The story beats of Parshat Ki Tisa teach us two Shmita-esque concepts. The Parsha begins with the democratized call to cooperatively erect the Mishkan, where each individual was commanded to evenly contribute a half-shekel to the project. The purpose of this census, says the commentator Chizkuni, is to atone for the sin of the golden calf, found only a chapter away in this very Parsha. Examining these nation-wide aggregations of funds to build something to worship — seen in both the establishment of the Mishkan and the sin of the golden calf — will reveal their shared relationships to Shmita.
Shmita conjures up the importance of rethinking ownership. It is easy to get swept away and lose sight of our humanity when each individual places the expansion of their grasp on material culture above all else. Capitalist forces have rooted the “worship of possession” so vigorously in our collective psyche that it is almost unfathomable to institutionalize a national Tzimtzum (constriction). The lesson found in the Machazit Hashekel, the half-shekel collection, is that it undermines of the value of possession. By forbidding anyone from contributing more than anybody else, the holiness of the Mishkan gets spread evenly throughout the camp. In this way, nobody has any more ownership than anybody else over the Mishkan. This sequence concludes with the commandment to keep Shabbat. The weekly practice of returning to Gan Eden, where nature is ownerless.
Another of the main lessons of Shmita is that being passive is an active choice. It is hard to not intervene when we see weeds sprout in our idyllic gardens; to not pursue the optimized formula of maximum output that humankind continues to work tirelessly to perfect. A fear of losing all of our hard-earned progress turns us into helicopter parents over our property, and this fear can become debilitating, knowing that we have the power within us to change the outcomes. And yet, we are commanded to absolve ourselves from enacting this very power.
This lesson is found in the sin of the golden calf. The people were tired of being passive and waiting idly, which prompted the creation of an idol. But the pitfall to their yearning for activity can be found in the resolution of this story. The more power one has, the harder it is to allow the “land to remain fallow”. We see the most powerful of all beings, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, struggle with the impulse to not act — God wants to intervene and punish the people for their sins. In the end, God is passive and spares the people. God’s decision to not act marked the first Yom Kippur, and every Yom Kippur following God remains passive with us despite our iniquity.
Shmita helps us return to the Garden of Eden by allowing us to see the tenuousness in our notions of ownership, and in forcing us to take a year long pause. Although, in a bizarre year of extenuating circumstances it seems like we might get two of those this go around.
Dvir Cahana is in rabbinical school at YCT and earned his M.A. in Jewish Studies from McGill University, where he was the McGill representative of the East Coast Consortium of Graduate Students in Jewish Studies. He taught at the Satmar elementary school, Yeshivat Toras Moishe, founded the Moishe House in Montreal, and is currently a resident at the Moishe House in Harlem. Dvir partook in the Bronfman, Drisha, LABA and LTI Fellowships. His future rabbinic aspirations revolve around his fascination of combining the worlds of art expression and Torah. He has begun this exploration with his sister and father in their divrei torah/art project “Bezallel Koli”. You can follow the progress of this project at www.bezallelkoli.com.
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.