Topic: Shmita


Ha’azinu: God Calls on the Earth to Hear God’s Words, by Amalia Haas

If we have the courage to open our hearts to the Mussar of Shmita we see that all lives emanate equally from the One. They have the same claim to nurturance and protection and well-being as do we, to resources and opportunities. Shmita, if we open our hearts, broadcasts a call for redistribution of resources to humankind loudly. Parshat Ha’azinu opens with metaphors of the land of Israel, the Divine, and the people of Israel. Nature and weather describe how our hearts are to welcome the words of Torah, to be in constant relationship with them, to absorb them. God calls on the earth to hear God’s words.  Our parshah says: “May my discourse come down as the rain, My speech distill as the dew, Like showers on young growth, Like droplets on the grass.”  The song of Ha’azinu, one of the most captivating in the Torah, relies profoundly on nature to communicate its Mussar. The desert and our national journeying in it, the eagles and rocks, the honey and the lamb, the grapes and the goats. This poem is abundant, even overflowing, with the poetry of nature.   Ha’azinu evokes, and invites us to encounter, a world that was not […]

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Vayelech: Release Yourselves, The Shmita Year Has Arrived, by Miriam Midlarsky Lichtenfeld

“In choosing a way to mark Shmita, inspired by the Hakhel ceremony in this week’s parsha, we will be honoring our heritage and rededicating ourselves to the earth, the environment, and the Torah.” In our parsha, Vayelech, Moses instructs the priests to gather the nation every seven years for a public reading of the Torah. The text reads as follows: “Moses wrote down this Teaching and gave it to the priests…Moses commanded them saying: at the end of 7 years, at the time of Shmita on Sukkot – when all of Israel comes to appear before God… you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel.” This commandment is called Hakhel, which means a public gathering. In Jerusalem while the Temple stood, the king would address the public with verses from the Torah. This practice was revived in modern times, with the first official ceremony taking place in Jerusalem in 1945. The reason Sukkot was chosen, according to the Etz Hayyim Chumash, is that it was the best-attended of the pilgrimage holidays. People were able to focus on the teaching because they had already stored their harvest and felt secure about their food supplies for the coming […]

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Nitzavim: The Great Equalizer, by Sarah Zell Young

Shmita is not only about the seventh year, shmita is a cycle preceded by 6 other years. It invites us to inventory ourselves, our choices and our middos, character traits, in the previous cycle and envision how we want to relate to ourselves and others in the coming seven years to co-create a better world.   In Parshat Nitzavim, Moshe Rabbeinu is giving a speech to the people of Israel at the end of his life. He addresses every Israelite, young and old, poor and rich. Moses includes everybody, both past and future generations, who are not present. It is not with you alone that I am making this covenant and oath, but with whoever stands with us here today before the Lord our God as well as those not with us here today.” (Deut. 29:13-14).  Moses lays out two choices: light or darkness, blessings or curses, life or death, and urges the Israelites to choose life. “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil … I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and […]

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Ki Tavo: Remembering History, by Ruth Messinger

“This is a core principal of shmita to let the fields rest and allow the hungry to eat from them. In a country where there is gross food insecurity, in a world where people are suffering environmental calamities and dangerous oppressions, we need to determine how, going forward, we will each be responsive to this message.” Some context first.  We are in the month of Elul, getting ready for the high holidays, for those powerful days of accounting to ourselves for where we are and where we would like to be going forward—not so much physically or geographically but socially and emotionally—in our obligation to ourselves and in our relationship to our community.  This year we are also getting ready for the next shmita year and we are, in the Torah cycle, in the book of Deuteronomy, where the stories are repeated and many gems of wisdom are reiterated in the hope that we are “getting it” and learning how to live a holy life. In this parsha, Ki Tavo, we are reminded not to take our blessings for granted.  Yes, we are going to the promised land, a land of milk and honey, a land of figs and pomegranates, […]

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Ki Teitzei: Letting the Mother Go, by Aharon Ariel Lavi

 With one hand we acquire the eggs or the fledglings (or the crops) but with the other we let the mother go (or leave something for the poor to live on). Recognizing the fact that using natural resources for our own benefit is perfectly legitimate, yet we do not own nature in its entirety. The creator has commanded us to leave something for someone else specifically when we take something for ourselves.  Only a handful of Mitzvot in the Torah reveal their own “payback”, or benefit to one who observes a particular commandment. The most famous one is honoring one’s parents, which will result in long endurance “on the land that the LORD your God is assigning to you” (Numbers 20:12).   In this week’s Parsha there are two more such special cases:  If you find a nest with a mother bird and its eggs or fledglings, you must let the mother go and as a result, you will “have a long life” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).  If you overlook a sheaf of grain during harvest, and leave it to the poor, “God may bless you in all your undertakings” (Deuteronomy 24:19).  The connecting thread between these two seemingly separate commandments is that […]

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Shoftim: Why Do We Need Judges and Police? By Michael J. Broyde

