Topic: Shmita

Rabbi Yonah Berman

V’Zot Habracha & Hakhel: How The Torah Ends The Shmita Year by Rabbi Yonah Berman

“Joining together with our People, and remembering a place and time before we had our own land, we are being called to maintain the sanctity of humanity and creation.” The final parsha in the Torah, V’Zot Habracha, is unique in that it is not read on a regular Shabbat. Rather, this third-shortest parsha, containing only 41 verses, is read on Simchat Torah as part of our celebrations concluding – and immediately restarting – the annual Torah reading cycle. It recounts blessings by Moses to the various tribes of Israel, his death overlooking the Land of Israel (which he was destined not to enter), and the Children of Israel’s mourning for our greatest leader.  (This Shabbat’s reading instead focuses on portions related to the Festival of Sukkot). It is actually right now and specifically this year that we are commanded to fulfill a unique and particularly beautiful mitzvah: Hakhel. Parshat Vayelech, which we read two weeks ago, instructs us to gather in Jerusalem during Sukkot following the conclusion of Shmita (Deut. 31:12): Gather the nation: men, women and children and the stranger in your midst, so that they shall hear and so that they shall learn; and be in awe of […]

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Ha’azinu: The Idolatry Of The Denier, by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff

“We are growing closer to our last chance to turn our attention back to the earth and its needs, for our beliefs to become re-rooted in reality.” What is sacred to a climate denier? What do they worship? They privilege pseudo-science over science, fantasy over reality, all in the name of preventing  significant change in the world. Non-change, non-progress, unending perpetuation of the status quo. That is the religion of the climate denier. The climate pessimist says something similar. They acknowledge the climate crisis but they refuse to believe in a solution. This phenomenon has echoes in Parashat Ha’azinu. After describing the extraordinary ingratitude of the Jews in turning to idolatry, the Torah says, “They sacrificed to demons, no-gods,”(Deut. 32:17) and the Midrash says, “If they had worshiped the sun, or the moon, or stars, etc., things that are necessary to the world, and the world benefits from them, God’s angry jealousy would have been less. But they worshiped things that do no good for them but rather do them harm!”(Sifrei Devarim 318:17). The idolatry described here is not misplaced faith that something beneficial has powers of its own. It is doubling down on the belief that something that in […]

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Vayelech: Is This The End Of Shmita? by Rabbi Petakya Lichtenstein

“What is being born when something is ending and what is ending when something is being born?” This week is the last week of the 7 year sabbatical cycle called Shmita. The portion of Torah read this week, as the year takes its leave, is called by the name “Vayelech,” which translates as “and he went.” Who is he? Moses. Where did he go? He went to tell the tale of his passing (in an epic overshare) saying “I am one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer go forth and come in.” He is to leave this world on the day he came into it 120 years ago. It is on this day, the 7th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, that Moses writes the Torah scroll and instructs that it should be read at the end of every shmita year. It is this merging of coming and going which is at the core of the deeper Torah of shmita. As the Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation, states about the mysteries of creation that “their end is in their beginning and their beginning is in their end.”  A closer look at the text will reveal […]

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Nitzavim: Keep It Real – Don’t Overthink It! by Rabbi Benjamin Shalva

“The shmita year is nearly ended, but not quite. There is still time. Time to pause. Time to pray.”  “And in the night My father came to me And held me to his chest He said there’s not much more that you can do Go on and get some rest.” – “Think Too Much (b)”, Paul Simon Moses is soon to die. He gathers his tribe to him and says: All that I’ve taught you, it’s not too hard, it’s not beyond your reach. (Deut. 30:11) But, of course, we know that’s not true. The Torah is too hard for us. It has always been too hard for us. We never get it right, this life. The very existence of the High Holy Days, of an entire season devoted to repentance, testifies to our forever missing the mark. It must be that Moses means something else. That, or he’s playing the part of the underdog coach, offering a pep talk to his hapless team. But that doesn’t seem right; Moses is a tough love prophet. Moses does not do so much “pep.” Then what does he mean: All that I’ve taught you, it’s not too hard, it’s not beyond your […]

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Ki Tavo: Property, Shmita And Learning To Fly, by Aharon Ariel Lavi

