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Topic: Shmita

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Yitro: The Ten Commandments As A Guide To A Sustainable Society, By Dr. Jeremy Benstein

“What does it take to build a society that will long endure on the land?”  The highlight of this week’s parasha, the Decalogue, begins with God’s self-identification as having brought Israel “out of the house of bondage” and launches directly into prohibitions of false gods (commandments 1-3). These two ideas – slavery and idolatry – are linked. Slavery, in all its manifestations, means taking human beings, ends in themselves, and making them means to one’s own gratification. Idolatry is the reverse: taking things that are legitimate means to further life, like money, power, achievement – and making them ends, worshiped and sought after as if they were god-like (“their idols are silver and gold”). The twin evils of entrenched oppression and the single-minded pursuit of profits, ignoring questions of justice and health, creates long-lasting impact – “upon the third and upon the fourth generations” – while the opposite too ripples out, a deep commitment to chesed reaches “to the thousandth generation.” At the core of the Decalogue is another image of intergenerational responsibility. Commandments to honor parents, and prohibitions on murder and adultery (5-7) are about the sanctity of life and its creation, the importance of love, honesty and commitment. […]

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Gila Caine

Beshalach: The Knowledge Of Water, Fire And Clouds By Rabbi Gila Caine

“This is the strongest lesson of shmita, that the non-human world around and within us is filled with its own intelligence, and its own Torah.” This week’s Torah portion kicks off with our ancestors leaving Mitzrayim (the Biblical Egypt, the place of constriction) and venturing into the Midbar (the desert, the place of speaking or the place that speaks), and as they hesitantly make their way out their enslavers have a turn of heart and begin chasing them. Can you imagine this scene in your mind’s eye? It’s important to visualize it for ourselves because this story holds the image of our neshama (soul/spirit) aching to leave behind all that enslaves it, while our inner fears call on us to go back. This is one part  of soul-yearning to live a more conscious life while other elements inside us continue making excuses for why we must go on consuming, why we must keep ignoring the climatic earthquake that is upon us. As our ancestors make their way towards freedom, they arrive at Yam Suf (the Sea of Reeds) and stop stunned by its shores with the Egyptians behind them, with their place of constriction getting narrower by the moment. At […]

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Bo: In Times Of Darkness, Can We Share Our Light? By Yali Szulanski

“The plague of darkness evokes imagery of desperation, fear, and of dark times. It is the plague, perhaps, that most echoes the time we live in now.” Parashat Bo occurs in anticipation of Bne’i Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Here, the last three plagues coincide with a divine hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to bring our ancestors into freedom. This journey, which brings us to Torah and mitzvot, is led by a beam of light that bursts forth after generations of darkness. The penultimate plague – where the Israelites enjoy light, while the Egyptians suffer thick, stifling darkness (Exodus 10:23), must have left many Israelites grappling with an existential crisis – of faith and the  future. The plague of darkness evokes imagery of desperation, fear, and of dark times. It is the plague, perhaps, that most echoes the time we live in now. The world currently oscillates between darkness and uncertainty and pockets of light.  Yet while some experience this light, others still suffer. When we aren’t quite sure about what moves about in the shadows, we fear what is there – and what it wants from us. Sometimes, though, the unknown of the darkness can bring about the possibility of hope […]

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Barak Gale

Vaera: What Gives Me Hope? By Dr. Barak Gale

“Shmita offers a “release” from this harsh legacy, whispering to us: Aspire to this time when you no longer harden your heart.”   Vaera recounts the Ten Plagues and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.  I am often asked in my climate presentations – what gives me hope?  Day after day the news speaks of another tipping point or plague threatening our survival – the cracking of ice shelves in Antarctica that keep the great ice sheets from sliding into the ocean, the loss of permafrost holding vast stores of potent methane, and more.  Day after day also sees new threats to what is left of our democracy, and of our humanity.  And we see marginalized communities suffering disproportionately, for example Black children suffering from asthma, often due to proximity to fossil fuel plants, refineries, freeways, at 8 times the rate of White children.   Rabbi Shefa Gold comments on Vaera, that symbols of life, like blood, in excess become the opposite. Yes, sun provides essential energy and warmth and now electricity, but intense heat waves are deadly.  Wind provides essential cooling and transportation for seeds, insects, birds, but in excess becomes monstrous storms and hurricanes. Greenhouse gasses keep the Earth from being […]

