The Old Made New and the New Made Holy

The digital countdown clock at Isabella Freedman now reads that we’re under 35 days until Shmita. It’s hard to imagine how quickly time has raced since the clock read nearly 400 days at the time we installed it. And yet it’s hard to be anxious when what we’re racing towards is a year of release and renewal.

Over those days between 400 and 35, we’ve been spending time planning and preparing for the Shmita year, including a very special book project.

We are proud to announce our newest publication, Rav Kook’s Introduction to Shabbat Ha’Aretz, the first-ever English translation of the introduction to a book on Shmita by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel in the 20th century. His essay, written in 1909, is lyrical and mystical, a meditation on the big themes that underlie religious environmentalism. It has been beautifully translated by Rabbi Julian Sinclair, scholar and Vice President of Energiya Global, a leading Israeli solar energy company that has just developed the first-ever large-scale solar project in Sub-Saharan East Africa. As part of the book, Rabbi Sinclair has also written a terrific background essay about the traditional conception of Shmita, Rav Kook and the modern return to Jewish agriculture, and the way Jewish tradition can speak to issues of land use, social justice, and climate-change activism.

Rav Kook wrote a century ago that “the old will be made new, and the new made holy.” Rav Kook’s Introduction to Shabbat Ha’Aretz offers a Jewish spiritual approach to caring for the planet. Order your copy today!

As we count down to the start of the Shmita year, we hope that you’ll join us in considering how the values associated with the sabbatical year might be incorporated into your own life – what you might release, how you might slow down, what you might share, how you might be renewed. Perhaps you’ll find inspiration in Rav Kook’s or Rabbi Sinclair’s words, or in Hazon’s Shmita Sourcebook, or at a high holiday retreat at Isabella Freedman.

We’ll look forward to hearing your Shmita stories and experiences, as we join together in making the old new…and the new holy.

Hazon spoke with Rabbi Sinclair about Shmita, Rav Kook, and other themes of Shabbat Ha’Aretz. Enjoy the interview.

How do you see the Israeli discussion and discourse around Shmita this time around differ from 7 years ago?

JS: It is massively different. Last time, in 2007 – 2008, Shmita in Israel was pretty sad. It was marked by conflicts between different groups of rabbis about who would or wouldn’t eat vegetables grown and certified in which ways. The heter mechira leniency of selling the land to non-Jews during the Shmita year, which Rav Kook propounded a century ago, became a lightening rod of controversy between those who thought it was a legitimate way of keeping Shmita in the breach, rather than the observance, so to speak, and those who felt that it was an unjustified legal fiction.

This time is shaping up to be remarkably better. It seems that after last Shmita, many people silently vowed that never again will we have a sabbatical year so marred by petty politics and so distant from the real values of Shmita. And so a plethora of remarkable initiatives have sprung up aiming to actualize the Shmita values of equality, sustainability and societal renewal, across education, farming, social policy, environmental activism, and even hi-tech.

I think this has been driven both by disgust at the religious politics that consumed Shmita last year, by some of the energy awakened in the 2011 social protests, and by the creative spiritual ferment spanning secular and Religious Zionist Jews that has quietly bubbled up over the past decade. Many of these Shmita initiatives have gone mainstream and are being taken up Knesset Members and government ministers. For example, the Welfare Ministry is sponsoring an initiative to lift 10,000 Israeli families out of the curse of crippling long-term debt in the Shmita year. The Environment Ministry is proposing a Shmita year-long moratorium on fishing in the Sea of Galilee to replenish the nearly-exhausted fish stocks. In short, creative discussion and application of Shmita is everywhere in Israel right now. It feels like an idea whose time has come.

Hazon: How do you see the relationship between the universal and the particular, a big theme in Rav Kook’s writings as well as a guiding principle in much of Hazon’s thought, playing out in this book?