“You can only give what is yours.” Parshat Ki Tavo opens with the commandment of bikkurim. It continues with related agricultural commandments and a commandment to inscribe the Torah on large stones. The sages add that this was made in 70 different languages, to be accessible to all nations. The parsha concludes with a long speech detailing the blessings the nation will receive if it follows the Torah, and the calamities which will befall it if it does not. Bikkurim means bringing the first fruits to the Temple and reciting a special prayer. It is valid only under certain circumstances: (1) physical presence in the Land of Israel; (2) well-established political status in the land; and (3) building the Temple. There is an additional precondition, which is complete human ownership of the fruits a person brings, according to the verse: “the first fruits of your land.” Even one who has planted a tree in their own land but has layered it into another person’s land cannot bring the firstfruits (layering is taking a branch and bending it to the point of planting it in the ground while still attached to the original tree so it grows new roots). Nevertheless, the […]

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Ki Tetze: Mitzvot To Combat Bad Habits And Destructive Behaviors, by Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair

“Shmita too can loosen the sway of addictive patterns of consumption.” Parshat Ki Tetze begins with two mitzvot that the rabbis characterize as countering addiction. The first, of these, the laws of the female captive, challenges and attempts to moderate the abuse and dehumanization of women that is endemic to war. The second, the law of the “stubborn and rebellious son” deals with a child who is set on a bad course in life. The talmud (Sanhedrin, 69-71) defines the conditions to qualify as a stubborn and rebellious son. He must habitually steal a certain quantity of red meat and good wine from his parents (or steal the money to purchase these ) and then consume them outside his parent’s home. The penalty – death –  is extreme, and the majority of rabbis say that in fact there never was a stubborn and rebellious son who was put to death. Why then is it in the Torah? So that we might “study it and receive reward.” So let’s study it!   The talmudic discussion drills down into the kind of meat (red meat, but not dried out, and not chicken) and wine (old wine that has matured, not the stuff that […]

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Shoftim: On the Spiritual Tension of Shmita, By Dr. Tamar R. Marvin

“For is the tree of the field like a human?” Shmita is riven with tension. On the one hand, it is introduced to us in Parashat Behar as a Shabbat of the land: ve-shavta ha-aretz Shabbat la-Shem—“the land shall abstain in a Shabbat of God” (Lev. 25:2). This brings to mind a deliberate, restorative pause. What we presently know about agriculture accords beautifully with this ancient wisdom, confirming that regular periods of fallowness enhance the production of nutritious food.  And yet there is a traditional counterpoint to this rarified mood in the form of the principle of bal tashchit, the imperative to steward resources respectfully, not allowing them to go to waste. What about the wasted potential of all the food that could be grown to feed people but will not be? This charge became all the more poignant in modernity, when Jewish farmers faced again the very real problem of sustaining themselves and their community while observing shmita. Rabbis were tasked with finding a solution, which they did, albeit messily: it entails legal fictions and wasteful importation.  This week’s parasha, Shoftim, includes an intriguing statement that acknowledges this dualistic tension of shmita. We’re now in the midst of Moses’ […]

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Re’eh, Rosh Hodesh Elul: The Expansiveness of Freedom by Rabbi Dr. Bradley Shavit Artson

“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 […]

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Ekev: It Is A Land Which Hashem Your God Looks After, by Rabbanit Michal Kohane

“In dealing with the land – working it, taking care of it, making it bloom – we have to be constantly connected to the Divine.” The Torah portion of Ekev, the 3rd in the last book of the Torah, stretches from Deuteronomy 7:12 to 11:25. Among its topics are the blessings of obedience to God; the dangers of forgetting God; Moses recalling the making and re-making of the Tablets of Stone; the incident of the Golden Calf, Aaron’s passing, the Levite’s duties and, and the need to serve God. And, most importunately, is the emphasis of the Land of Israel’s specialness: For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There, the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors like a vegetable garden; but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. It is a land which Hashem your God looks after, on which Hashem your God always keeps an eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end” (Deut. 11:10-12). The Land with special qualities also […]

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Va-Etḥanan, Shabbat Naḥamu, and Tu Be-Av: With Heaven And Earth As Our Witness, By Rabbi Louis Polisson

“If you know you have harmed the earth, know that you can heal it.” On Shabbat Naḥamu, the Sabbath of Comfort the week after Tish’ah B’Av, we read Parashat Va-Etḥanan. Though Shabbat Naḥamu is about consolation and healing after lamenting Jewish traumas on the 9th of Av, the threat of destruction continues to loom in Parashat Va-Etḥanan. Moses tells the Israelites:  “When you … are long established in the land, should you act wickedly… causing the LORD your God displeasure and vexation, I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you that you shall soon perish” (Deut. 4:25-26). The calling of heaven and earth as witnesses is not just metaphorical. The natural world doesn’t just witness our actions, but actually suffers from humanity’s destructive tendencies. As Rabbi Harold Kushner puts it: “Heaven and earth do indeed witness against us when we make improper use of that with which God has blessed us. Poisoning the air and water, despoiling the environment do threaten to cause us to ‘perish from the land.’” Our fate is not sealed, however. We can return to God and right our relationships with the earth: “Because Adonai is a compassionate God… and will not fail […]