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Shemot: Building A Society That Rejects Decadence And Oppression, By Rabbi Binyamin Zimmerman

Shemitah and jubilee ensure that Israeli society will be protective of the weak, combating wage gaps and building a redeemed economy. If it worked with the Exodus, it could work now.   Parashat Shemot begins the second book of the Torah, Exodus, by detailing the background of the Jewish nation’s enslavement, and setting the stage for their ultimate redemption. The entire book of Exodus discusses the Egyptian bondage and the Divine deliverance of the Jewish nation. This miraculous redemption inspired their trek through the desert, including accepting the Torah and ultimately building the nation’s home in the Promised Land, Israel. Understandably, the Exodus plays a significant role in the Jewish heritage.  While the Exodus is central to our thought, seemingly, it could have been from anywhere. Why Egypt? What role does Egypt play in the whole encounter? The Torah itself provides a significant piece of the puzzle. From the days of Avraham, Egypt served as a foil to the ultimate goal of Jewish civilization in Israel. Avraham travels there during a famine in the land. Egyptian grandeur turns off Avraham but seems to have affected Avraham’s nephew Lot. He emerges from Egypt following Avraham from a distance, but his shepherds can […]

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Judry Subar

Parashat Vayechi: E Pluribus Unum? by Judry Subar

We must temper using our own resources to satisfy our individual human desires in recognition of our responsibility to preserve our Earth for the benefit of humanity. Mortality sets the scene for the concluding chapters of Genesis. Vayechi, the last portion of Genesis, tells us generally how both Jacob and Joseph prepared for their own deaths.  The primary emotional force of the portion, though, lies in Jacob’s decision to sermonize to his sons and grandsons as his life was ending.   Jacob’s deathbed statements can be understood in different ways.  Were they blessings as suggested by Genesis 49:28?  Were they prophecies as intimated in Genesis 49:1?  According to one view found in Midrash Rabbah, when Jacob instructed his sons to listen to him muse about their personalities, he meant to signal that their twelve respective tribes were actually one social entity.  Strange, though, to interpret Jacob’s thoughts as being all about unity when he expressed himself so differently about his various children.  Reuben, for example, is castigated for bad acts; Judah’s future is foretold; Joseph is explicitly praised; and the only one of Jacob’s last testaments that refers to more than one of the brothers uses decidedly negative rhetoric to comment […]

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Parashat Vayigash: Feeding the World, By Shoshana Michael Zucker

“From both the story of Joseph and the practice of Shmita, we learn that the earth, if respected, is capable of producing adequate food. Hunger is a human-caused problem that humans can solve.” Parashat Vayigash is set during the famine that Pharaoh dreamed and Joseph predicted in the previous portion. It features Joseph’s reunion with his brothers and father, the resettlement of his entire extended family in the Goshen region of Egypt, and his on-going program to manage the famine.  Concealed, but not quite, within this story is an important lesson about the global food supply. Egypt and the surrounding region have experienced seven years of plenty followed by drought and famine. Yet, because of shrewd management, there is food in Egypt, enough not only for local consumption but also for export.  The heart of  Joseph’s food management program was collecting surpluses, storing them and redistributing them in times of need. Joseph’s use of that food to nationalize Egyptian lands, and enslave the Egyptian people to Pharaoh are controversial, but a simpler point underlies the story: the world produces enough food to feed its population (although climate change could alter that). Hunger exists because of human-caused storage and distribution problems.   […]

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Miketz: Learning from Joseph’s Mistakes, By Rabbi David Seidenberg

