This government was established only in the merit of people who knew how to let go, and it is now threatened by the insistence on holding on. In other words, the government that has ruled during this year of Shemita is the very embodiment of the ethos of Shemita.
Letting go, relinquishing- that’s precisely what the word Shemita means, and that’s what we’re bidden to do every 7th year. To let go of our right to collect on loans. To relinquish our power as property owners. To cede hard-earned territory.
The current government is the most unlikely one in Israeli history, because its survival depends on all of its members making significant ideological concessions. Yair Lapid conceded pride of place to Naftali Bennett, allowing him to serve as prime minister first, even though electoral logic dictated otherwise. And Bennett conceded his pride, breaking campaign promises and taking enormous political risks that threaten his political support and future. Right wing parties, for the first time ever, agreed to sit with an Arab party, and left-wing parties, in the name of maintaining the status quo, voted in favor of right-wing policies they deeply oppose. The government’s opponents have tried to paint all of these compromises as acts of cynical opportunism, but faced with the prospect of yet another round of elections, with no end to the deadlock in sight, these should rather be seen as heroic sacrifices, the embodiment of the ethos of Shemita.
Whenever some of its members have been unable to make these sacrifices, or have felt that conceding is too threatening and too risky, the government has teetered. But it seems that what may ultimately deal it its death blow will be a much deeper violation of this ethos.
The other side of the Shemita coin is the intriguing idea that it is the refusal to let go, the insistence on holding on, that will ultimately result in our being forced to let go. The punishment for not observing Shemita is exile- “then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate” (Leviticus 26:34). Why would someone refrain from letting go of the land during Shemita? The answer is simple and still cogent: because they are afraid of losing it. The Torah decrees that this refusal will have precisely the opposite outcome. If you’re not ready to let go of the land, if you stubbornly insist on being its master, if you believe that that insistence is what ensures your security, then you will lose it, and be reminded of who the true master is.
How haunting, then, that the law that most threatens this Shemita government is the ad hoc law that has enabled Israel to maintain its control over disputed territories for the past 55 years. Full disclosure: I write these lines as a resident of the Judean settlement of Efrat. I don’t think that there is a problem per se with Jews living in any part of the land of Israel. I’m not comfortable speaking about this land as “occupied” because I believe we have valid historical claims to it. But the claim used to justify the status quo and the lack of any creativity or efforts to change it, that letting go of the smallest bit of this territory is a threat to our security, has made us feel and act as if we are masters, and it has made us obtuse to the suffering of the other.
Israel and Israelis are notorious for having a hard time ceding or conceding (remember Bennett’s campaign “We don’t apologize!”). It’s a cultural phenomenon that you encounter everywhere, from the post office, to the parking lot, to the halls of government. And when you’re a small, embattled country in the Middle East, and a small, embattled people in the world, it’s understandable. But Shemita tells us that this attitude is also corrosive, and ultimately, self-destructive. This government marked a hopeful, and almost miraculous departure from this deep-seated norm and need to hold on as much as possible. In this Shemita year, it demonstrated the potential and the power of letting go in order to hold on. And that is something that we dare not give up on.