Moses appointed police officers over the tribes but did not mention any judges. One might think, if we cannot have judges, at the least our society should have police.  But, actually this is wrong.  Police cannot be the law – they must merely enforce the law.   This week’s parsha is Shoftim (Devarim 16:18-21:9), which is the Hebrew word for judges opens with these famous words: שֹֽׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לִשְׁבָטֶ֑יךָ וְשָֽׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק: 18 You shall set up judges and police for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. לֹֽא־תַטֶּ֣ה מִשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים וְלֹֽא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם: 19 You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words. צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָֽרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ: 20 Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you. Jewish tradition seems clear: both judges and police are needed and both […]

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Re’eh: Seeing the Unseen, By Devorah Brous

“When Moses stands in front of the tribes of Israel before they enter the holy land he gives a choice to follow the path of greed and exploitation or to choose life.  In rewilding, may we learn to see the blessings around us, but not turn a blind eye to the curses.” This week, in Re’eh, we get the chance to do some real reckoning as we receive a set of laws that govern behaviors historically used as justification for political and religious violence. This single set of 55 laws has borne enormous influence, charting our shift away from “wild” desert ways toward “civilized” urban cultures full of rules, structures, and obligations. Moses delineates how to release debt; when to free the enslaved; how to tithe; and when to celebrate pilgrimage festivals. But see what else is required of us in Re’eh: “destroy their altars, break up their memorial stones, burn down their sacred trees, and obliterate their gods from that place.”  Moses offers a stark choice: observe and be blessed, or ignore and be cursed. The promise we are given in this week’s parsha for standing up against idol worship e.g. greed is the promise of dwelling peacefully in […]

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Yehudis Fishman

Ekev: Nature Imitates Humanity, by Yehudis Fishman

Sometimes we have to tread lightly, even on holy land, so that we can recall the ultimate Source of food, wealth, and our own lives.  The entanglement of humanity and nature threads throughout the Torah, especially in Parshat Ekev. Sometimes it thunders through the world like the flood and revelation, and sometimes it whispers its way into the universe, like the ten statements of creation. Sometimes, as in this parsha, the connections are obvious, and often they are more subtle.  This set of actions and results, is hinted in the very name of the parsha.  Ekev has multiple meanings, the most relevant here is ‘as a consequence.’ However, the literal meaning of Ekev, heel, is also significant. Our heels walk upon this earth, with footprints of either destruction or growth, depending on our deeds, words, or even feelings and thoughts.  The Maor Eynayim elaborates on this point at length. He speaks about the distinction between water in Egypt and rainfall in Israel, the former being readily available, and the latter being dependent on prayer and good behavior.  Actually, this was the complaint here about the Manna: ‘Our souls are disgusted with this light or rotten bread’. One reason for their […]

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Va’etchanan: Strengthen Your Spiritual Health, by Akiva Gersh

That is Shmita. Stop plowing, stop planting, stop weeding, stop watering, stop harvesting in our normal ways (or the modern-day parallel to these things) and use that freed-up time to start studying more, reading more, praying more, meditating more, sitting in silence more, contemplating more, eating consciously more.  In this week’s parsha, Va’etchanan, we receive the following directive: “Guard yourself and guard your soul very much” (Deut. 4:9) and “You shall guard yourselves very well.” (Deut. 4:15) These verses are understood by Jewish tradition as referring to the mitzvah of protecting one’s physical health. It’s interesting to note, however, that the word “soul” is used in the verse and not “body”.  The interconnection between these seemingly opposed entities is reflected in the writings of the Rambam when he teaches: “Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God, for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator if he is ill, therefore he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is helpful and helps the body become stronger.” (Hilchot Deot 4:1) From these two sources we can derive that physical health leads to spiritual health and that maybe […]

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Devarim: Zion will be redeemed through justice: what Shmita teaches us about Tisha B’Av and the promise of Devarim, by Rabbi David Seidenberg

“On Tisha B’Av, we imagine that the land mourns with us. But that’s our human-centered way of seeing things. From God’s perspective, which is closer to an ecological perspective, the well-being of the land comes first. When humanity violates the land, it dooms itself to be treated like a plague from which the land must become healed.” The beginning of Deuteronomy is filled with promises about taking possession of the land of Canaan. But we always read parshat Devarim on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, when we remember that our ancestors lost possession of that land and went into exile. The Torah teaches that the way to live long in the land and avoid exile is not by having the strongest army, but by fulfilling the covenant of the Torah. And it tells us that one mitzvah is most important for making this happen: the Sabbatical or Shmita year, when the land rests. The Shmita year is a prescription for living sustainably upon the earth. Not only does the land rest every seventh year, but the year following every seventh Shmita year — the fiftieth year of Jubilee — every family returns to the land it received when the land […]

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Feinsmith, Sam

Matot-Masei: The Land is Our Mother, by Rabbi Sam Feinsmith

“They journeyed…and camped…and journeyed…” (Numbers 33:3-49). The nomadic lifestyle of the people, their constant journeying, encamping, and journeying once again as the spirit moved them served to remind them that they were but visitors upon this earth, here for a short while by the grace of God. A number of years ago my partner and I met a Native American medicine man in Northern Michigan. In the course of conversation he shared his bewilderment around the practice of selling land: “The land is our mother. How could you sell your own mother?!” His worldview was characterized by a deep sense of loving connection, reverence, and appreciation for the earth not as a commodity to be bought and sold but as a giver of life.    Close study of Leviticus 25—which relays the laws of Yovel (Jubilee)—reveals a similar orientation to the sale of land. Coming on the heels of seven Shmita (Sabbatical) cycles, Jubilee is the great letting go that reminds us that the land isn’t ours to buy and sell. Land may not be sold in perpetuity (v. 23); all ancestral lands purchased since the last Jubilee are to be returned to their original tribal landholders (v. 10, 13). Even […]

