“And there was evening, and there was morning” (Gen. 1). Nature has rhythms. “Seedtime and harvest, Cold and heat, Summer and winter, Day and night… ” (Gen. 8).
Human society too has rhythms. Or at least it did, once. Traditional societies, whether nomadic or agrarian, had their rhythms, tied to the natural ones. They depended on them, were sustained by them.
Genesis 1 tells of another rhythm: the 7-day ‘beat;’ what we call a week. In Hebrew, shavu’a, related to sheva’ – “seven.”
Or better: 6+1. Six units of work, one of rest. It must be a pretty good ratio, since it has lasted for thousands of years.
That, however, makes the “1” seem like an afterthought, a utilitarian pause to catch our breath before plunging back into the main attraction, work.
But that “1” is anything but an afterthought. It is Shabbat, the pinnacle of the week in Genesis 1. It is the cessation of creative intervention in the world in order to celebrate creation’s abundance, revel in it, share it, build our families and communities around it. We don’t rest in order to work; we work in order to be able to be worthy of Shabbat. In order to build a world that is worthy of it: social solidarity and spiritual joy.
Later, this rhythm of 6+1 will be projected onto a larger stage. Six years of work, of planting and harvesting, of lending and borrowing. And then an entire year of release, of letting go. Of letting go of our rights to our property and its produce. Allowing the land a rest, from us. Of letting go of our rights to money we have lent. Forgiving debts, allowing others to start over. It is shmitah, release, the opposite of shlitah, control. It is also called shnat ha-sheva: “the year of seven.” Also: a shabbat shabbaton, a (year-long) “sabbatical Shabbat” (Lev. 25).
And just like the weekly Shabbat, this year-long sabbatical is not recuperation in order to return to the grind. It is – it can be – a time to fully express both our creatureliness as part of Creation, and the full extent of our humanity, as social-spiritual animals.
The next shmitah year begins next Rosh Hashanah 2021, almost a year from now. We have time to prepare. As we move through 5781 we invite you to join us in preparation for the upcoming Shmita year – a sabbatical year for the Earth but also for ourselves, our communities, and our world. Each week we will share thoughts on how the weekly parsha can help guide our thinking around Shmita themes of work and rest, wealth and debt, responsible land use, fair labor practices, private and public property ownership, and physical and spiritual revitalization.
Join us for the journey.
Dr. Jeremy Benstein is an author, environmental activist and educator, and Hebrew lover. He has lived in Israel for the past 37 years, and is a co-founder and senior staffer of the Heschel Center for Sustainability in Tel Aviv. He is the author of The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (Jewish Lights), and more recently, Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World (Behrman).
Shmita Friday is just one piece of a large conversation that has been ongoing for a long time! We’d love to hear what you think – post a comment below, join our facebook group, and start talking about shmita with your friends and family.