Monday, October 6, 2014

The Shmita Year: Why Care About Giving The Land a Rest in the 21st Century?

For the first time in my life, I am religious enough to be interested in and care about what שמטה (shemita; sabbatical year, literally meaning "release") is. In the Torah, an agricultural cycle lasts for seven years. On the seventh year, we are meant to let the land [of Israel] lie fallow (Exodus 23:10-11, Leviticus 25:1-7), which means no plowing, pruning, harvesting, or planting agricultural goods in the land of Israel. The only form of agricultural work that one can do during שמטה is preventative in nature, e.g., watering, weeding, trimming. There are many halachot (laws) surrounding this practice (see here), but what I want to get into is why we should care and if there is anything we can apply to our own time. Back in ancient times, Israel was a predominantly agrarian society, which meant that agricultural production was very much the lifeline of our ancestors. Not tilling the land for a year was even a bigger leap of faith than taking off one day of the week. Since the time of the Bar Kochba revolt in 136 C.E., the practice of שמיטה was more legal theory than anything else. It was only when Jewish farmers were returning to the land in the late 19th century did שמטה start to have practical applications once more. As a side note, since I don't want to get into the halachic argument right now (also see here), because the land was not fully developed and Jews did not have enough food during the שמטה year, the rabbis invented a legal fiction called the heter mechira, which stated that a Jew could sell his land to a non-Jew during שמטה. Although I think it defeats the purpose of שמטה, the Chief Rabbinate permits this leniency.

None of this is to say that שמטה does not have any practical applications in our time because Israel still has an agricultural sector. It's simply that agriculture represents only 2.5 percent of Israel's GDP, which means that Israel's economy would hardly take a substantial hit, and certainly not in the way it would have for ancient Israelites. Even though Jews are used to living in economies that are predominantly non-agrarian in nature, is there something that we can still take away from this age-old practice?

Overworking the Farmland, Environmental Sustainability, and Consumption Patterns
One of the more obvious reasons for having שמטה is that we give the land a rest because it can use a break (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:27; Sefer HaChiniuch, mitzvah 84). Resources can be over-utilized, and if we run what we have into the ground (pun intended), then it cannot be sustainable in the future. The fact that the Torah had a message of environmental conscientiousness and resource sustainability centuries ago is simply amazing. I don't need to be Left-leaning individual to realize or care about the ramifications that our actions have on the environment. Not only can I be an observant Jew and care, but I believe that we have an obligation under Jewish law to care. שמטה is an indictment on our consumption patterns (more on that below). We cannot simply consume whatever we want; Judaism puts limits on what and how much we can consume. In an environmental context, we only have so many resources. How we best allocate scarce resources is at the very heart of economics. Whether we talk about consumption in meat, plastic bags, light bulbs, or whatever other goods we consume, we should take שמטה as a time to look at our consumption patterns and see how they affect the planet. For more on environmental impact and שמטה, read this article from Canfei Nesharim, an Orthodox, environmentalist organization.      

Food Security, Providing for the Poor, and Communal Responsibility
Judaism highly values making sure that those in the community at large are able to have basic amenities. Even with a respect for economic progress (see below), we are still obligated to help those who need it, which is emphasized once more during שמטה. During שמטה, we are to let our land go and allow for the produce to be open to the community so that the poor may eat (Exodus 23:10-11). Right before this verse are reminded that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9), which is to say that we take some economic risk because we are to help those who are downtrodden. Looking at the verses in Exodus 23 leading up to the verse about שמטה, we see an undeniable motif of what justice is and how to pursue it. No man is an island, and Judaism teaches that we are our brother's keeper. שמטה provides us with another opportunity to live up to the ideals of justice and communal responsibility.

Overworking Ourselves
We live in a rat-racer society, no questions about that. If it weren't for Shabbat, we would constantly be connected to Facebook, Twitter, or our email accounts. We constantly push ourselves to unbearable limitations that run us ragged, and there are times when having Shabbat simply isn't enough to avoid this state of affairs. If I were to apply שמטה fully to a 21st-century, service-based economy, I would say "Take off work for a year." For the vast majority of us, that sort of applied extrapolation would not work in the real world, which is why I would suggest taking שמטה as an opportunity to turn it down a notch and give ourselves a bit of a rest. This can be a time to exert some digital discipline (see here) and have a healthier relationship with digital media.

