"Shabbat Shalom, Earth!" (2nd day Rosh HaShanah, 5782 / 2021)
How embarrassing! I got you all to say ‘Shabbat Shalom’ even though as far as I know it’s Wednesday!!
Actually, this happens all the time. Raise your hand if you have ever mistakenly said ‘Shabbat Shalom’ to someone when it wasn’t Shabbat. I bet this is especially likely to happen in the synagogue - where many of us are here so frequently on Shabbat that it just seems natural to say Shabbat Shalom when we’re here. (And being here more often than most, I am a prime offender.)
Well I have some good news for you: Today, you’re entitled to say Shabbat Shalom even though it’s Wednesday. And in fact, every day for this entire year of 5782 you are entitled to say Shabbat Shalom -- (though truly, most people don’t). Because Jewish tradition defines this entire year that started yesterday as a Shabbat La-Aretz - a Shabbat for the land. We are beginning what the Torah describes as a Shnat Shmitah - often referred to as a sabbatical year.
This Sabbatical Year is one of the more unusual institutions in the Torah. According to the book of Leviticus -- שש שנים תזרע שדך ואספת את תבואתה Six years you shall plant and harvest in your fields, but the seventh year will be שנת שבתון יהיה לארץ שבת לה’ - A year of Shabbat for the earth -- a Shabbat to God. (The Torah actually uses the word “Shabbat” to describe it.) Fields in the land of Israel would not be planted or harvested. You could only harvest that which grows naturally without cultivation. And everything that grows belongs equally to everyone who needs it. And people who have been impoverished and buried by crushing debt are forgiven of those debts.
The Shmitah system is inspiring to me, first of all, because it’s amazing we have been keeping track of this cycle of seven years since ancient times, reminding us of our continuity with our ancestors in the time of the Bible.
But I am not talking about the Shmitah - Sabbatical Year - today simply because I am interested in the details of ancient Jewish agricultural laws, and not only because I’m inspired at how it represents Jewish continuity across thousands of years. Rather, Shmitah carries lessons that are remarkably, even devasatingly, relevant to our world today and our relationship with the earth.
You might have gathered from my description That there’s one central message of the Shmita year - which is that God says - לי הארץ - the earth belongs to God. We may understand those words differently, but we can agree on one central thing - “God” is not us. Whoever the earth belongs to, it’s not us. According to Judaism, the Earth is not the plaything of the human community to do with it whatever we would like. The Earth is not our ATM from which we extract wealth and value whenever we want. Our ancestors knew this, and Shmitah was one of the ways that they expressed it -- essentially treating the earth as a party to a covenant that entailed mutual responsibility. The earth provides sustenance for us -- if we treat the earth in the right way.
Observing the Shmitah year in ancient Israel was not easy. If you were a farmer, you would have a significant loss of income during the Sabbatical Year, when the land would lie fallow and would not be planted. (Though at the same time: whatever the land would yield without being purposefully cultivated would belong to everyone -- so while some people in the society would have a more challenging time financially, for others it would probably provide greater financial security than in some other years.)
Many people today describe the Shmitah year as a pie in the sky idea, that could not possibly have ever been put into practice. It’s utopian, it would cause the economy to come to a grinding halt, and the Talmud spends pages and pages telling people how to get out of some of its restrictions, especially the part about the release of debts. In fact, in Israel in the 20th century, the predominant approach was to do an end run around the entirety of the Sabbatical laws. Because the agricultural aspects of Shmitah apply only to the land of Israel, and the laws of the Torah apply specifically to Jews, a comically easy way to get around all these restrictions is basically to sell the entire land of Israel during the shmitah year to someone who’s not Jewish -- who then rents it back to the Jewish people who are then permitted to farm on it. Throughout the 20th century, believe it or not, that actually was the approach - and for much of the Jewish community the shmitah system was mostly treated as an annoyance rather than an idea of great spiritual depth.
But by about 21 years ago, which is about three Sabbatical years ago, a change in perspective about the Shmitah year was clearly underway. There became more Jewish teachers and scholars suggesting that in fact, the Sabbatical year is a commandment of such extreme importance that no one should be doing an end run around it, and in fact we should rank it among Judaism’s greatest ideas, just as the weekly Shabbat is. Just as Shabbat is ideally an oasis of peace in the midst of the otherwise chaotic week, the Sabbatical year can be a brief taste of a different kind of world, a year in which we learn to make do with less and also spend less time focusing on our possessions, on productivity, and on ownership, and spent more time focusing on meeting the needs of others and our relationship with the earth.