“Therein lies a basic lesson of Shmita: You can’t deprive other people or the land of their freedom in order to preserve your own.” The Shabbat of Chanukah is here. When we left Joseph last week, he was in the dungeon. This week, Joseph gets lifted up from the dungeon and becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man, second to Pharaoh “in throne only” (Gen. 41:40). All this because Joseph listens to Pharaoh’s dreams, predicts seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine, and (slyly?) advises Pharaoh to seek out a wise person to carry out a plan. The outlines of the plan are common sense: store up grain each year during the years of abundance, and redistribute that grain during the years of famine (Gen. 41:34-36). Next week, however, we will learn the specifics. After there was no bread left in Egypt, the Egyptian peasants used up all their money to buy grain from what Joseph had stored up. When that was gone, they gave up their animals, and finally, after they had lost their money and their cattle, they gave up themselves and their land, becoming slaves to Pharaoh (Gen. 47:13-23). The peasants had actually grown all that grain. […]

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Vayeshev: Equal Social Dignity, By Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin

“So whether you wear a coat of many colors or a simple shift when you glean, shmita is a reminder that we are all the same: temporary tenants wholly dependent on the gifts of this God-given world.” “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic.  And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.” There is something terribly irksome about inequity. At least for the ones on the outs.  We all know that life is unfair, that some people are more gifted, more adored, more successful, than others.  But when that inevitable inequity is flaunted before our eyes, when there isn’t even an effort to pretend that everyone is equal, then animosity starts to churn and lashing out may not be far behind.  This is what happened to Joseph, and thus Jacob too.  The Bible is well-aware of life’s constant assaults. And though they may be able to be borne for a while, they add up over time, often releasing their […]

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Vayishlach: Wrestling Awaits even in the Shmita Year, By Bruce Spierer

“When you finally slow down for the shmita year, don’t be surprised if there is confrontation waiting for you to wrestle with. If you see it through, you might find new blessings in your life.” In Parashat Vayishlach, Jacob returns to his homeland of Canaan after living with his uncle for fourteen years. He now has a large family, two wives and eleven children, and amassed some wealth. After reconciling with his brother Esau, from whom he initially fled, his family arrived at Shechem. There Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, is raped and taken by Shechem (the local chieftain’s son). Her brothers Simeon and Levi slaughter Shechem and his house to retrieve Dinah. (I encourage you to learn more about this difficult passage – commentaries on My Jewish Learning and source on Sefaria are good starting points.) The parashah concludes with G!d renewing the covenant with Jacob, the death of Rachel in childbirth, and a record Esau descendants.  When he first arrives in Canaan, Jacob sends word of his arrival to Esau. Esau replies that he will meet Jacob with 400 men.  400 men? 400 men! Does he mean to honor Jacob or kill him and his family? Uncertain about Esau’s response, […]

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Vayetze: “Set In The Land” Mutzav Artza – Jacob’s Ladder Through a Geocentric Lens, by Dr. Allen Katz

“In order to effectively combat climate change and live more sustainably, our attitude must be mutzav artza, firmly grounded in the land.” This week’s Torah portion of Vayetze offers us a rare opportunity to glimpse into the mind of a tzaddik, Jacob our forefather, enabling us to draw vital lessons about the balanced relationships among ourselves, the land, and God. This is a lesson that we can distill from the shmita year as well. In the case of this week’s parsha, the clues are all there in the account of the dream: The ladder, firmly set in the land (mutzav artza), its top reaching skyward; Angels ascending and descending the ladder like messengers carrying righteous intents and actions between earth and heaven; Jacob waking from his sleep, saying, “God is in this place (makom), and I did not know it (v’anochi lo yadati)” (Genesis 28:12-16). One relevant facet of the dream can be found through an interpretation offered by Dr. Michael Fishbane. In his book, Sacred Attunement, Dr. Fishbane describes the ladder as not only based on land, but also in people: Jacob’s ladder “ascending from the inner heart (and common world)”. A symbolic merging between people and earth rings […]

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Parashat Toldot: Releasing Our Attachment To Dominance, By Akiko Yonekawa

