Jeffrey Schrager
Jeffrey Schrager

A Year of Morality

Two weeks ago, the Jewish world entered a shemitta (sabbatical) year. Felt more acutely in the Land of Israel, this year a variety of laws take effect limiting gardening, harvesting, and making any activity involving fruits and vegetables infinitely more complicated. At the end of the year, loans are forgiven, though most of us will circumvent that eventuality through a pruzbul, a document that enables us to retain loans through what some have called halachic gymnastics.

Like the weekly Shabbat, though observing shemitta is not always easy, understanding the meaning and potential impact of the year can profoundly change us. We surrender our economic control, to a certain extent, and make our property hefker, ownerless. The Torah explicitly states that produce should be left for the poor to eat. Commentators have pointed out again and again that a foundational idea of shemitta is that we don’t own our talents or, indeed, even our belongings. They ultimately belong to God. 

I am not a farmer. So I can’t let my field lie fallow this year. I’ve seen many sources discuss that every person should find their way to observe shemitta by “surrendering” their own talents to others. For what they’re worth, I think my talents seem to fall in the field of learning, and as such I would like to try and observe shemitta using those abilities. 

I also think one of the central themes of shemitta is an awareness of “the other.” That also happens to be a theme of one of the greatest books I’ve read in my life, Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s ob”m Morality, the last book published in his lifetime. His book speaks to challenges so many of us feel in the world at the moment, and I deeply believe that if everyone would internalize its message the world would be a better place. While written by a Rabbi, it is not a Jewish book, per se, though its themes obviously resonate with many Jewish ideas. 

So here’s what I’m trying: I would like to try and broaden the reach of Rabbi Sack’s thought this year by starting something of a virtual book club. I intend to proceed chapter by chapter through the book sharing quotes I found impactful or important and posing questions to consider for a variety of learning and age levels. In addition to posting on Facebook and Instagram throughout the week, I would like to pull together a sheet for Shabbat with some of the quotes, some expansion (by me. NOT representative of what Rabbi Sacks thought our would think), and questions to consider around the table, Shabbat or otherwise, in classrooms, and even in quiet moments of individual reflection, if such a thing still exists (more on that in a few weeks!). Obviously reading the books would be the ideal, but hopefully even a taste of Rabbi Sack’s ideas will help us see the world differently. I would, of course, love to find ways to encourage discussion across time zones and philosophical boundaries.

A warning, though: Morality will make you uncomfortable. Regardless of your theological, political, ideological, or any-other-cal background, Rabbi Sacks will criticize you. And that’s the point! Morality is about seeing beyond yourself. Hopefully, this project will allow us to meet other views and perspectives that will enrich our lives and the lives of those around us. 

This sort of project is extremely uncharacteristic of me. But I’m taking the plunge because I think it is a small step I can take towards making the world a better place. My aspirations are humble, but I also know that if synagogues, schools, families, youth groups, or any other of our various communities engage with Rabbi Sacks’s ideas we will move closer to a more moral world. I hope you’ll consider joining us. My plan is to post on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using @yearofmorality and use to communicate. If you have any ideas or questions, please feel free to let me know. 

One more thing: I don’t claim any special moral knowledge or perfection. I am, like most people, tragically flawed. And I am very much not an expert in moral philosophy. My hope is just to begin a conversation that might not have taken place otherwise. Hopefully, together, we can all spend this year growing as individuals, communities, societies.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel with his family, Jeffrey Schrager was the Middle School Judaic Studies Coordinator at the Akiba Academy of Dallas, TX. He has developed curricula, particularly for teaching Tanakh and Jewish genealogy, and has published several articles on Jewish education. He is also the founder of L'dor Vador, an organization promoting the use of Jewish genealogy in education and a professional genealogist.
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