Filed under: religion, science/nature | Tags: environment, green energy, Israel, trees
If you made a donation to the Jewish National Fund in the past year, you may have received a notice thanking you for your donation, but explaining that no trees would be planted in Israel or abroad for the year; 5768 was a shmita year. In different aspects of our Jewish lives, many of us have come across the concept of shmita, or the Sabbatical Year for the land. In the context in which I learned it, I thought it had marginal relevance to my life. I studied it biblically; I learned that in the Torah, God commands us: “For six years you shall sow your fields and for six years you shall prune your vines and you shall gather in their produce. And in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Lord” (Leviticus 25). I remember thinking: I have no fields to sow, no vines to prune, no produce to gather, so why should I care? And, more importantly, why is the practice still alive today? Isn’t it impractical, counter-productive and tremendously risky for Jewish and Israeli farmers to take a break from production for a year? I could not understand.
Recently, though, as ecological awareness and issues of social justice repeatedly pop up on our personal radar screens, the concept of modern shmita is piecing together. We are becoming more alert citizens, claiming responsibility of the waste we produce and taking action to fix our world. Shmita represents the foundational values upon which the internationally conscious community is based. Giving the land a rest for the year forces us to consider how we treat it, reassessing the number of resources we take from it and how much more we can value it. We can view shmita as the rent we pay for using the good Earth’s soil. We learn that shmita, like Shabbat, is vital because rest is essential to progress. It is important to acknowledge that the land does not belong to us, for we have inherited it, and we will pass it down. In essence, shmita healthily affirms the fact that we belong to the land. This Jewish practice parallels “sustainable living,” the appealing campaign in today’s culture that promotes considering the source of things in our everyday lives. Sustainability, like shmita, encourages us to minimize those futile uses of natural resources, and lead lives that are more balanced, in harmony with nature and respectful to our Earth. The shmita year also represents issues of social justice and human equality. Centuries ago, those who owned vast amounts of land were deemed richer; but during the shmita year, they gave up farming their land and experienced life as the poor. As a result of putting themselves in the place of the less fortunate, those who were well off developed a greater appreciation for achieving social justice in their communities. In Devarim, God commands during the shmita year to: “surely open your hands to [a needy man] sufficient for his need in that which he lacks.” The activism and advocacy suggested in the shmita practice embodies an extraordinarily high form of tzedakah. Throughout the world and at this time of year especially, Jews give back in ways that shmita laws suggest, donating both time and money to important causes.
At the beginning, I questioned any application of shmita to my modern existence; I have since found that it does, in fact, have a crucial impact on my day to day life. Shmita represents re-nourishing the land and revitalizing the community. Due to carelessness and chaos in our world, a new generation of social revolutionists and passionate activists is being bred. We are taking these matters into our own hands; we are acknowledging our past and acting now to change our future. This, as I see it, is shmita coming to life.
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