The mitzvah of shmita, as it appears in the Bible and in Rabbinical thought, commanded all the agriculturalists in the land of Israel to abandon their fields once every seven years, forsake its fruit, let the land lie fallow and at rest, and allow all who wished, man or beast, to come into the field and partake in the blessings of the earth. The year of shmita concluded with a magnificent ceremony that took place in the eighth year, when, during the holiday of Sukkot, there was a great gathering of the people of the land, who would come to the Temple to hear the King of Israel read the Torah to his people, a ceremony called Hakhel. The crowd then dispersed, each to his own land, to begin the cycle of work and Sabbath all over again.
In this way the mitzvot of shmita presented a cyclical system, seven years long, that provided a nation with the opportunity to consider anew the building blocks of life: the relationship to land and property, to work, to God, and to the other – neighbors, the poor, the convert, and even animals.
All of us can recall formative years in our lives. The kind that after them nothing is as it was, years in which we learn to understand the true value of things or make crucial, even fateful decisions. Shmita is an ambitious attempt to bring about this kind of year on the collective level, a year in the life of a nation that examines the very basic notions of our lives and leads to a more deserving society in every aspect.
Shmita shows us that the source of strength and blessing does not lie within but comes from a source greater than ourselves – the land is on a sabbatical for God, we refrain from working in the fields, and still there is abundance and plenty. The idea of letting go for a year of the strain of work in favor of family, community, culture and spirit, ignites the imagination on a personal, communal, and national level. In terms of the environment, shmita offers a radical view – a yearlong cessation from looking at our partners in creation in a purely utilitarian way, and of course providing the opportunity for the resources of nature to recover from over use. Shmita of money expands our view of the financial world and suggests that each person deserves a “new start” economically, if they have reached a desperate or hopeless situation.
Over the course of the past year hundreds of initiatives on the part of individuals and groups have taken place under the auspices of “Shmita Yisraelit,” the Israeli Shmita Initiative, that have drawn from the ideas contained within shmita and applied them to our current reality. There are those who have “abandoned” their parking spot, others who have written a diary expressing their appreciation for the good that befalls them, those who have become vegetarian or established a facility for second hand items in their neighborhoods. Broad-based volunteer initiatives and activities to bring about agreements regarding debt for thousands, have led to real change in our reality, and groups of learners have led to changes in themselves. And the good news? Shmita is still here for another few months. So if you have a dream for bettering your society or environment or you just have a true desire to slow things down and look at the choices you have made in your life – now is the time. Happy shmita year!