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Our collective sabbatical

The biblically prescribed year of 'letting go' is an opportunity for recalibrating communal priorities

Last year, 5774 by the Hebrew calendar, I was on sabbatical leave from my university. The ultimate perk for Israeli academics is the financial stipend that supports faculty to take a year off and pursue independent research and study at a place of their choosing. And so for a year I enjoyed the marvelous libraries, talented colleagues and wonderful weather of Stanford. Freed of the need to generate five articles in high impact journals, prepare proposals and grade papers, I could read, think and draft what I imagine will be the most important book I will ever write. Wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone could enjoy such a stimulating, refreshing and invigorating experience every seven years!

Of course, that appears to have been exactly the idea behind the shmita year. The seven year cycle has gone round once again and this Wednesday night’s Rosh Hashanah festivities launch 5775 as the next sabbatical year. Technically the word “shmita” is best translated as “letting go.” Jews are commanded in the book of Leviticus to let go of their cultivated fields and orchards and leave them untended, allowing unfettered access to the land by all people and animals. The nation enjoys a period of solidarity with the earth and with each other: a collective sabbatical.

Because it offers the earth a modicum of respite, the sabbatical year typically is considered an ecological injunction — an ancient Jewish land ethic. And it certainly is. The Biblical book of Second Chronicles posits that it was actually the land of Israel that expelled the Jews into exile because they did not observe the sabbatical year. When we don’t give the earth its due, retribution can be swift.

But there is an additional social justice component in shmita frequently overlooked. While the earth is resting, society is expected to even the economic playing field.  The book of Deuteronomy (15:1) makes it perfectly clear that during the sabbatical year, debts, save those of foreigners, are to be forgiven.

Ecological and social justice, historically were always linked. In days of old, the collective was a far more compelling part of day-to-day life than it is today. We learn from the Book of Ruth how the fields of Israel and their agricultural yields were both a community meeting ground and a medium for social assistance, where the poor were allowed to collect food from the edges of the farmlands.

For most farmers in Israel today, shmita is little more than an annoyance –- a time of bureaucracy and legal fictions, when land is symbolically sold to non-Jews and produce grown via hydroponics enjoys higher demand. Indeed during the 2007 sabbatical year, shmita’s implementation became highly contentious, with litigation even reaching Israel’s Supreme Court about the legality of allowing local rabbis make decisions independent of the Chief Rabbinate.

But originally the shmita year was not considered a Halachic headache. Rather it was an opportunity to recognize the inherent value of ecosystem services and their need to renew themselves. It was a chance for humans to enjoy the kind of lull in the rate race that is generally associated with sabbaticals.

It has often been pointed out that we can only have intelligible speech by allowing for silence between the sounds of words. Life also is only intelligible when there are breaks that allow people to maintain equilibrium in the face of the relentless march of time. Shabbat offers us a breather on a micro-weekly level. A sabbatical year offers it on a macro-ecological and macro-economic level. In a sense this is the great “restart”. Just like a computer, life can become so filled with open files, viruses and simultaneous calculations that we are overwhelmed. Every seven years we get to push “restart” and start over.

Cutting back on cultivation is analogous to limiting the unyielding pursuit of income and consumption in our crowded lives and replacing them with a higher purpose. We set aside some space for the spiritual. Essentially, the shmita laws should be seen as a pleasantly paternalistic regulation that reigns in the workaholics, the greed and the alienation which characterizes so much of modern life.

Abraham Joshua Heschel explained that shmita was the application of the laws of Sabbath to the land of Israel. On the seventh day, even beasts of burden are released from their duties. They join humans in a more equal, natural, original configuration of power. During the sabbatical year the land of Israel also returns to a more natural state. We humans are allowed to join the celebration.

For those who live outside the borders of Biblical Israel and do not buy their food from local farmers, the metaphor of shmita can still inform the coming year. There are all sorts of ways: from foregoing unnecessary overtime hours to contributing to causes that involve social or environmental justice.

And there are some interesting things happening in Israel in 5775: A new initiative – “Israeli Shmita” run by environmental leader Einat Kramer offers a wonderful menu of ideas to this end. A sabbatical fund of 20 million shekels has been established that will help people locked in a vicious cycle of debt to move beyond the poverty trap. Kramer suggests a bank for volunteerism where people offer professional services as a way of sharing the modern equivalent of their farms to revitalizing the collective. Using an internet platform, participants can donate an hour or more a week of free legal advice, medical assistance, tutoring or whatever gifts they enjoy, to offer everyone access to these amenities and strengthen personal bonds within a community.

For those of us who take the shmita vision seriously, reshuffling the deck in 5775 is not just about finding more time for family, study, hiking and hobbies during the comingyear. It is about reconsidering our priorities in the subsequent six years as well. Just like the insights and lower blood pressure attained while resting during the Sabbath should inform the rest of the week, the shmita year should inspire us to make the coming six more significant, equitable and inspirational.

Ultimately, the sabbatical year is designed so that we can consider the possibility of trading in the pervasive emphasis on materialism in favor of social solidarity and individual self-actualization. This year should make us better people collectively. In today’s economy, a full, collective sabbatical is probably unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t seek inspiration from our heritage and find creative ways to break free from the rat race in favor of more edifying pursuits. Soil fertility is a renewable resource. So is the human spirit. Let’s hope that that as the earth becomes renewed – so will our communities, our nation and our lives.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal, is the chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy and a veteran environmental activist.