Over the past nearly 150 (!) posts, I’ve often grappled with passages in the Torah whose ethical sensibilities seem outdated or primitive (regarding slavery, beliefs about and attitudes towards women, and the ethics of war, to name a few topics). So I would be sorely remiss not to consider the flipside, the ways that some of our own moral practices remain pathetically inadequate when compared to the Torah’s standards.
We’re nearing the end of the Shemita year, my first as an Israeli citizen. Like a good religious Zionist, I was excited to be part of living the grand vision of the sabbatical year, a social vision that not only provides for the poor materially, but socially and psychologically as well, erasing the barriers between rich and poor, creating a year of holiness and equality before God.
The year was so disappointing, it was painful. My Shemita experience consisted primarily of greater attention required at the grocery story, to remember what the status of each type of fruit and vegetable was, and then careful consideration of when to use the regular garbage, and when we to use the fancy Shemita garbage receptacle. On the national level, the blessed attempts of the Shemita Yisraelit project notwithstanding, what drew the most attention and energy was constant bickering over the technical validity of various halachic solutions, and the ways that shemita observance led to waste in massive proportions.
All this fuss did signal that this produce was special, and that something was somewhat different, but that just served as a bitter reminder of how radically different and revolutionary the Torah meant this year to be, and how badly we were failing to implement that revolution.
But all this is nothing new. We’ve been missing the point of Shemita for a long time. More than 2,000 years ago, Hillel the Elder compared the verses in chapter 15 to the world he lived in, and understood that something was very wrong. People were taking the law of erasing debts seriously, but were forgetting the part about helping the poor, and so he created the “Prozbol”, a work-around for the erasing of debts the Shemita year causes.
Nowadays, we’ve forgotten, or choose to ignore, the purpose of Hillel’s enactment, and the prozbol is used to allow wealthy institutions to keep poor people in suffocating debt.
When it comes to Shemita, the Torah’s ethical directives present an inspiring standard for aspiration. Regarding our own ethical practice, there is much work to be done.
This blog contains my reflections on the daily 929 chapter of Tanach- a thrilling, challenging, surprising journey- 929.org.il to learn more.