By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
Friday, May 7, 2021 – כ”ה באייר תשפ”א
40th Day of the Omer
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר׃ דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַיהוָה׃
Adonai spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Shabbat for Adonai.”
What if you had to let go? What if you were mandated to step away, close up shop, and leave your work, your fields, your cultivated land – to sit, to breathe, and to renew? What would you do? How would you respond? How would you prepare? In hindsight, we may tell ourselves we would know exactly what to do. Maybe it would be a welcome break, and maybe it would cause suffering and anguish. But if we were in Biblical times, we would know to expect a clean break every seven years.
According to the Torah, every seventh year is to be a Shnat Shmita. The land may not be worked, and the produce of the land may not be bought or sold. Rather, the land is to be left alone and all subsist on picking what grows wild, naturally in the fields and orchards as needed. The rationale is that the earth needs a rest and that God will give plentiful bounty in the other six years – if the rules of shmita are kept (Leviticus 25:1-7, 18-22).
Just like humans are mandated to refrain from work every seven days, so too must the Land regenerate, and take a break to avoid inevitable fatigue and weariness.
As described in the Torah (Exodus 23, Leviticus 25, and Deuteronomy 15) the Jubilee is the culmination of a sabbatical cycle of years of rest or shmita years. Following seven of these cycles, the fiftieth year is called the Yovel or Jubilee. The Shmita year is one when no new crops are planted. While these pauses constitute an agricultural release, the Torah also explicitly designed these cycles to dictate social responsibility.
The Jubilee year, the seventh of seven cycles fulfills the sabbatical temporal cycle:
You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout all of the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family. (Leviticus 25:10)
This past year many of us experienced the feeling of a startling and unanticipated disruption. We hadn’t stockpiled, nor did we prepare, but in the matter of a few days, our world as we knew it came to an abrupt and unexpected shift. Those of us who traveled frequently stopped traveling, commuters hit the brakes, and children stayed home. (Alas, health care and other frontline workers worked overtime caring for the sick and afflicted).
Rather than using a global pandemic to disrupt life as we know it, scholar Paul E. Nahme comments: “the Sabbatical, on a larger scale represents a temporal horizon whereby interruption and suspension can provide us an opportunity to renegotiate what the normal ought to be.”
What’s more, is that if the sabbatical is land-centered – a time for the land to rest – the Jubilee is a periodic restructuring of social inequality to allow society to reset the structures that produced that inequality.
The mindset expressed through sabbatical thinking extends far beyond economic policy. It represents a model of rupture and suspension that might help us make sense of the uncertainty and vulnerability that we are living through in this pandemic and its aftermath.
“Perhaps the Jubilee,” explains Nahme, “and not a state of emergency, is a more fruitful framework for cultivating a consciousness capable of dealing with COVID and its aftermath.”
The Covid-19 global pandemic forced many of us to get up and leave our offices, close our doors, and let the world operate on its own. It allowed the earth to a bit of time without the exponential increase of pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, wear and tear – to reset, renew, and recharge (Tragically coming at the expense of the millions worldwide who lost their lives and the even greater number who suffered through this debilitating virus).
Yet many of us scoff at the notion of observing a shmita – literally a year of “leaving alone”. The Zionist enterprise saw a return to the Land of Israel and a renewed commitment to agriculture and working the land as bringing with it the biblical injunction to observe the laws of Shmita. Rav Kook, a former Chief Rabbi of the Yishuv in Palestine, and among the leading figures of Religious Zionism, took a particular interest in both the observance of Shmita and the potential hardships caused by the year of rest on workers and farmers (he outlined his thoughts in a work called Shabbat HaAretz“). While allowing for legal loopholes, he worked to find ways both to observe the Sabbatical year and take care of the people.
During the last shmita year (5775/2014-15), according to Rabbi Dr. Yedidya Sinclair:
“We saw a sea change from the main mode of observing shmita in Israel, which was, in one way or another, by not observing it (by finding and disputing legal workarounds), towards an era when Israelis are starting seriously to ask, “how do we actually observe shmita? How do we actualize these extraordinary values and teachings in a hi-tech based economy?” Initiatives such as a joint project of government banks and NGOs to bring 5,000 families out of crippling long-term debt through a combination of partial debt relief, rescheduling of loans, and counseling on financial planning have proliferated. They represent creative adaptations of core shmita values to a 21st-century economy.”
But what about each of us as individuals? What if we’re not farmers, or in the position to relieve debt?
We could still use a break.
In fact, after 12 years of schooling, before heading off to…more schooling, maybe a year-long interruption is exactly what is needed?
According to a recent survey, up to forty percent of students nationwide are seriously considering taking a gap year. With unprecedented numbers signaling that they will take a year off, what exactly will they, or should they, do with that time?
Just like leaving one’s fields fallow for a year allows them to rejuvenate to produce more in the future, one study from Middlebury indicates that students who take a year off do better academically and are more focused.
A “gap” year – like the Biblical concept of Shemita, is the perfect opportunity to allow for a gap in production, a gap in a previously uninterrupted sequence of academic production, of coursework, essays, projects, and exams.
A gap or personal “shmita” year is an opportunity to take a “discovery year” to learn about oneself, one’s passions, and how we can best contribute to the world.
Just like Shmita was reinvented in Israel, a gap year in Israel could have the same effect. For instance, a year spent with the Reform Movement’s Shnat Netzer program allows one to break from the pressure of school life in order to travel, explore historical, political, cultural, and social issues, and engage with change-makers, thought-leaders, activists, and educators working to improve Israeli society; as well as serious self-discovery.
The Torah teaches (and modern studies corroborate) that if we disrupt our routines, alter the flow of life, and refuse to let inertia and habit control us, we will come back even stronger. This week’s Parasha of Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34) offers us the perfect timing to prepare for the coming shmita year, which begins this fall (5782/2021-22). Maybe try it yourself, take a year and see what happens!