This year is a shmita year in the Jewish tradition; translated into English that means it’s a sabbatical year. The literal translation of shmita is “release.” The concept of a shmita year is extraordinary. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year (lunar calendar), occurred on Thursday, with Yom Kippur next weekend (together they constitute the High Holidays). Every seventh year, as mandated in the Torah, is a sabbatical year, going back and back and back to ancient times when the Hebrews lived on the land now called Israel, before our first and second holy temples were destroyed, before we were exiled from our land or returned to it centuries later under conflicted circumstances. Shmita originated as a year of rest for the land in an agricultural society.
In ancient times, in the shmita year, fields were left fallow. It was forbidden to plow, plant, or prune. Watering, weeding, and mowing was allowed for basic maintenance. Conscious, organized harvesting was not allowed. Any fruits or vegetables that grew (volunteers) were considered ownerless and could be picked and eaten by anyone, regardless of the ownership of the land on which they grew. Thus, those who had previously gone hungry were able to access food. Allowing the gardens and fields to rest every seven years is incorporated into the laws governing whether food is kosher. Those who keep strictly kosher will not eat fruits or vegetables grown in fields that have not been allowed to rest every seven years. Furthermore, all debts are to be forgiven in the shmita year. Can you imagine what our world would be like if we all lived with the understanding that all debts are to be forgiven every seven years? The nature of lending, borrowing, and indebtedness would be dramatically different. Traditionally, all slaves were freed during the shmita year. In the shmita year, the playing field is re-leveled as agricultural, environmental, and economic adjustments are made to maintain an equitable, just, and healthy society. In the sabbatical year, we rebalance.
If we are not allowed to grow food, then how do we survive? The devout believe that God will provide and so shmita is a year of faith. Here is a true story. The village of Komemiyut in Israel was one of the few villages in the country that chose to observe shmita during 1952 (the first shmita to occur after the birth of modern Israel in 1948). Komemiyut refrained from working the land that year, ate volunteer vegetables, and did not save seed. At the end of the shmita, Komemiyut farmers searching for seed to plant found only inferior seed that lay rotting in an abandoned shed. They sewed this seed anyway, even though it was three months after neighboring villages had planted their fields. That year the autumn rains came late, the day after the Komemiyut seed was sown. As a result, the neighboring villages had a meager harvest, while Komemiyut had a bumper crop. (Source: Mordechai Kuber, "Shmittah for the Clueless," Jewish Action Magazine, 2007.)
While tzedakah (charity/giving) is a central tenet of the High Holidays, in a shmita year it is incumbent upon us to make a stretch and find additional ways to practice tzedakah. The Talmud teaches that the highest form of tzedakah is when the individual receiving tzedakah does not even know that it was tzedakah, but rather believes it was something lucky that happened out of the blue or, even better, something that person secured on his or her own merit and/or efforts. Think back over your life. Think of a time when you made something wonderful happen for someone else in such a way that they never knew that what happened was because of you, but instead thought it was entirely because of them. That kind of stealth tzedakah is high tzedakah; it’s shmita year tzedakah. I am pondering how to practice stealth tzedakah in the shmita year.
On Rosh Hashanah I resolved to spend the shmita year rebalancing my life. I intend to fend off negative thoughts and emotions. I will use grief to build love, convert despair to hope, and step up my efforts to avoid exposure to violence. In fact, I will minimize my exposure to the media entirely because it is so violent. I have read enough about beheadings, war, destruction, hunger, the irreversible damage to our planet, corporate greed, and abused children. Enough. This year I will refuse access to my consciousness by as much of this down-down-downer material as possible. I am not sticking my head in the sand, but rather leaping above the clouds to surround my head with the stars. There will be enough time in the intervening six years before another shmita year for me to learn about the sickness and sadness of our world. This year I will reinforce my positive self so that I can withstand the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” lurking in my future.
I will remain ever hopeful for those in my life who are struggling with challenges and facing the overwhelming abyss of grief, ill health, disappointment, age, and loss. I will be strong for them. I will be a positive force of nature, a lighthouse on high beam. I will take shmita into my heart for this sabbatical year and swing the balance back to all that is good and right in the world; to all that manifests love, that proves love. In the midst of the chaos, suffering, and disaster, we still have the embrace of family, friends, community, and, here in Mendocino County, where I am so blessed and deeply grateful to live, we have beautiful open enormous land filled with tall, tall, graceful, brilliant trees. In this shmita year, I will manifest and amplify the spirit of brilliant trees.
I invite you to think about what you might choose to do to rebalance in this shmita year.
Classic Mendocino scenery, featuring our brilliant oak and fir trees, watching over a vineyard.