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Renewed themes in the commandment of the shmita, in light of the climate crisis

This year 5782 is a shmita year – a special period in the Hebrew calendar that recurs once every seven years. This year we face a harsh reality – the IPPC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report published in early August claims that the climate crisis is already here and directly linked to humanity’s treatment of our natural resources. In recent months, multiple natural disasters occurred around the world, further stressing the urgency of the matter. Add to that the Covid-19 pandemic that has been raging for over a year and a half and a host of socio-political challenges. Indeed, it seems we’re starting off this year feeling powerless to make any new decisions in general about the course of our lives as individuals and as a society, and in particular with respect to this special year. If we take the shmita year as an opportunity for fresh thinking on our cultural heritage, we can extract from it ideas and practices alike, and learn how to lead a life that benefits both nature and human well-being.

The land is (much) more than a resource for exploitation

The first idea to consider when examining the commandment of the shmita is the special attitude expressed in scripture toward the land: “The land itself must observe a sabbath” (Leviticus 2:25). These verses refer to the land as a subject that is beholden to the Creator and commanded, just like us, to function in cycles of action and creation – six years of activity followed by a sabbatical year. Contrary to the conventional view of the land as an object, a resource to be exploited for more and more food and real estate; and unlike its image as the warm and embracing ‘mother earth’ (which in my view, can equally invoke an exploitive attitude towards the natural world when seen as the “great mother” who gives without asking for anything in return) – the scripture regards the land as ‘our sister in creation’, who stands independently before the Creator. When the land seeks to rest, we have no choice but to limit ourselves and give it a chance to breathe and recover. The notion that the land wants to observe the shmita year is prescribed in the punishment presented in scripture for not allowing it to rest. Indeed, if the people of Israel fail to limit their use of the land once every seven years, they will lose control of it and go into exile. As the verse goes: “Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths… As long as it lieth desolate it shall have rest; even the rest which it had not in your sabbaths, when ye dwelt upon it.” (Leviticus 26:34).

If we view the “land” as an allegory for the whole planet earth, the shmita year suggests that the world has its own value, its own rhythm and needs regardless of human beings. The way to meet these needs is to limit our domination over the world and “make room” for creation itself.

Environmental equality at the deepest level

The image of the land “observing the Sabbath” invites us to read the verses describing those whom the land invites to dine and enjoy its abundance: “And the sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you: for thee, and for thy servant and for thy maid, and for thy hired servant and for the settler by thy side that sojourn with thee; and for thy cattle, and for the beasts that are in thy land, shall all the increase thereof be for food.” (Leviticus 25: 6-7). According to the verses, when the earth sets its “Shabbat table”, it invites everyone who dwells on the same piece of land and under the same skies: the landowners sit at the table with the laborers; people rooted in the area alongside transient residents; and everyone with animals – the beasts of burden who serve us and the wild animals, who we normally try to keep away from us. This is about equality at the deepest level, as articulated in the words of the Rav Shagar:

The shmita establishes an even more comprehensive equality than social equality. Perhaps one that reaches an ecological level… Imagine a partnership between the farmer and his cattle, both equally enjoying the fruits of the land. The radicalism of the shmita commandment is almost beyond comprehension. In other words, the sanctity of the land means justice and equality in its ownership and use[1].

Coupling a proper attitude towards the land with equality in access to resources is pertinent to our generation more than ever. We live in a time of deep gaps between the poor and the rich (and between developed and underdeveloped nations), both in terms of access to resources and the toll incurred by environmental damages. The idea that the land is meant to sustain all life that inhabits it, no matter when and where, can be translated into bold political-economic decisions in pursuit of environmental justice.

Common social commitment as the basis for dealing with a crisis

These days, as we face a global crisis amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, we are compelled to further reflect on the shmita year, this time not as a “lofty vision” of a repaired relationship between the land and its inhabitants, but rather in the context of crisis management. Despite the beautiful concepts it fosters, one must admit that the shmita year was first and foremost a year of crisis – there was less abundance (since seeds weren’t sown, etc.) to be shared among more people. Indeed, there is historical evidence that shows how difficult it was to observe the commandment of the shmita, and the solid food security that was required to withstand it.

By viewing the shmita as a premeditated crisis that recurs every seven years, we can discern the tools needed to specialize in economic/environmental crises. For instance, in order to observe the commandment of the shmita (which, as stated, was considered a prerequisite for sustaining life on earth), it was necessary to form a society with a high level of trust among its people and extensive social safety nets, rooted in a shared commitment to observe the commandment. The lifestyle that allowed for storing grain from the sixth to the eighth year, as required, was productive and modest, and prevalent among broad swaths of society. At the end of the year, a massive “Hakhel” ceremony was held, in which the people gathered to renew the covenant with God and with each other. This gave meaning and purpose to the unique public effort required to endure this sabbatical year. These concepts and more, can guide us too as we deal with the current crisis and others to come.

In the run up to the current shmita year, a host of social and environmental initiatives have emerged, capturing the spirit of the ideas I presented above. These endeavors seek to realize the shmita’s potential to inspire change at the personal and community level. Grouped under the banner of “Israeli Shmita” –https://shmita-il.co.il/ they strive to infuse the concepts of the shmita into our present-day reality and the challenges of our time.

Wishing everyone a sweet and happy shmita!


[1] Holiness and Morality, Rav Shagar, 5766 – from the website of the Siach Yitzchok yeshiva

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