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Shmita Today: From Farm to Hypertech

Our society is more and more deeply concerned that intrusive human action toward the Earth is turning into a weapon endangering Humanity itself as well as the earthy web of life. Is this danger new, or is it an extension of a long-felt weakness arising from a strength too far?

Torah warns against overworking the earth, as well as overworking ourselves and each other. It provides that not only every seventh day but every seventh year is to be a time to pause from working. The seventh year is to be Shabbat Shabbaton, Restfulness to the exponential power of Restfulness. (Lev. 25).

The passage calls special attention to its teaching by beginning “B’Har, On the Mountain” — uniquely going out of its way to say this is revelation from Sinai.

In that seventh year, all regular agricultural work would pause; the community would eat from stores of food that had been previously laid aside, and from the freely given fruitfulness of the land, not shaped by organized sowing, harvesting, and pruning.

And the Torah goes on to say that if human society does not allow the land to rest each seventh year, it will rest anyway – through drought, famine, exile. (Lev. 26.) Indeed, the land — for each year its Restfulness was robbed — will be repaid by a year in which it gets to Rest because the community that made it work suffers a year of Exile. (See also II Chron 36: 20-21, at the very end of the Hebrew Scriptures.)

The Restful Year is not merely a nicety: It is like the Law of Gravity.

This practice, says the Torah, is to renew the understanding that no human beings “owns” the land; only YHWH, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh the Interbreath of all life, can be said to own the land, the Earth.

In Deuteronomy, the Torah adds that in this seventh year, all debts are to be annulled. This is to be a year of Shmitah — Release, Non-attachment — in which no human boss or banker can subjugate another human being, just as the human community as a whole cannot oppress the Earth. Sh’ma: Listen, you Godwrestlers: We all breathe together, and our breath – YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh – is One. That’s God.

Today our scientists have learned that the sense of Interbreathing as the root of all life is not only rich metaphor but factual truth: We breathe in what the trees breathe out, and the trees breathe in what we breathe out. The resulting balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in our atmosphere keeps all life in balance – and it is the disturbance of this balance by human action, the overburning of fossil fuels, that we call the “climate crisis.”

For the shepherds and farmers of the indigenous land-rooted community in which the Torah emerged, it was obvious that this Restful teaching applied to their own land, and to agriculture.

But does this mean there is wisdom in the Teaching only for the tiny sliver of land on the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean, not for the great round Earth at large? And even if it does apply throughout the world, does it bear wisdom only in the sphere of agriculture, or can it also teach us how to behave in an industrial/ information economy — lest we also find our earth ruined by drought and flood, famine and the Death Marches of millions of exiled refugees from every land and culture?

I believe the “climate crisis” and other aspects of human over-reach to over-control the Earth teach us that the ancient Torah teaching does apply world-wide: indeed, it is exactly what ecologists are saying in our own generation. And I believe it applies not only to farm, food, and forest, but – all the more! — to all the much more intrusive technologies we use today.

Then what might it mean to apply the Year of Restfulness to our own society?

Could we shut down almost our whole economy (preserving only life-protective medicine — since pikuach nefesh, saving life, trumps Shabbat)?

Hard to imagine?

OK. We might explore something one step less all-embracing: What it would mean to give all our engineers and techies, and all scientists not working directly on life-threatening diseases, a year off from their regular work, every seventh year? A year for them to spend the year reflecting on and reevaluating their own work and the whole direction of modern technology..

Their regular work is what not just carries out but speeds up our present race to go over the precipice into planetary disaster. Not because technology is inherently destructive, but because technology created with no Shabbat, no Shmita, IS inherently destructive. (See Leviticus 26.)

Suppose they all had a paid year off from even being allowed to create new technology, and during that year were paid instead to rethink and reshare the values technology should be enabling, and to work out how to make sure technology does in fact support humane and life-affirming sacred values?

A year of “Don’t just do something, sit there!

That might be one example of an industrial Shmita.

Or imagine requiring an environmental-impact assessment before the introduction of any new product — mechanical, electrical, biological, digital, or chemical: a new automobile model, a new vacuum cleaner, a new soap, a new computer program. That would not fit the “seven-year” pattern of Shmita, but it would address some of the same concerns the Torah expresses.

An even broader application of Shmita to our society – and this could draw on the seven-year cycle – would be to enact something like the proposal from Rabbi Michael Lerner/ Tikkun/ Network of Spiritual Progressives for an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the US Constitution. Their proposal calls for a review every five years – I would make it seven – of the operational license of every corporation over a certain size, to see whether it is operating with care toward not only its stockholders and executives but to its customers, its geographic neighbors (human and ecological), its workers, and the Earth.

This whole approach sees the Torah provisions for Shmitah /Shabbat Shabbaton, as a seed of wisdom that in our own society can sprout into new creativity. Who among us will gently tend these seeds into their growing?


Member since 2010
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph. D., founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center https://theshalomcenter.org In 2014 he was honored by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights with their first Lifetime Achievement Award as a “Human Rights Hero.” In 2015 he was named by The Forward one of the “most inspiring” American rabbis. Beginning in 1969 with writing the original Freedom Seder and continuing with his seminal work as editor of New Menorah magazine and author of Godwrestling (1978) and Seasons of Our Joy (1982), he has been a leader of the movement for Jewish political and spiritual renewal. Waskow pioneered in the development of Eco-Judaism in theology, liturgy, daily practice, and activism -- • through his books Seasons of Our Joy; Godwrestling – Round 2; Down-to-Earth Judaism; Trees, Earth, & Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology; and Torah of the Earth: 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought; • as author of a pioneering essay on “Jewish Environmental Ethics: Adam and Adamah,” in Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality (Elliot N. Dorff and Jonathan K. Crane, eds.; Oxford University Press, 2013); • through the Green Menorah organizing project of The Shalom Center; • through the Interfaith Freedom Seder for the Earth and a number of climate-focused public actions drawing on and transforming traditional liturgies for Tu B’Shvat, Passover/ Palm Sunday, Tisha B’Av, Sukkot, and Hanukkah; • as a candidate for the World Zionist Congress on the Green Zionist Alliance slate; • as a participant and speaker in the World Interfaith Summit on the Climate Crisis called by the Archbishop of Sweden in Uppsala in 2008; • as a founding member (2010-2013) of the stewardship committee of the Green Hevra (a network of Jewish environmental organizations); • as a member of the coordinating committee of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate; • and as a practitioner of nonviolent civil disobedience who has been arrested in climate protests in the US Capitol, at the White House, and has undertaken civil disobedience at Philadelphia conclaves of fracking corporate leaders.
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