As we come upon the two year anniversary of the Covid pandemic, I am, for the first time, by desire and necessity, taking a step back from my work at my congregation.
Suffice it to say, I know that we are all hurting from this time. It has not been easy. And I do not mean to imply that I have had it harder than most, or that my lack of time off is because of some kind of martyr complex. No, it was more out of a desire to meet the moment and serve our community. And, dare I say it, the first year of the pandemic also allowed for innovation and creativity in how we make spiritual community in a way that we haven’t seen before, which was in its own way invigorating.
Then, when things last summer looked like they would be opening up again, I felt we can breathe a sigh of relief and move on. When Omicron came and we moved backward, it became clear to me that the wind was out of my sails. It became evident to me by general feelings of exhaustion and lack of energy, and the fact that I was getting sloppy and neglectful at work.
So, I’m going to take a break. The timing is right in the Jewish calendar and we are at a place as a congregation that we know well how to manage this new virtual reality.
Since first announcing that I was going to take this sabbatical, I’ve often been asked what I plan to do. And my answer is simple: nothing. Yes, there are things I plan to do: focus on my physical health, projects around the house, spend time in the outdoors, read books, play guitar. And I do plan on visiting family and attending a conference at the end of March. But I am resisting the urge to be productive for the sake of being productive, or doing things that will solely serve my rabbinic work. No, what I plan to do is to just be, and in that way hope to come back renewed in spirit and perspective.
It is fitting this year too because on our Jewish calendar, this year 5782 is what is known as a “shmita” year. In the Torah we are told,
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. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your home-born slave and the stranger may be refreshed.Exodus 23:10-12
This seventh year is known as the “shmita” year. As evidenced by this quote from Exodus, it is parallel to the weekly Shabbat, when we are meant to rest from the week’s labors. Just as we rest every seventh day in order to be refreshed and ready to face the week ahead, the land is meant to rest every seventh year in order to be refreshed and ready to grow again.
There are several other teachings about shmita in the Torah that imply the seventh year is meant to be a “reset” not only for the land, but for the community as well. Debts are meant to be forgiven, for example. In the quote above, the poor eat from what grows naturally in the untended field. Society needs a time to rest as well.
And while some of the specifics of the shmita year are not practiced as they are imagined in the Torah, the understanding of shmita is very much relevant. In order to be productive, we need to take a break. In order to do, we need times to just be. In order to grow again, we need to lie fallow.
So I’m going to lie fallow. And I would encourage you to find the opportunity to do the same in your own way. We all have different ways of stepping back, or taking care of ourselves, and being renewed. And I also recognize that we have different capacities of time and space in order to rest. (I feel very blessed and privileged that the congregation is granting me this time.) And while the means and capacities are different, the need is the same. We can not survive if we don’t take the time to be refreshed.
In Hebrew, the word that is commonly translated as “refreshed” is related to the word for “soul”–nefesh. With the pandemic, our bodies are imperiled. We wear masks, keep our distance, and get vaccines in order to stay physically healthy. But our souls are also imperiled, and it is imperative that we take care of them as well.
May we all find the ability to lie fallow, and witness new growth.