Experimenting Toward an American Sabbatical/Shmitah Year

Reference: The Shalom Center

May 8, 2014

Can we turn our Eco-Wisdom
Away  from Climate Doom,
Into a Joyful Future?

Often the climate crisis is described ONLY as approaching doom. As the official U.S. report on the impact of global scorching (just released this week) makes clear, that is one possible result. Yet the Torah portion we read this week (Leviticus 25, called B’Har) makes clear that we could learn to live more joyfully with the rhythms of the Earth.

Our growing ecological science could enrich the Torah’s teachings and help us on the journey toward a more joyful relationship between adam (humanity) and adamah (the Earth).  Could help us turn what the Hebrew words say — that human earthlings and the Earth are intertwined — into a joyful era, rather than disaster.

Indeed, it is our new scientific awareness of how fully all life on Planet Earth is interwoven that warns us of disaster. That same knowledge could make it possible to turn human and planetary history in a more fruitful direction.

The Sabbatical/ Shmita Year – a year in which the Earth and the human community get to rest —  is proclaimed in this week’s Torah portion. That vision is a teaching about how to affirm the economics of making the Earth do our will in order for human life to thrive, with a time of pausing for the earth and human society to catch our breath — and thrive.

If Shmitah is a worthy vision, how do we begin to make it real? Let us start with an “impractical” vision: creating nine-day Shmitah/ Sabbatical Festivals in all our neighborhoods.

All too few are now “neighborly” as the assumptions of compassion have broken down in the face of both the content and the form of the mass media, the defunding of face-to-face education, despair over permanent impoverishment juxtaposed to quick riches from illegal drugs. How do we transform them?

Imagine this “impractical” scenario:  Our government empowers all our neighborhoods to hold a nine-day neighborly Shmitah/ Sabbatical celebration, once a year from Friday through the Sunday  a week later. We the People, acting through our shared government, give seed grants to neighborhood institutions to plan such events. We make the Shmitah Festival a decentralized but universal event, a universal national “Shabbat” on all but life-preserving emergency services.

We close down highways, trains, hotels, television stations, newspapers, along with factories and offices. We rediscover walking and talking, singing and cooking. We rediscover our nearby neighbors.

Such a festival would give our society in a regular, chosen rhythm what only a few cities now experience, and only in a random, unchosen way. For such “festivals” now occur only when a great blizzard clogs the whole town with snow. Observers report that the first reaction is panic, an hysterical attempt to get to work. When it becomes clear that no one can work, a mood of joy and festive calm spreads across the city. Everyone shares: food, stories, emergency assistance. People play in the snow.

It is a day of unemployment but in a mood of holiday, holy day. Much more a holy day, in fact, than most of the commercialized holidays that have been made occasions not of rest but of turning on the “consumption economy.”

How could we begin a “miniature” Shmitah, before the nation as a whole is ready to “waste” its time?

Suppose that in a few cities, a group of synagogues, mosques,  and churches held a Shmitah Festival for three days (Friday through Sunday), or for nine (Friday through the next week into the next Sunday).

Such a Shmitah Festival would address the economic, political, and spiritual renewal of the city and its neighborhoods ——

  • by inviting co-ops and worker managed firms, innovative small businesses, etc., to explain their work;
  • by demonstrating equipment for energy conservation and the local generation of solar and wind renewable energy;
  • by turning empty lots or part of the church, synagogue, or mosque grounds into communal vegetable gardens;
  • by holding workshops on how tenants can buy apartment houses and turn them into co ops;
  • by setting up a temporary food co op and helping people organize a more permanent one, etc.
  • by sharing home-cooked foods, songs, dances, story telling, , etc.
  • by gathering people to discuss in open town meetings some of the major issues of our society: schools, energy, jobs, climate, prices, families, etc. and how to apply the Shmitah approach to them in national and international as well as local and neighborhood ways.
  • It would encourage all the people of the neighborhood to pool and exchange their talents, skills, and memories.

Obviously this would not be a one-to-one transcription of the Biblical Shmitah, even for nine days; but it would be an experiment in translating the Shmitah into modern terms. Approaches that began or were stimulated by the Shmitah Festival would continue and grow through the year. Their work would intertwine the day-to-day problems of people in the neighborhood with study of both the Biblically rooted religious traditions and the modern analytical knowledge of social relations.

People who experienced just a glimpse of the Shmitah could use that moment to begin imagining how to translate the Shmitah into post modern practice. And they could start building the political power that could bring about the kinds of change that they imagine.

How to get the Shmitah Festival process going? In a given city, some of the rabbis, ministers, priests, imams, and also the lay members of synagogues, havurot, churches, mosques probably know who in the various religious communities share the vision.

If they created a local Shmitah Committee and got a few congregations to agree to host or to sponsor the Shmitah Festival, the project would grow through outreach to co-ops, labor unions, innovative businesses, etc., and to singers, dancers, story tellers, and cooks of the local traditions.

In all these practical proposals, there is an underlying thread of belief: that “ritual” and “politics,” should not be separated from each other, but rather intertwined. This may seem fuzzy-minded to the practical politician and irreverent to the ritually observant; but those responses are both symptoms of the modern age.

The Shmitah passages in the Bible teach that the most effective politics has a powerful ritual element in it, engaging not only material interests but deep emotional, intellectual, and spiritual energies; and that when ritual is made fully communal and focused on reality, it becomes precisely politics.

Luckily, as we tremble on the edge of the Global Scorching precipice, the year that begins this fall with Rosh Hashanah (September 24-26) will be a Shmitah/ Sabbatical Year, according to the ancient count so carefully kept for millennia. The notes below suggest how we can take the time from now till then to study the Biblical sources and modern thought on the Sabbatical/Shmitah cycle, and then to act.

For source-texts, study guides and action plans on Shmitah, go to The Shalom Center here.

For resources and program tools on Shmitah Awareness, go to Hazon.org here.