Rosh HaShanah Evening: The Shmitah Year Begins

Tonight, Rosh HaShanah, the head of the year, the first moments of 5782, begin a year of Shmitah. Shmitah means: release, rest. Shmitah is for the land, for the people, and for society:

Shmot 23:10-11

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield׃ but in the seventh you shall release it/let it rest תִּשְׁמְטֶ֣נָּה  and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.

Shmitah is not only about the land; it is also about economics – both systems of credit:

Deuteronomy 15:1-2

 At the end of seven years, you are to make a Release [Shmitah].  Now this is the matter of the Release: he shall release, every possessor of a loan of his hand, what he has lent to his neighbor. He is not to oppress his neighbor or his brother, for the Release of the Lord has been proclaimed!…

And at the end of seven cycles of seven years, there is a redistribution of wealth:

Leviticus 25.8-10

And you are to number yourselves seven Sabbath-cycles of years- seven years, seven times so the time of the seven Sabbath cycles of years will be for you a total of nine and forty years. Then you are to give forth on

the shofar a blast, in the seventh New-Moon, on the tenth after the New-Moon, on the Day of Atonement, you are to give blast on the shofar throughout all your land. You are to hallow the year, the fiftieth year, proclaiming freedom [dror] throughout the land and to all its inhabitants; it shall be a Jubilee for you, you are to return, each-man to his holding, each man to his clan you are to return.

In these first moments and days of the Shmitah year, I’ll use our time together to explore how the concept of Shmitah offers a framework for many of the challenges we face: as individuals, nations, and a global community.

On Wednesday morning, the second day of Rosh HaShanah, I’ll speak about what it might mean to let ourselves “lie fallow.” In this time of emphasis on working on ourselves, perhaps letting our internal soil rest might renew it more fully than intensive tilling.

At Kol Nidre, we’ll look at how Shmitah is also about responsibility. In this season of teshuvah, of returning to how things were, we are tasked with fixing the damage we caused, intentionally or otherwise.

On Yom Kippur morning, we’ll look at the economic model that Shmitah offers to repair wealth inequality. The Torah, and our people, have long understood that charity is not the way to take care of each other. Our word, tzedakah, means justice, and it is not based on giving as we are moved to give, but on building a society where people’s needs are met.  

Shmitah is big! Imagine, an agricultural society asked to not farm for a whole year. What would they eat?  This must have been terrifying!

The Torah anticipates this:

“Now if you should say to yourselves: What are we to eat in the seventh year? For we may not sow, we may not gather our produce!

God says: Then I will dispatch my blessing for you during the sixth year so that it yields produce for three years; as you sow the eighth year’s seeds, you shall eat of the old produce until the ninth year; until its produce comes in, you shall be able to eat what-is-old.” – Leviticus 25.19

Shmitah is about uncertainty, something we have become very familiar with, if, somehow, we had not been previously. We might have hoped to return to “normal,” but not only have we not returned to an old normal, there does not seem to be a new normal. It has been a terribly difficult year and a half, and the current moment is as challenging, perhaps even more so, than last year.

The pandemic continues, and people suffer in our own communities and in the larger world. Our hearts break for those in Haiti and Afghanistan. But there have not only been sorrows. The vaccine is a miracle. Many people have rallied to meet the tremendous needs we have seen. People continued to love each other, to help each other, and new lives have been born. Suffering and joy are both a part of the fabric of our lives. And we cannot control our lives to promote one and eliminate the other, nor can we dictate the timing.

Shmitah teaches us that we always live in times of radical uncertainty. There is never a guarantee that we will have a successful harvest, even when we do everything in our power to make that happen. It invites us: let’s see what happens when we release our effort and let it all be.

This is not only a personal process. While we each must let our own farms lie fallow, Shmitah is communal: the only way to get through these difficult times is together.

On Rosh HaShanah, we say “today the world is born” – but with creation being an evolving process (6 days or billions of years) – which actual moment are we celebrating? Tradition says that today is the anniversary of the 6th day, the creation of humanity. The Torah tells us,

לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ

“it is not good for a human being to be alone,” and a second human joins the first. Isolation is not healthy, and has been one of the most difficult aspects of this pandemic. Many of us have been separated from friends, parents, children, grandchildren. Some were alone in their homes for more than a year.

The Kehillath Shalom community has been supporting each other throughout this hard time, sustaining and nourishing each other’s spirits. We have enabled our community to gather, although virtually, on almost a daily basis, for the past 19 months. We must not stop now. The pandemic not over, and the challenges each of us face in our lives will always continue. Please continue to reach out, and to be there for one another. Shmitah is about trust: allowing ourselves to rely upon each other and upon the world in which we dwell.

So, too, does the world sustain us. When we were not able to gather with friends, our source of sustenance was the beauty of nature outside our windows and in our backyards. When we honor this world, when we let the land rest, and we cease our tilling and turning of the soil, might it renew itself and yield even more in the coming years?

There was a time when we Jews were deeply connected to the land. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav taught: “Know that when a person prays in the field, then all of the grasses/plants together come into the prayer, and they help them, and give them strength within their prayer.” LM 2:11

And not only do the plants of the earth help us, we also help them! Our relationship is mutual and inter-dependent relationship. Rebbe Nachman wrote:

Know that every shepherd has a unique melody/nigun according to the grasses and the place where he herds, for every animal has a grass unique to her that she needs to eat. For every grass there is a song (a shirah) which it speaks, … and from the song of the grasses is made the nigun of the shepherd. …. And since the shepherd knows the nigun, by means of this, he gives strength to the grasses, and so there is something for the animals to eat…. LM 2:63

Every one of us has our own sacred song. Together, we are a symphony. In this holy season, I invite you to look within, to hear the melody of your own soul. And to look around you, in this room or in the zoom boxes, and open your ears to the melodies of the souls around you. That we may sing together, uplift ourselves and one another. I am glad to be traveling through this Awesome Time with you.

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