When September came, it brought a wave of cool air and clear skies. Bring on apple picking, crisp fall days, and campfire nights! While I managed to squeeze a lot of fun into the summer, I was happy to turn my back on the terrible heat and humidity, and constant storms that often came with flash flood and tornado warnings, ominous signs of climate change and a warming planet.

Like so many of you, I just want release and relief from the enormity of the problems that face us. I worry what kind of life and what kind of planet my children will inherit. We have never truly been the masters of our own fates, but during more stable times we could pretend that we were, at least for stretches of time. We could embark on a career, and plan for our future. We could extract resources from our Mother Earth, and pretend that she could give endlessly. We could elect a new president, and expect a peaceful transition. We could anticipate a vacation, and assume it would happen. We could prepare High Holiday services without multiple contingencies!

But our world has been rocked to its very foundations. This past year, the pandemic upended our ability to plan, and feel safe in so many settings we took for granted only a short while ago. Political instability has riven our democracy and society. And climate catastrophe is rapidly overtaking us, shattering – almost unimaginably – even our ability to trust in the flow of the seasons.

We find ourselves living in extremely disorienting and challenging times. We didn’t want this to be so, nor did most of us expect such a rapid unraveling, but here we are. How in heaven’s name do we move forward?
During the High Holidays we pray that God will help us return. Return us from climate disaster, return us from illness and fear.

But the High Holidays do not promise us a return to normalcy, or to the past. They urge us to wake up to the urgency of the present moment, and the call of the future. These holidays, alas, are not “feel good” celebrations. More than at any other time of the year, the High Holidays urge us to awaken to awe – to the amazingness of life on this planet, but also to how fragile and precious it is. These Days of Awe come to tell us – just as people are constantly changing, the world is changing too. Our work in this season is to awaken to this changing present and future.

But it isn’t just the High Holidays; the whole of Jewish tradition and practice is centered around humility in face of change. It is built into the very rhythm of our existence, our calendar, the cycles of our seasons.

Take Shabbat. Long before the existence of the modern labor movement, the Torah taught us that every seventh day we are required to cease from labor and to relinquish control over those who work for us, both human and animal. Every seventh day we reset our awareness, so that we would remember that we are distinct human beings apart from our achievements, created by God, and that we are fortunate recipients of life, not lords of this earthly domain.

More dramatically, every seventh year our ancestors in the land of Israel observed a sabbatical year. In Hebrew this year is called a Shmita year.
The word shmita itself means to “release,” as in opening up a clenched hand to free what is held there.” Leviticus 25:2-4 states: “The earth shall have a Divine sabbath. Six years shall you sow your field and six years shall you prune your vineyard and gather her produce. The seventh year is a Sabbath of Sabbaths to the land, a Sabbath to the Divine.”

Shmita is the seventh year in a recurring cycle of sacred sevens that traces its count back more than 2,500 years. Shmita, like Yom Kippur, is called a Shabbat Shabbaton – a Sabbath of Sabbaths. Rabbi Arthur Waskow says that it is Shabbat to its exponential power – Shabbat to its fullest, Shabbat with your whole soul.

Shmita has not been fully observed according to biblical proscription since the fall of the Second Temple 2000 years ago, and technically its laws would only apply to Jews living in the land of Israel. A form of it continues in Israel in strictly observant communities, but even so taken literally it’s a huge burden, wholly incompatible with modern life.

But aspects of it live on in modern society. It is traditional, for example, for certain vocations, including my own, to take a sabbatical, a period of time for rest and renewal, every seven years. I had a sabbatical, half which was taken just before the pandemic began in January and February of 2020, the other half which was delayed and finally taken in April and May of this year. That period of time was so valuable to me – indeed, I was able to release from old patterns and find a new rhythm that was healthier and more sustainable for me, my family, and this congregation. It was a gift, and I would argue that it is more than valuable, it is necessary. Not just for me, but for everyone, and the planet itself as well.

Well, this year we all get this gift, should you choose to receive it. This year, 5782, starting on Rosh haShana ten days ago, is a shmita year.

Given that we as liberal Diaspora community aren’t bound to the laws of shmita, what might the concept of shmita offer us as a spiritual ideal? Our goal would not be to restore a straight-up seventh-year sabbatical, but to embed and enrich our communal and individual lives with “Shmita-consciousness.”

