Messianic Times?

Life is full of pivotal periods – events after which nothing seems the same, years in which we learn the true meaning of things or make critical decisions. The Shmita year that lies before us represents a period of collective introspection and transformation, a year that touches the ethical core of our nation, with the potential to create a better Israeli society.

This summer, at the onset of the ground operation in Gaza, a remarkable gathering took place at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel – the “Shabbat Ha’aretz” conference, organized by the Labor Settlement Movement. Close to 1,000 Israelis – religious and secular, kibbutznikim and moshavnikim, youth leaders, urban activists, government ministers, members of Knesset, and others – chose to dedicate their time, in the midst of this difficult period, to explore together the social and ethical implications of the Shmita year.

Ori Heitner, an educator from Kibbutz Ortal in the northern Golan, described his experience:

“When the Shomer Hatza’ir and the Religious Kibbutz movements get together to teach and study the writings of Jabotinsky and the ADMoR HeHalutz (the “Pioneer Rebbe”), in preparation for the Shmita year, you might want to run out to the parking lot to look for the Messiah riding in on his donkey. This is the Israel worth fighting for!”

The Shabbat Ha’aretz conference was one in a long string of conferences, study sessions, and other events initiated by Israeli Shmita, a nationwide initiative working to make the Shmita year one of social justice, environmental responsibility, culture, and spirit.   These events generate broad public dialogue that cuts through societal boundaries and political opinions. As a result of so many different people coming together to pursue a common interest, many interesting partnerships have formed between diverse groups (religious and secular kibbutz movements, environmentalists and economists, and more). In cities and towns across the country, Shmita has taken center stage, with municipal leaders and grassroots activists spearheading projects based on the deeper meaning of Shmita.

Between Utopia and Reality – Shmita Today

So what is it about Shmita that touches so many different kinds of people, bridges typically polarized sectors, and inspires deep change?

The mitzvah of Shmita, as it appears in the Torah and in the writings of the Sages, obligates every farmer in the land of Israel, once every seven years, to leave his fields fallow, relinquish ownership of the fruit, let the soil rest, and enable all people (and work animals) to take part in the land’s abundance. The Shmita year is part of a cyclical system which conditions the consciousness of an entire nation regarding how to relate to the building blocks of life: land and possessions, work, the Creator, and the “other” – our neighbor, the poor person, the convert, and animals.

Shmita challenges the Western consumer mindset that drives most Israelis today, confirming that the source of our strength and blessing does lies beyond us – the land rests, we refrain from working the land, and God provides. Shmita is an opportunity to step back for a year from the overload of work (agriculture, in the past) for the good of the family, community, culture, and spirit. It is a time for learning and dreaming on a personal, communal, and national level. From an environmental perspective, Shmita offers the radical perspective of seeing our role in Creation as more than just utilitarian – a chance to acknowledging the gifts of nature, and to allow natural resources to replenish after overuse. Debt forgiveness, the financial aspect of the Shmita year, encourages us to reexamine our economic structures and to give vulnerable members of society a chance to start over.

In Israel today, it appears that the values at the heart of Shmita are more relevant than ever before, especially since the practical mitzvah itself has mostly been relegated – for those who are not farmers – to the realm of Kashrut. The appeal of the Israeli Shmita initiative lies precisely here – in the gap between the utopian society that Israelis strove to create in this land, and the day-to-day reality of an industrialized, consumer-driven nation. Israeli Shmita attempts to bridge the gap between the archetypal ideas represented by this important mitzvah and the actualization of these ideas in the highly complex Israeli society of today.

What, exactly, is “Israeli Shmita?”

Israeli Shmita is a broad platform of organizations, businesses, and public institutions that seeks to restore the meaning of the Shmita year as a time of personal reflection, learning, social involvement, and environmental responsibility in Israel.Our goal is to ensure that every person in Israel knows that the upcoming year is a Shmita year, and to empower all who seek to bring Shmita into their lives to do so in a way that is relevant and meaningful.

Israeli Shmita is working to ensure that during the upcoming Shmita year Israel as a nation will begin to create change in the very foundations of our society, in order to cultivate a new balance in our lives. For one year, if only partially, we will prove that we need not accept the inequality and disregard for all of Creation that has become the axiom of Israeli society.

After two years of active preparation, we can already see that this Shmita year will look different, with individuals and organizations spearheading a range of innovative projects to enable Israelis to experience a year of personal, communal, and national transformation. Some of the highlights:

  • An online Time Bank enables one to “give up” time on behalf of youth at risk, disadvantaged families, and others in need, based on one’s availability and skill set.
  • Beit Avichai, a clearinghouse for Jewish Israeli creativity, established a think tank for cinematographers, designers, and new media specialists to explore Shmita and produce new-old expressions of Israeli society.
  • A financial recovery program, spearheaded by MK Ruth Calderon engages philanthropists, banks, and professional consultants (Pa’amonim, Ezra Migad, Hasdei Lev, and others) in helping needy families settle their debts and begin the journey toward financial recovery.
  • The Merkam youth group – a network of secular and religious communities – initiated a collective “disconnect” from Facebook for the sake of real social interaction, face to face.

Israeli Shmita invites everyone to learn about the mitzvah of Shmita and consider how he or she can actualize it on a personal and communal level. There is no limit to what you can “take on” in order to internalize the messages of Shmita – reducing the number of hours at work, joining a study group or class, buying more local, seasonal food…

So what is your Shmita?!

To find a Shmita activity that suits you, download the Israeli Shmita catalog here or from our Facebook page. For more information, contact info@tevaivri.org.il. Let us know what you are doing for Shmita by visiting www.ishmita.org.il.