Letting Go

September 3, 2014Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein

Six years shall you sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat…

-Exodus 23:10-11

The Torah, given before we entered the land, contains a number of commandments that were to be observed once we arrived, primarily those related to agriculture; in other words, mitzvot that are only applicable in the Land of Israel. A leading example was the Sabbatical year. Over the centuries, when Jews mourned being in exile, an important element of their grief was their being unable to observe these "land-bound" mitzvot. Thus, with the beginning of agricultural settlement in the 19th century, there was excitement, especially among the Orthodox pioneers, about the opportunity to "renew our days as of old." However, it quickly became apparent that observance of a Sabbatical year was likely to cause the shaky new agricultural communities to go under. What to do? A halachic legal fiction was created, whereby the land was sold to a non-Jew for the year; thus since it wasn't our land, we could continue to cultivate it without violating the commandment. This became the mainstream position, and solved the problem of keeping the Sabbatical year - by essentially not keeping it. The Ultra-Orthodox for the most part rejected this solution, and used only produce from Arabs or abroad (or from the previous year). This rejection spread in the last Sabbatical, seven years ago, and there were acrimonious public debates, and a further alienation of Israeli culture from the tradition.

The next Sabbatical year will be 5775, which begins in just a few weeks. As we gear up for more annoying halachic debates, a new voice is being heard. A number of cultural and political leaders, Orthodox and not, have proposed that instead of fighting over the technical observance of an unrealistic commandment, why not try to translate the concept of the Sabbatical into activities that might enrich our lives and strengthen our roots. The Hebrew term for the Sabbatical is Shemitah, from the root "to release, to let go." As described in the above passage and expanded in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15, the Sabbatical is about letting go of ownership, of competition, of social class; it is about equalization, and sustainability, and stepping back from the rat race, and helping each other survive. It really is a form of Shabbat. So how can we adapt it to a post-modern, high-tech, consumerist society?

Here at Shorashim we've started brainstorming how we as a community might create our own Sabbatical year, with activities for families, kids, and adults that bring these values into our lives. For example:

  • Setting up a free loan fund for families with a temporary crisis.
  • Restoring an ancient cistern so as to gather rainwater for irrigation of public gardens.
  • A series of excursions and workshops on identifying, gathering, and preparing edible wild plants in our area.
  • A series of Shabbat or holiday dinners for small groups of families - cutting across existing social circles.
  • Distributing a map of all the fruit trees in all the yards, with rules for helping yourself to their fruit during the Sabbatical year.
  • Participation as a group in days of gleaning for tzedaka (there is a national organization, Leket, that coordinates gleaning with farmers, and distributes the produce to those in need).
  • Workshops on pickling and preserving.
  • Torah study sessions, and even a day-long study festival during Sukkot, on the themes and practices related to the Sabbatical year.

There are days when we open the morning paper and try to remember why we made Aliyah. But then there are moments when we are reminded. This Sabbatical project is one such moment, when land and landscape, historical memory, everyday life, and Jewish moral values all come together, and one can indeed feel that we have the chance to "renew our days as of old."

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