Shmita lifts up a radical and extraordinary vision; that an entire society can reset itself under more equitable conditions, and that it can even allow cultivated lands that support the society to also rest and revitalize. Perhaps it might offer wisdom about how to live in a more sustainable rhythm with the earth? Maybe it could help us to more gracefully accept losses and changes as the pandemic stretches on? Perhaps it might even teach us how to open to a new, more just, more loving, more holy kind of normal?

Fittingly, I’ve chosen seven lessons we might learn from shmita this year.

1 – Rest!

We need the rest in order for the active parts to have meaning. Resting reminds us that we are more than what we produce. Rest can be generative, it can also allow us to step out of production mode and just be in a sacred state of being.

Rest is sacred and holy. A rest is not a void – we learn this from music! The rest is an essential part of the groove. The late great Charlie Watts, the drummer of Rolling Stones, was a master of pulling back and playing as few beats as possible for what was needed to get people dancing.

Letting things rest can mean giving something permission to emerge.
Cassady Rosenblum, who recently quit her job as a producer at “Here & Now,” a NPR program and went to live with her parents in West Virginia, wrote a great opinion piece last month in the NYT called “Work is a False Idol.” In it she writes, “Here in the hills, the new silence of my days, deepened by the solitude of the pandemic, has allowed me to observe the state of our planet in the year 2021 — and it looks to be on fire, as our oligarchs take to space. From my view down here on the carpet, I see a system that, even if it bounces back to “normal,” I have no interest in rejoining, a system that is beginning to come undone.”

She continues, “In her poem “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” My reply, for now, is simple: Sit on the porch. It’s not half-bad. For what is the porch if not a place to chat with neighbors, to marvel at the hummingbird at the feeder, to listen to the wind in the chimes? An altar for cynics, an altar for the erotic, an altar for the future.

Shmita, in its call to rest, is an altar for the future.

2 – Rupture!

A few days ago I attended a funeral for a wonderful man, the father of a dear friend of mine. At the funeral, his daughter passed out buttons that said, “Why Be Normal?” because he wasn’t normal and she wasn’t normal and that was ok. Perhaps it’s time we all figure out how to be okay with not being normal. Shmita forces a rupture, upending what we might grow accustomed to thinking is normal, perhaps so that a new paradigm can emerge.

In a beautiful piece in the Financial Times last year, entitled ‘The Pandemic is a Portal’ Arundhati Roy asks: “What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses. Others that it’s a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world. Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”

The pandemic, in a way, has been a sabbatical for us. It has humbled us, forced us to simplify our lives and consider what the most important things in life are. It has been a gift in that sense.

3 – Reframe!

Let’s be clear: the way we’ve been doing things is not sustainable. We are tied into an economic system that glorifies private ownership and that rewards greed. Both our society and our natural world are teetering as a result. The gap between the rich and the poor grows obscenely out of balance, and the balance of nature itself has now become so disrupted by our greed that we are beginning to experience the catastrophic results.

For the Torah, the concept that people can own the earth is the height of hubris, an absurdity and a desecration. The idea that the land out of which we are formed is ours to exploit and extract from endlessly is an obvious recipe for disaster. And so the Torah insists that, if we do not provide the land with its regular sabbaticals, and maintain a right relationship with it, then there will be natural consequences. The land will no longer sustain us: Lev 26:43 warns “The land will spit you out, so that it can make up for the sabbatical years that you denied it.”

4 – Return!

Shmita calls us to return to the land, to each other, and to God. The Torah recognizes that it is human nature to forget that God truly provides for all we have. In the book of Deuteronomy, God says to the Israelites: Be careful when you come into the land that I God am giving to you. In the euphoria of arrival and your quick successes, the defeat of your enemies, the fertility of your flocks, the rain watering your fields, you’ll soon forget My role in bringing you here. You’ll get haughty. You’ll look around and say aloud “I alone did THIS.” And you’ll be wrong.

But this is not about God’s ego. This is about the damage we do to ourselves when we believe it is only thanks to our individual strength, fortitude and wisdom that we achieve success. Because when things don’t go the way we want, we sometimes shoulder the responsibility and forget to look for help. We forget that we are inextricably linked to family, friends, community, and God.

Shmita calls us to return to one another, to share our burdens, and to be humble in our blessings. This year, we can make the choice to shift the focus from one of individual accomplishment, acquisition and entrepreneurship, to one of community, faith, and collective responsibility, a far more sustainable model than the trope of the “self-made man” – for us and for future generations.

5 – Release!