Judaism is not so radical as to deny the existence of private land ownership or private property. But the institution of the Shmitah year reminds us that though we usually act as if the earth exists for us, the Torah never described it that way. No sooner are human beings created that we are told וַיִּקַּ֛ח ה' אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ׃ The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to serve the land and to protect it. (Genesis 2)
My friend and colleague Rabbi David Seidenberg goes so far as to say that the shmitah year is the ultimate objective of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, which has as its goal to restore the balance of the relationship of humanity with the earth -- a relationship that was already starting to veer off balance even in biblical times.
Rabbi Seidenberg also notes that many indiginous societies around the world have some rituals to give the land a rest, which resemble Shmitah, but with slightly different details as befits their different agricultural realities. But their common denominator is that these rituals in diverse cultures express the idea that the earth does not belong to people but people belong to the land and have responsibilities to the land.
One of the principles concerning the Shmitah year is that the land is in charge, rather than us and if you don’t give the land the rest that it needs at regular intervals, one of these days it’s just going to seize its rest. Perhaps this is a variation of something we may be more likely to say about human beings: if you don’t make sure to get some rest on a regular basis, the need for such rest may overtake you at an unexpected and inconvenient time.
And that’s exactly, chillingly, what the Torah says will happen, in the book of Leviticus in the midst of a passage about the consequences of neglecting God’s will: the land will become desolate because of the exile of its inhabitants; אָז֩ תִּרְצֶ֨ה הָאָ֜רֶץ אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתֶ֗יהָ כֹּ֚ל יְמֵ֣י הֳשַׁמָּ֔ה וְאַתֶּ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ אֹיְבֵיכֶ֑ם Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate and you are in the land of your enemies; אָ֚ז תִּשְׁבַּ֣ת הָאָ֔רֶץ וְהִרְצָ֖ת אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתֶֽיהָ׃ then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. (Lev 26:34)
In other words, don’t worry about the earth. The earth is going to be fine. The earth knows, so to speak, how to take care of itself and to take what it needs. We’re not going to destroy the earth. We won’t even render the earth uninhabitable to life. Yes, some species may become extinct because of our conduct, and others will evolve, but we can take comfort that life on earth in some form will always endure. So what’s the problem? -- Well, the problem is, we just might render the earth uninhabitable to us.
Nigel Savage, the leader of the orgnaization Hazon who spoke at our synagogue several years ago, wrote recently: “In the end, COVID is a kind of wake-up call to the American-Jewish community, and to the world, about the need to plan for potential disruptions to human civilization. And as huge as COVID-19 has been, it still pales besides the changes that a changing climate will bring.”
Could we doubt it anymore? Think about what happened in our region last week:
Our neighbors in places like Elizabeth and Queens dying last week in apartments filling suddenly with rain water in the wealthiest country in the world. Two record breaking storms exactly one week apart. 100-year storms happening in the Northeast every few years. Plus: every year bringing a new record-breaking California wildfire season. Rain falling in Greenland instead of snow and ice. Enough ice melting in Greenland every day to cover the entirety of Florida with two additional inches of water. We’ve had the luxury to think that weather problems are problems our ancestors had to deal with, but not in our technologically advanced society which permits us to insulate ourselves from the outside world. But it’s hard to pretend that’s the case now.
Knowing that some people’s eyes glaze over whenever there is discussion of climate change, because you would prefer to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or global antisemitism, or any other challenging isuse in our world -- you can know that climate change is going to make that other challenging issue, whatever it is, more difficult to solve than it already is.
I know some of us expect that human ingenuity is going to help us to engineer our way out of this crisis. Our amazing technological capabilities will help us either to mitigate climate change or to adapt to it, And hopefully we can. A personal hero of mine in this regard, among many, is Yosef Abramowitz - CEO of the Israeli solar energy company called Energia which now provides 100% of the daytime electricity in the Arava (Israel’s southern region) from solar energy -- and within a few years it will provide 100% of the electricity in the Arava from solar energy, 24 hours a day. But the people who are doing the most are often the most discouraged. Here’s what Yosef wrote recently:
“Who shall live, and who shall die, who by fire, who by plague and who from our continued indifference to how our actions and our governments’ policies and subsidies fuel the climate crisis.
As a species we have but seven short years to drastically change our energy, red meat and other consumptions before the worst manifestations of climate change accelerate. The new UN report is Noah hammering in the final nails in the ark to the disregard of his generation.
If we are a life affirming people, then we know what kind of car we should be driving, what we should be eating, how to power our homes and synagogues….
