Local Shmita

Right from the start of the Shmita year last summer, I made it my habit to spend a few days in one place or another with our “Shmita tent” – a broad, welcoming space offering people “time out” for relaxation, eating “the fruit of the land,” swapping books (we travel with a library from which people may take books), and listening and talking about all our social dreams, especially those relating to the Shmita values.  Many people came into the tent specifically to talk about how they personally chose to bring the values of Shmita into their lives: they often asked the question, “Is this considered Shmita?”  Sometimes I would immediately see a direct link between their action and the way I understand the Shmita year.  And sometimes, although I could not see any connection at first, for them it was obvious.  But sometimes (and these are my favorites) I was able to follow the path of their action from its source to its expression by them; such as when a teacher told me excitedly that her school students were keeping Shmita Notebooks, recording all the good things that happened to them each day.   She had not realized that the inventor of this idea was a career woman who decided that her personal Shmita would be to stop running in the “rat race” and to begin being grateful for what she already had!

But in reality it doesn’t matter whether the idea behind a person’s initiative is clear to me in terms of its relation to Shmita values.   For all the stories have in common that the people behind them share one thing: to try to “do Shmita” as they understand it, in ways which are meaningful to their personal moral code, in addition to (or with no connection to) any halachic obligations.

World Shmita

Nigel Savage, President of Hazon, a US organization promoting the idea of sustainable communities in the Jewish world, tracked a very interesting change in attitudes to Shmita in an article which fronted their March newsletter. Reviewing articles about Shmita published in the New York Times during Shmita years over the past 64 years, a recent and startling change emerged.  In 1951 (the Shmita year 5711) a major article appeared explaining the heter mechira procedure which permits the “sale” of land to non-Jews to cope with the prohibitions of Shmita.  In September 2000 (on the eve of the Shmita year 5761) another article appeared that discussed the halachic debate around the matter.  An almost identical article appeared in October 2007 (the Shmita year 5768), and even then the main issue remained the “Jewish Wars” around the laws of Shmita.  In September 2014 (the current Shmita year, 5775) the traditional Shmita article was published, but this time the article was entitled ‘In Israel, Values of a Holy Respite Are Adapted for a High-Tech World,’ and was about all the Shmita-appropriate ideas and business initiatives inspired by high-tech companies. The entire article was written on a positive note with plenty of room for inspiration.

That watershed article reflects the two major trends that distinguish the current Shmita year, 5775, from its predecessors.

Changing media discourse – only good will grow for us from this

There is no doubt that the current Shmita year is characterized by a different way of talking in the Israeli media too. It seems that halachic saber rattling (which has not disappeared, but has reduced in intensity) was replaced by in-depth discussions of the nature of the Shmita year and the way in which it is relevant in Israel in the 21st century, along with descriptions of a variety of initiatives in the social, economic or environmental “Shmita spirit.”

The change in the discourse resulted from several factors that combined together. At the most practical level, the state Shmita Committee, which began its operations in the current Shmita year, gave budgetary endorsement to different halachic solutions to Shmita without defining which it considered a better solution.   In other words, the Commission realized that some residents of Israel would only eat fruits and vegetables imported from abroad, so it addressed how it could permit the sale of the land’s bounty to others, and what should be done so that all consumers could benefit from fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables. This worked to neutralize the economic dimension of making the choice between financial survival and halacha, reducing the intensity of argument so that the resultant dialogue has enabled “different species” of Shmita observance to grow.

Israeli society also arrived at the current Shmita year “ripe” for a different kind of discourse on the ideological and spiritual level.  Many members of the religious community were ready, after so many controversies in the two previous Shmita years, for a discussion of a different kind; meanwhile many members of the general public, for whom the religious controversies had always been irrelevant, made personal decisions of their own (sometimes informed by the recent social protests and their aftermath) to find a Jewish economics which could be integrated into a social Zionist identity. Connecting these two publics was the task of Israeli Shmita Initiative, begun before the Shmita year with a long series of conferences, events and seminars which created a positive buzz.   Our broad audience came from the kibbutz movement (more than 1,000 people attended the conference on the subject), from high-tech institutions (which issued a document listing 49 ways technology firms might try to fulfill the Shmita spirit), from the education sector, environmental groups, and the (previous!)  Knesset (whose Caucus for Jewish Renewal held a special session on the subject).  Bodies that perhaps would not normally have become a part of such a discussion were keen to get involved so as not to “miss the boat,” and everyone benefitted from this.  Perhaps most prominent among these was the Ministry of Religious Services, which found considerable funds to make sure its own Shmita campaign would be a part of what was happening, a campaign entitled ‘Shmita – only good will grow for us from this.’