Shmita envisions a year of radical release, releasing fields from cultivation and letting the land lie fallow, eating only what grows on its own, releasing debts, so that anyone who had been indentured due to their debt was freed, and redistributing food so all can access. A farmer’s fields are open to all.
You might think this is an impossible feat, especially in today’s world. But shmita challenges us to trust in the earth’s abundance, in one another, and in God. Shmita calls for us to release our tight fist – ultimately, for me it is a spiritual practice of acknowledging our vulnerability and humanity, and to keep our greed and fear in check. To neutralize our greed, amassing and hoarding the earth’s produce, we are to take only what we need, and share whatever the land spontaneously grows with all who wish to eat—rich and poor alike as well as domestic livestock and the native wildlife. By letting go in all these ways we may come to recognize that, without the land belonging to us, it can still produce, to quote Gandhi “enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed.”

Our tradition recognizes that greed is inherent in human nature. Deut. 15:9-10 warns us: “Beware lest you harbor the selfish thought, ‘the sabbatical year is approaching’ and you refuse to give to your needy kin. Rather, give readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return YHVH your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.” A commentary on this text (Midrash Sifrei Devarim #43) states: “Human beings rebel against God only from satiety.” And this is what we must guard against. Accumulation of wealth leads to entitlement and arrogance. When we are greedy, we stop up the flow of blessing in which we all share.

It is tempting to stock up on toilet paper or whatever seems to be cleaned out of the shelves at the grocery store (these days it is dairy products), but we must not let fear or greed get the better of us. Even in our individualistic, capitalistic society we can practice shmita-consciousness, sharing our abundance and generously giving what we can.

Beginning October 10, I will be teaching a three-part class called “A Generous Spirit” in which we will discuss Jewish values and money, scarcity and abundance, and mitzvah of giving. I hope you will join me!

6 – Relief

We must give the earth relief from human overuse and depredation, and that’s a huge task, but it can be addressed one mitzvah at a time. I am excited that our Tikkun Olam committee has chosen to focus on shmita as its theme for the year, as we explore ways as a community we can do more with less, feed our neighbors, and be better stewards of the land. We’ll have dinner in the sukkah on Sept 25 with Cathy Snyder, Founder and Director of Rolling Harvest Food Rescue. We will learn about shmita and how we can incorporate its concepts into local farming and feeding. And on October 9 we’ll have a gleaning event at the Gravity Hill Farm as we learn about the mitzvah of gleaning fields to share with our neighbors in need. Lastly, I invite you to check out the Buy Nothing flyer in your Shana Tova bags, which is a great way to practice doing more with less and being stifled with all that we have. There are so many ways to bring shmita-consciousness into our individual and communal practice – it is very exciting to explore all the opportunities!

7 – Restore!

Lastly, and perhaps the most challenging – Shmita calls us to forgive all debts. Everyone should be able to reset, particularly the stranger, the immigrant, the servant or low-wage worker, the orphan and widow (see Deut. 15). Shmita is the biblical path out of the cycle of servitude and poverty.

Life today is vastly different than in biblical times, but we are still sadly quite familiar with the burden of debt ,whether it is our mortgage on our homes, college loans we have been repaying for decades, or the medical bills piling up. This concern is especially concerning during a global pandemic, which tests the strongest health care systems – even as tens of millions of Americans remain un- or under-insured, and billions around the world struggle with inadequate resources.

A modern shmita practice would challenge us to reduce our own debt and the debt of the neediest among us. Kol Tzedek, a Reconstructionist synagogue in West Philadelphia, is working on abolishing the equivalent of $2.5 million in medical debt. By raising $25,000, they would eliminate $2.5 million in health care bills because hospital systems sell unpayable debt at discounted rates.

Imagine having no debt, and the kind of freedom it would enable on every scale. When one isn’t burdened by debt, one is less concerned with the need to make money at a certain level or inhibited to follow one’s dreams regardless of what one could earn. One can plan for the future proactively and build a more sustainable future.

Isn’t that what we desperately need? I believe these extraordinary times call for the radical vision such as shmita. I pray that we come out the other side on this pandemic stronger, wiser, and more interdependent. I pray that this sabbatical year brings us closer to a sustainable human presence on the earth. I pray that perhaps we can also release one another, on this Yom Kippur Day, from any accumulated resentments, any sense of being owed something.

Today, let us remember who we are and whose we are; that we are here but for a short time, and that the most enduring aspect of our lives is not what we consume but what we leave behind.

Tzom Kal – May you have a meaningful fast and a transformative holiday.