inequalities in our system.

And when we free the slaves, according to the Torah, you do not just let them go but you provide for them a form of restitution or compensation for the time they worked, in order to set them on an even playing field as a free person. This is the fifth practice of shmita.

And what this raises for us, that as we look back at the history of our country, and the institution of slavery that persisted for centuries, is that it is time we engaged with the idea of reparations.

Jewish communities are beginning to talk more and more about our responsibilities to engage with the idea of reparations. Our Reconstructionist movement has taken it on, my rabbinic association has passed a resolution supporting it, we have begun to read and discuss here at TBH. This was done in the understanding that, as Rabbi Sharon Brous writes, “We did not create this problem, but that does not free us from being part of the solution. We are beneficiaries of a national economic system that was built on stolen land and stolen labor, a foundational wrong that has never been rectified.”

In our own story of slavery in the Torah we read how the Israelites took the gold and silver from the Egyptians on their way to freedom, a form of reparations, payment for the 400 years of servitude. In contemporary history we have the model of reparations after the Holocaust, which would not undo the tragic and horrific past, but allow for a better and hopeful future. And more broadly, we have the idea of teshuvah, which we are focused on during these Days of Awe, which requires us not just to atone or apologize for past wrongs, but to actively try to find a way to repair, to rectify, to make right.

Again, even if it can not undo the past, it can remake the future. As Rabbi Brous writes, “reparations would not suddenly ensure economic equality, nor would they erase generations of trauma. But they would offer some financial redress. And most significantly, they would signal a reckoning that our nation desperately needs.” Shmita this year reminds us of that need for reckoning.

Taken all together, the fundamental lesson of these first six ideas of shmita is that there is a connection among environmental justice, racial justice, and economic justice, and it is our responsibility to recognize this intersectionality and act on it.

When I think about it why shmita is necessary, why it is in our most sacred text, I come to think that it is meant as a check on human nature. Without it, without a limit on our actions, human nature is one of continual exploitation: of land, animal and fellow human. We have seen it throughout the entire course of human history. The pandemic made it that much more immediate and visible in our time, and in that way, shmita comes just when it is most needed. By suspending the notion of private ownership and letting the land do its own thing, by favoring the needy and the animals, by forgiving debts, by freeing slaves and paying them reparations—shmita is there to lead us away from our worst impulses toward a new idea of human behavior.

And these six practices are all connected in the seventh: “And Moses instructed them as follows: “Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before God in the chosen place, you shall read this Teaching/Torah aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.” (Deuteronomy 31:10-12)

The seventh practice of shmita is an affirmative, ritual component: that it is envisioned that the entire community come together every seven years, on the holiday of Sukkot, to hear the Torah. One could imagine what this must have been like in ancient times, and grandeur and pageantry and celebration of the entire community coming together every seven years, making the pilgrimage to the Temple to hear the reading of our sacred text.

And while we do enact elements of this ritual—In our contemporary practice we read the entirety of the Torah over the course of a whole year while we are gathered together in community—the vision of this ritual has yet to be fully achieved. For what is described here is the creation and coalescing of radically inclusive community. A covenantal community of all ages, classes, genders, backgrounds, abilities that is joined together by a sacred text, tradition, and practice. A covenantal community that honors its ancestors and teaches its children, that protects the vulnerable and takes care of each other needs, that finds opportunities to join together in fun and celebration and support and comfort. A covenantal community that prizes equality, justice, and peace.

We are being tested in a way now that we have not been in recent history. Fissures are deepening, the foundations are crumbling. Internal and external threats challenge us. And tonight, we turn the page to a new year, and a new hope for what is possible.

Because we now are entering into this sacred time of shmita, arriving on our calendar at just the right time to remind us—to command us—to live into and fulfill the essence of what it and its seven constituent parts require: to build a society that works for everyone.

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