“In releasing the land, our finances, and our fellows to freedom, we free ourselves as well, and this freedom ripples out in expansiveness and life.”
The new month of Elul famously opens us to a time of renewed intimacy. As we gear up for the Yamim Noraim, the holiest days of the year, we enter into the holy of holies of the Jewish heart.
The weekly Torah reading, Re’eh, follows a similar trajectory, detailing all the ways we can affirm our intimacy with holiness. We are offered a choice, between blessing and curse. This choice ripples through descriptions of the sanctuary and its service, ways to choose what is right and good in our eating, our serving true prophets, and prioritizing God in our tithing, our calendar, and our labor relations.
Of course, this series of blogs deals with Shmita, the recurrent cycle of seven years during which we allow the land to rest. Just as the Jewish people rest on the seventh day, so too the land of Israel is offered a chance to rest, recalibrate, and recenter. The expansion of the Shmita concept in Deuteronomy is one of taking a brilliant environmental piece of legislation, affirming that relational dance between the Land and the people, and then overlapping a layer of social justice as an integral part of that concern.
Even the way the topic is launched reveals that shift of focus: “Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts.” Its first expression is not with the soil and our relationship to the earth, but rather the unequal distribution of wealth, and rebalancing the bonds that connect the lender and the debtor, the rich and the poor. The Torah moves to assert that social equity is no less a Shmita concern than its ecological priorities.
After articulating the lofty vision of an end to poverty, the Torah concedes that that dream, however worthy to keep our focus, is unlikely. In the meantime, we must keep our hearts open to the poor, and not pervert the arrival of Shmita into an excuse to close our hearts and our wallets toward their sustenance. “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kin in your land (Deut. 15:11).”
Finally, that connection of Shmita to the welfare of the poor is extended to the wellbeing of Hebrew slaves. The Shmita year is to mark their return to freedom and their release from indentured servitude. Just as the land is meant to rest, so too are our fellow citizens. Slavery is not the normal condition; freedom is. Remarkably, the Torah makes explicit that this right to liberty extends to male and to female slaves. It is the essence of the human condition.
We are cautioned not to be resentful that we might have squeezed more money out of our fields, or from our loans, or from our slaves. Instead, the impulse to liberation embodied in Shmita bids us to also free our hearts from the stultifying anesthetic of greed and possession. In releasing the land, our finances, and our fellows to freedom, we free ourselves as well. Says the Torah, this freedom ripples out in expansiveness and life: “Moreover, the Lord your God will bless you in all you do (Deuteronomy 15:18).”
Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Rabbi Artson has long been a passionate advocate for social justice, human dignity, diversity and inclusion. He wrote a book on Jewish teachings on war, peace and nuclear annihilation in the late 80s, became a leading voice advocating for GLBT marriage and ordination in the 90s, and has published and spoken widely on environmental ethics, special needs inclusion, racial and economic justice, cultural and religious dialogue and cooperation, and working for a just and secure peace for Israel and the Middle East. A member of the Philosophy Department, he is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He mentors Camp Ramah in California in Ojai and Ramah of Northern California in the Bay Area. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining Conservative rabbis for Europe. A frequent contributor for the Times of Israel, and a Contributing Writer for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, he has a public figure Facebook page with over 75,000 likes. Rabbi Artson is the author of 12 books and over 250 articles, most recently Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit. Married to Elana Artson, they are the proud parents of twins, Jacob and Shira.