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Ilana Stein

Pinchas: Of Names and Land, by Ilana Stein

What is so important about this story? It is not necessarily or only about equal rights. With our ‘shmita’ caps on, at all points at which this narrative is told, it is a message to the men who have the power to take up their inheritance – to show them what it means to truly love the land of Israel. These “mere women” felt so connected to the land that they were prepared to breach the male halls of wisdom to find their own space in Israel.* In our parsha, the people of Israel begin preparations towards appropriation of the Promised Land. Moshe divides the land amongst the tribes: “Among these the land shall be apportioned as shares” (Bemidbar 26:53), with the inheritance of land going to male heirs in those days. However, the daughters of Zelophechad are not happy. They approach Moshe and “the entire congregation at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (27:2) – which was unheard of for women to do! Then, each of the daughters is named: “and his daughters’ names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah” (27:1) – again, not a common occurrence. Finally, God gives a ringing endorsement: “Zelophehad’s daughters speak justly. […]

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Balak: A Right-Sizing Blessing, by Fred Scherlinder Dobb

הִנֵּ֥ה בָרֵ֖ךְ לָקָ֑חְתִּי וּבֵרֵ֖ךְ וְלֹ֥א אֲשִׁיבֶֽנָּה׃ “Behold, I’m bidden to bless:  And God has blessed; I cannot / will not reverse it.” (Numbers 23:20) What’s a blessing, anyway?!  The root bet-resh-khaf, in biblical context, can mean gifting, predicting, describing, cursing, magnifying, and more.  That last idea, ‘enlargement,’ often works best – including when King Balak sends Bilaam to curse the Israelites, but feeling the Divine flow, this prophet-for-hire only blesses.  Bilaam’s beautiful blessing is so enlarging, it opens our morning liturgy: מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל — “how good are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel!” (24:5). Our ancestors traveled light, leaving little trace; their tents were simple and portable.  Bilaam’s “blessing” wasn’t about physical enlargement, then, but spiritual uplift.  Just the blessing we need today!  A blessing which we already have, in the form of shabbat, and shabbaton/shmita.  Turning every seventh day from concrete things to spiritual ideals, Shabbat undergirds Judaism’s eco-ethos.  And every seventh year, shmita’s “radical release” confirms that ethic. Modernity conflated blessing with expansion, and it’s killing us, since nothing corporeal can grow indefinitely.  Not organisms, or populations; things, or economies.  Only the spiritual realm allows for continual growth.  Our entire way of life must therefore incorporate shabbat and […]

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Gila Caine

Chukat: Child Sacrifice and Shmita, by Rabbi Gila Caine

“But Shmita teaches us that we are only guests here on the Land, and it teaches us that we are always planning for at least seven years in the future, if not for forty-nine or fifty. When we think in these bits of time, we must see beyond ourselves, we must think about our children and children’s children and the Earth we leave for them.” Shmita is a practice in thinking about the future and in our ability to comprehend a time beyond this year, or even beyond next year. When we practice Shmita we think in increments of seven years, of forty-nine years, of fifty. These are generational timespans, that call on us to expand our thinking into the days of our children and grandchildren. Our week’s Torah portion is Chukat, a goody bag of a Parasha full of huge and important subjects. The Haftarah (this Shabbat’s reading from the prophets and judges) on the other hand tells us the story of the warlord Yiftach and ends with a vow he takes: “And Yiftach made a vow to Adonai and said ‘If You indeed give me the Ammonites into my hand, it shall be that whatever comes out of the […]

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Parshat Korach: The Taker, by Hannah Elovitz

“As the climate crisis worsens, the ground opening up and swallowing Korach’s band does not feel as far-fetched as it once may have. The earth is not an endless supply of resources for our consumption, and greed will only exacerbate the situation.” My grandfather, I am told, would say: “You know what Korach’s problem was? The Torah says, ‘Vayikach Korach.’ (‘Korach took.’) Korach was a taker.” The week of Parshat Korach this year marks my maternal grandfather Rabbi Mayer Weisenberg’s z’l fourth yahrtzeit. He modeled a life of Jewish values, leading by example for his family, community, and beyond. In many ways, he is the reason my life is grounded in yiddishkeit, and I dedicate this dvar torah to him. The Israelites journey on through the desert when Korach, from the tribe of Levi, gathers 250 people and provokes a rebellion. As one might expect, rebelling against Moses and by extension God did not end well: the very ground underneath their feet opens and swallows the rebels whole, along with all their possessions. The legacy of Korach’s rebellion does not end there. We learn later in the parsha that the tribe of Levi will not inherit its own portion of […]

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