“Truth grows from the land” – a local practice

The second distinctive feature of the current Shmita year is the proliferation of grass roots initiatives. These are people who have chosen privately, whether as an extension of their commitment to halacha or not, to work actively so that they will have what they personally consider a “real Shmita.”   Some people did so on a completely personal level – for instance reducing their hours of work, beginning to engage regularly in learning, joining a hike on the Israel National Trail, or moving to a vegetarian diet.   Others led initiatives that created a positive impact on the people around them in different ways.  We ran a competition ‘Dreams of Shmita,’ to encourage and coordinate this type of initiative; just two of the many innovative entries were a venture that led to the separation of compostable waste in one community (while maintaining the sanctity of the Shmita), and a grassroots project between Jewish and Arab women in the Gilboa region to promote peace through learning and keeping alive traditional crafts.

At the local level there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different types of initiatives, based around every type of community.  Many community gardens were deliberately left fallow as a way of promoting unity in communities where some of the volunteers were religious. To this end the principal activities of the gardens were changed from planting and maintaining to mapping and documenting ancient trees, enhancing accessibility for disabled people and putting on communal cultural activities.   Several communities from the Hitchadshut Yehudit (Jewish Renewal) movement – an evolving and uniquely Israeli form of contemporary Jewish-Israeli identity – took on a series of Shmita year projects dealing with the connections between people, and seeking to reduce consumption.   Examples included a shmate (second hand) market, a free “garage sale” and more.

Among synagogue-based communities the Ramban synagogue in Jerusalem was notable, mobilizing the entire community with its ‘Hour of Shmita’ initiative.   Recognizing that, since most of us no longer make our living from the fields, the initiative posited that our time and our skills (rather than our fields) should be opened for everyone, even symbolically, with the result that each member of the community is donating time each week throughout the year. The Community of Zion in Jerusalem also started the year with an impressive activity: each member of the community committed, during the year, to give up comfortable “fields” of thought or habit and to open themselves to a new self-awareness “with ourselves, with our lives and with the space in which we live and the people that make it.”  The task of each community member was to select one of seven “paths,” defined and created by the community, and to select one to explore.  These paths represented new fields, often “the other,” such as the Charedim, other religions, people in need and so on.

Only lack of space prevents me listing all the Shmita projects in which Israeli youth were mobilized.  But a particularly lovely example is the Youth Movement, Zameret, which established a project called ‘Dropping the Face, Changing the Status,’ in which its members decided to forgo Facebook for a year, so that the real world would replace their “virtual land.”   Also a variety of groups have joined with Leket Israel in picking fruit going to waste locally for the benefit of the needy, a lovely example of a local translation of the commandment of Shmita.

These and many more like them are all practical initiatives “on the ground,” the result of mobilizing individuals and local leadership. They took on great importance because the state’s Shmita project, which showed real promise, failed with last summer’s war in Gaza, the disintegration of the government and the recent election campaign. Alongside the simple fact that large national structures are more cumbersome and slower to adapt to changes, this had important implications for us.  It revealed a picture of a generation looking for something, uncompromising, unwilling to put up with the built-in disconnect between the utopian vision offered by Shmita and its poor expression – for anyone who does not have a plot of land – in real life.  On the one hand, we are dealing with a generation in search of personally-useful spiritual ideas; on the other, they are trying to be part of something bigger which “happens now.”  I think this is a significant statement that should lead the way forward.

Every Shabbat (of the land) has a Motzei Shabbat

Parashat Behar is located in the heart of the Shmita year, with the end almost in sight. Another moment and we will snowball into six more years of action.  To continue this Jewish dynamic of action and relaxation – the six years of action and the Shabbat of the land – requires steps which ensure the cycle happens in our lives, whilst we learn and internalize the social and personal process we went through during the Shmita year.  In my view this matter has to focus in two directions, reflecting the two major successes this year:

A public Hakhel event (in ancient times, the mitzvah of assembling all Jewish men, women and children during Succot, after the end of the Shmita year, to hear the reading of the Torah by the king of Israel), well-publicized and documented, which renews the covenant between God, the people and the country, will close the year, providing inspiration in the years to come.  The main dialogue of the Hakhel will be around the idea of a “covenant,” a covenant between us.

The complementary inspiration for us as individuals will be found by translating “gifts for the poor” from its ancient agricultural basis to reflect the reality of our times: acts of social tikkun olam (repairing the world).   In this we will focus on commandments such as ma’aser (the 10% tithe given to the poor), which effectively promotes unity with the weak in society. We will encourage people to give a “tithe” of social vision and spiritual commitment, contributing actively to improve society, and creating a sense of unity and mutual support.

May this year be merely the beginning of the process, so that the more we will hold to Shmita and Jubilee and our inheritance, the more will be guaranteed to us the promise: ‘And if you shall perform My statutes, keep My ordinances and perform them then you will live on the land securely. And the land will then yield its fruit and you will eat to satiety, and live upon it securely.’ (Leviticus 25:18-19)