We also note that there is almost no issue for which there is a greater opinion gap based on age cohort than climate change. Young people today know that they will deal with the consequences, and they are worried.
When they observed the Sabbatical Year, our ancestors in ancient times were asked to do some very difficult things for the sake of their relationship with the earth. We also are being asked to modify our way of life, involving a new relationship with technology. We are being asked to understand that so many technological advances that have made our lives more pleasant and convenient, which have permitted us to live to longer ages with better health, have also moved us towards crisis.
So often we tell the Talmud’s story of the old man planting the carob tree - even though he knows he will not see it bear fruit - saying ‘just as my ancestors planted for me, so I plant for my descendants.’ I fear we’re living in the dystopian version of this story -- born into a world full of carob trees planted by our ancestors, and we’re cutting them down in disregard of the needs of our descendants.
My friend and colleague in Bethesda, Maryland, Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, has published the reading that his congregation is reading this Rosh HaShanah for the beginning of this Shmitah year - with the adults in the congregation turning towards the children of the congregation and saying ‘Slah Lanu’ -- we are guilty of not handing off to you a world in the condition that it was handed to us.
On the one hand, this Ashamnu is not truly being recited from individual to individual -- but rather from older generations (plural) to younger generations (also plural). And obviously this crisis was not created primarily by people who are alive today. But it remains our responsibility to repair.
We are well aware that whereas it’s crucial to recycle, to reduce waste, and to purchase more energy efficient appliances and vehicles, most of the changes that are necessary to avoid the worst climate change future are not in the hands of the consumer. What we need is the kind of differences that corporations and governments can make. And yet, the decisions of a society are the aggregate of the decisions made by individuals. And the priorities of a society as a whole are likely to mirror and be influenced by the priorities of those individuals. Societal changes in attitudes and priorities start with each of us.
And you know what? As disruptive as the Covid crisis has been for us, it has also shown us what we’re willing to change about our lives on a societal-wide basis if it’s really necessary. Again, as Rabbi Seidenberg has said: people say that our way of life is so wedded to fossil fuels that we’ll never free ourselves and our society from reliance upon them. But if you were told two years ago that there would be a significant period of time when no one would travel - you would think they were crazy - but for an imperative that is important enough, now we know that people will make that kind of sacrifice, at least for a while.
In Jewish tradition we usually divide the mitzvot into categories like commandments between people and God, and commandments between people and people. It is hard though to know how to categorize the Shmitah laws in this schema. On the one hand, they have classically been interpreted as being between people and God. And on the other hand - if we truly took these principles to heart, and helped to bring about a new kind of relationship between people and the earth, it would benefit future generations. Just as during the Covid crisis every religious group mustered all its spiritual resources to direct them towards this crisis, the sabbatical year may be some specifically Jewish wisdom that could be part of the Jewish response to this globlal crisis.
The organization Hazon, the foremost Jewish enivronmental organization today, has remarkable resources for helping Jews and non-Jews see the Sabbatical year not as a curiosity of ancient Jewish agricultural law, but as a system to promote a thoughtful and sustainable relationship with the earth. And a new organzation approrpiately called Dayenu, meaning ‘it is enough for us,’ is also focused on using Jewish teachings to promote a thoughtful Jewish response to the looming climate crisis.
There’s something else notable about the Shmitah year in that it helps us to mark the timing of our lives, just as weekly shabbat gives us a chance to look back to what happened on each day of the week that ended. Shmitah can function in the same way -- most of us will get to experience somewhere between 8 and 13 Shmitah years in our lives - which isn’t very many, and is a number that may incline us to think about our lives in the context of history and the next generation. When we contemplate our lives in terms of Shmitah units, we’re invited to think about our lives in the grand scheme; per my colleague Rabbi Scherlinder Dobb, the Shmitah cycle “beckons us to approach the big questions intergenerationally.”
Shortly we will resume our service with Musaf, in which we will remind ourselves - Hayom Harat Olam - today is the birthday of the world - and the day that every person stands in judgment. -- we know that we stand in judgment not only before God but before future generations.
May this new year 5782, a Shabbat La’aretz - a Shabbat for the land - bring as much rest and renewal to our world as we can. May it help us to restore a balance to our relationship with the earth so that we can know we have appropriately planted for our descendants.
Shanah Tovah! (And to the earth we also say - Shabbat Shalom!)
I am grateful to my colleagues Rabbi Andrea Merow; Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb; Rabbi David Seidenberg; and many other teachers who have inspired me with their teachings about Shmitah in the current context.