JS: Yes, one of the fascinating things about Rav Kook is how intensely particularistic and intensely universalist he was. He was both passionate about the uniqueness of the Jewish People and Land of Israel while also effusively expressing love for all peoples, nations, and cultures. And he saw the particular return of the Jewish People to Israel as ultimately bearing immense universal significance for the wider world. He challenges both universalist Jews for whom Judaism is mainly about being a good, global citizen, and particularist Jews who find it hard to see beyond the needs of the Jewish People.

In this book, Rav Kook depicts the innate rhythms of our lives and the Land’s as being deeply in sync. Both land and people yearn for a year of rest and release every seven years. In this evocation of our connection to a particular piece of land, he sounds to me a lot like the agrarian writer Wendell Berr. Both call on us to recognize our symbiotic connections to the earth and to realize how much of our identity, consciousness, and culture is formed the by particular places that have made us who we are. At the same time, Rav Kook writes in this book of the universal relevance of the Jubilee idea, the once-in-fifty-years super-Shmita year. It’s interesting to note the universal resonance that the biblical Jubilee concept has periodically enjoyed amongst progressive economic thinkers; it was the foundation of the thinking of the nineteenth century radical economist Henry George and of course inspired the Jubilee 2000 3rd World debt relief initiative.

Hazon: In Shabbat Ha’Aretz, what is the relationship between the social justice meaning of Shmita and the spiritual/mystical meaning of Shmita?

JS: They are very much connected. Take for example a passage such as the following from the Introduction to Rav Kook’s Shabbat Ha’aretz. “Our mundane social lives, with their toil, anxiety, anger, and competition do not entirely suffocate this creative force. On the Shmita, our pure, inner spirit may be revealed as it truly is. The forcefulness that is inevitably a part of our regular, public lives lessens our moral refinement. There is always a tension between the ideal of listening to the voice inside us that calls us to be kind, truthful, and merciful, and the conflict, compulsion, and pressure to be unyielding that surround buying, selling, and acquiring things.” Rav Kook is describing the clash that anyone in business recognizes between the demands of success in the market place and the more generous angels of our nature. He is saying that the spiritual renewal that Shmita can engender should soften the harshness and injustices of day-today economic life.

Hazon: You’re a scholar of Rav Kook and a corporate environmental pioneer – how did these two career paths come together for you and interact in your life? What does this book mean to you?

JS: They do indeed seem very different, but for me they are intimately related. I am fortunate to work in the extraordinary Israeli clean-tech industry. From solar to agri-tech, water purification to energy efficiency, Israeli technologies and entrepreneurs are solving environmental problems that are benefiting tens of millions of people world wide, particularly in the poorest countries. Netafim, the pioneering drip irrigation company now active in over 100 countries, or Luz, which built the first-ever commercial-scale solar plants (in California) are but the best-known of countless examples. Many people talk about Tikkun Olam, acting to repair the world. When I look at who’s actually doing it, I don’t see any Jewish efforts that remotely compare in scope or impact to what’s coming out of the Israel clean-tech sector.

These technologies have emerged from our unique experience as a developing nation grappling with the particular ecological challenges of Israel. As it turns out, that experience coupled with a drive to help other developing countries has global benefits in addressing hunger, thirst, pollution, and disease in the world’s poorest places. I think this was a part of what Rav Kook dreamed of when he imagined the return to Israel as a potential source of universal blessings.

The Jerusalem-based company where I work, Energiya Global, develops large-scale solar energy plants in African countries where chronic energy shortages hobble their whole economic development. As it happens, while I am here in the US, Energiya is inaugurating its first successfully completed solar project, at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village for orphans of the genocide in Rwanda. ASYV was created by the late Anne Heyman, Zichronah l’vbrachah, an American Jewish philanthropist. If I wasn’t here on this book tour, I’d be there with my colleagues for the opening of the field. The field will generate clean energy for more than 8% of Rwanda’s electricity. The revenues should provide for the health care of the orphans for 25 years. If Rav Kook were Chief Rabbi of Israel today I daresay he would have been at the opening too, celebrating this partnership between Israeli ingenuity and idealism to bring hope to another people rising from the ashes of genocide.


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