Material Wealth Isn't the Be-All and End-All
Yes, Judaism has a special place for protecting and respecting property rights. Why have a commandment against stealing if it weren't there? Conversely, what שמטה helps us realize is that material gains aren't everything. This is not only true in regards of שמטה being a time of letting the land rest, but also because שמטה is a time in which one is to forgive loans (Deuteronomy 15:1-11). After acquiring a certain amount of material wealth (estimated at around $75,000 USD in 2014 real dollars), money doesn't really provide additional happiness. שמטה acts as a cap on pursuing material wealth. It is meant to be a wake-up call to what is important, which is all the more relevant in a consumerist, materialistic society that emphasizes self-indulgence and hyper-individualism. We cannot remove all material consumption from our lives, but we can at least put it into perspective. What שמטה does is challenges our sense of self-entitlement in the material world. Our material goods are not extensions of ourselves. They are separate entities, and we should keep that in mind.

Gratitude and Faith: Spirituality and What Is Truly Important
Faith in G-d is one of those tricky topics for me to discuss, even Jewishly, simply because I do not believe that G-d is personal. It is tricky because the idea of faith is one that is explicitly addressed in the Torah when discussing שמטה (Leviticus 25:18-22). When the Jewish people wonder how they are going to survive the שמטה year, as well as the following year (since it takes a year for produce to fully grow), G-d says that there will be enough food to last for three years (ibid., 25:21). I don't think of this passage literally as "I will make everything hunky-dory." It's not that simple. If that were the case, there wouldn't be poor people, and we wouldn't have to worry about the suffering that goes on in the world. Faith is not about passivity. It is about pursuing justice (see above) and knowing that even if life doesn't go the way we want it, G-d has given us the faculties to improve upon our situation. Just coming out of Yom Kippur, our ability to change, adapt, and find ways to improve are within our grasp. I find that another release that we are supposed to experience during שמטה is that of our anxieties tied to the material world. Rather than feel angst about paying bills, we should be satisfied with what we do have. What is implicit in the message of שמטה is that through a time of depriving oneself of economic production, we should be thankful for all of the material wealth we have amassed. There is so much more to life than material wealth, which is why שמטה is a time to focus less on the material and focus more on spiritual pursuits.

Postscript: There is a lot going on here. A lot of themes, a lot of spiritual facets to consider. I understand that these ideas come from Torah, and while I find them to be noble and enlightening concepts, I still have to ask myself how realistic it can be to implement. The idea behind שמטה comes off as very Messianic. Most people cannot take off a full year of work for spiritual pursuits. Not only did modern rabbis come up with the heter mechira to get around letting the land lie fallow, but R. Hillel created the prozbul (פרוזבול), which is a legal fiction to bypass the annulment of loans on שמטה. If G-d were so gung-ho on us observing שמטה, why would He make the gap between the ideals embodied within שמטה and reality so vast? This comes back to the paradox of striving towards ideals and contending with reality. It would be fantastic if the Jewish people, or even the entire world, could make the sudden shift to these ideals. There would be a lot more tranquility and a lot less strife. However, it's too much to ask at this time. Much like with Yom Kippur, we are asked to do the best with what we have. We keep to as many of the legal aspects regarding שמטה as possible. We try our best to annul debts. As much as we want to follow G-d's law to the letter, there are just times where reality gets in the way here, which would help to explain the legal fictions created by the rabbis to ensure that the economy can continue. This is not to say that we should continue to work towards the ideals of שמטה. Quite the opposite! You don't necessarily have to stop working, but you can work less (if possible), worry less about your finances and material wealth, and/or make a deeper commitment to Torah and spiritual pursuits. There are many ways we can bring שמטה into our lives, and the Jewish organization Hazon has a really great sourcebook with ways of going about that, as well as insights about שמטה. Whether you go to Israel to enjoy שמטה produce, gain a sense of work-life balance, donate your money to feed the poor, or whatever shmita-related activities you decide to pursue, I hope that you have a meaningful שמטה year that brings you closer to G-d.

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