The shmita year asks us to release our attachment to the dominance of land, to live in the utter immediacy of the season, to sustain ourselves with whatever the earth provides when we step away for a moment. In short, shmita is asking us to be a little more like Esau. Parashat Toldot tells a story of twins born fighting for status, and continuing to struggle throughout their lives. These twins, Jacob and Esau, are the children of Rebekah and Isaac, and their family’s story is one of deep love with an undercurrent of deceit. Isaac and Rebekah love each other, Isaac loves Esau, and Rebekah loves Jacob. Jacob, the younger of the two, buys Esau’s birthright and receives his blessing, effectively supplanting Esau as the older, more powerful sibling. In the middle of the parashah, we have the only narrative that focuses solely on Isaac, the father of Jacob and Esau. There is a famine in the land and Isaac travels to Gerar to seek relief as his father Abraham had done under similar circumstances. While there, Isaac farms the land and becomes impressively wealthy, but he finds himself in the midst of disputes over water with the locals. […]

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Chayei Sarah: Chesed in Jewish Tradition by Dr. Richard H. Schwartz

One test of kindness is doing positive things, even if not asked, or doing more than is asked, something that Rivkah did in abundance, showing how hesed was such a central part of her character. A main focus of parshat Chayei Sarah, which discusses the finding of a suitable wife for Abraham’s son Yitzchak (Isaac), is chesed, kindness . In his old age, Abraham sent his trusted servant Eliezer to find the proper woman from his extended family. While Abraham did not specify any character trait to stress, Eliezer, knowing that his master was a paragon of chesed, set up a test based on seeking kindness in a prospective bride. Rivka (Rebecca) passed that test admirably, not only drawing water for Eliezer but also for the ten thirsty camels with him that had just crossed a desert. One test of kindness is doing positive things, even if not asked, or doing more than is asked, something that Rivkah did in abundance, showing how hesed was such a central part of her character. Judaism teaches that every word in the Torah is valuable. Yet, the story of Eliezer and Rivkah at the well is told four times in the parshah. First […]

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Vayera: Training in Hospitality, by Dr. Irene Lancaster

During the Covid epidemic, hospitality has increased. There are many tales of people contacting their neighbours – and even people they didn’t know – in order to help with shopping and other services. This emphasis on loving kindness throughout the world is based one of the seminal teachings of Judaism, epitomized by our present Parsha. The Parsha reading this week is Vayera (Genesis 18-22), which means And G-d appeared’.  G-d appears to 99-year-old Abraham in the heat of the day, three days after his circumcision. G-d tests Abraham by sending him three visitors. Abraham doesn’t think of himself, but together with wife Sarah, rushes to offer as much hospitality as possible to these three strangers. The strangers turn out to be angels, i.e. guiding lights, but Abraham didn’t know it at first. This story is a paradigm for our own age. As we come out of Covid, the UK will be hosting the UN Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow from October 31st-November 12th. During the Covid epidemic, hospitality has increased. There are many tales of people contacting their neighbours – and even people they didn’t know – in order to help with shopping and other services. This emphasis on loving […]

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Lech-Lecha: Treating Both the Land and the Stranger with Empathy and Kindness, by Rabbi David Seidenberg

Shmita is about freedom and justice for people, not just rest and regeneration for the land. One of the spookiest stories in the whole Torah is found in Lech Lecha. It’s called the brit bein habetarim, the covenant between the halves. The story is precipitated by Avram having a crisis of belief. God tells Avram that he will inherit all the land of Canaan (Gen. 15:7). Instead of trusting, Avram asks for proof. In response, God commands him to bring a bizarre sacrifice—the first time in Torah that God asks for a sacrifice—and it leads to a terrifying dream. God asks for “a three-year old calf and a three-year old goat and a three-year old ram, and a dove and a fledgling pigeon.” Avram takes the three mammals and splits them down the middle. Initially, nothing happens to the animals except that “the birds of prey came down on the corpses, and Avram drove them back. And the sun was coming down, and a numb stupor fell on Avram, and here, a great terrifying darkness fell on him.” After that, Avram hears: “Know, you must know, your seed will be a stranger in a land not theirs, and will serve […]

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