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Devarim/Hazon, Erev Tisha B’Av: Rooting Ourselves In Space And Time by Rabbi Jesse Paikin

On the confluence of the beginning of Deuteronomy, Tisha b’Av, and the shmita year North Americans often suffer from the affliction of being uprooted from space and time. Out of a historical or philosophical perspective, some of us call ourselves “post-modern,” literally self-labeling as “not of the now.” Likewise, for professional advancement and personal fulfillment, we value our ability to live or work from wherever. Seeing “remote” on a job posting – supposedly a boon these days – is ironic, given that it also means “removed,” “unlikely,” or “having very little connection or relationship.” This is not true for everyone today, most especially those ancestrally of these lands, who have traditionally cultivated societies built upon deep kinship. But what of the rest of us? In my native Canada, we are getting better – or at least trying to get better – at acknowledging the history of having uprooted indigenous peoples from their intimacy with specific places. In these first acts of civil teshuva, we can also ask ourselves: what could it mean to belong to a particular place in a particular time? This question already reverberates powerfully in the Jewish consciousness. There is a narrative harmony between parshat Devarim, the […]

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Matot-Masei: What We Can Learn from Regret, by Rabba Dr. Carmella Abraham

“Through the lens of regret, we learn the importance of appreciating the land and its fundamental purpose of sustaining humankind.” In a surprising twist, the midrash recounts the regret expressed  by the tribes of Reuben and Gad for choosing to stay east of the  Jordan river instead of settling in the land of Israel  When these two tribes entered the land of Israel and saw how much room was there for sowing and how much room was there for planting trees, they said ”Better is one handful of pleasantness in this land Israel than two fistfuls of land on the other side of the Jordan” Upon reflection, they themselves withdrew their complaint and said “Is it not we who chose the territory east of the Jordan ourselves?” (Vayikra Rabba 3:1). This change of heart was entirely unanticipated in light of this week’s parsha Matot-Masei where we find these very same tribes of Reuben and Gad pleading with Moses to allow them and their families to settle east of the Jordan rather than to enter the land of Israel. The reason provided is the economic suitability of the Transjordan region, “it is a land for livestock and your servants have livestock […]

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Pinchas: Loving the Land, by Talia Weisberg

“If we lived our love for land – whether in Israel or elsewhere in the world – how different would our world look?” Parshat Pinchas is, at its core, about loving the Land of Israel. The first major event of the parsha is a census, which is conducted in order to apportion land to the tribes based on demographic need. Then we read about the daughters of Tzelophehad, who successfully petition to receive their late father’s portion in Israel in the absence of sons. God then tells Moses that he will die in the wilderness, and Moses asks for God to appoint someone to lead the Israelites into the Land in his stead. Specifically, Moses asks for someone “who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that God’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd” (Num. 27:17).  It is meaningful that Moses analogizes the Jewish people to sheep in this moment. Sheep are grazing animals and thus especially reliant on land, sustaining themselves exclusively through what grows in their vicinity. Throughout their wanderings in the desert, the Israelites became accustomed to eating manna […]

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Balak: Getting The Best of Both Worlds, by Aharon Ariel Lavi

“Where is the sweet spot between conserving and respecting the past (cycles), and progressing towards a new reality (linearly)?” Parashat Balak is one of the two weekly portions in the Torah named after a significant non-Jewish protagonist. The first one is Yitro, named after Moses’s father-in-law, who was the architect of the ancient Hebrews’ internal social structure. The second one is Balak Ben-Tzipor, the King of Moab, a nation which was a distant relative of the People of Israel (both share a great-grandfather from the times of Abraham). In our parasha, the Israelites camp east of Canaan and prepare to enter the promised land. The only problem is that the Moabites, and others, dwell along the Eastern border, and although Moses assures them he has no intention of threatening their sovereignty, they will not let the Israelites pass.  Balak is terrified and summons the wizard Balaam, who was known for his magical ability to curse and destroy whole nations. Unlike Yitro, Balak’s purpose is to rebuff the Israelites. Balaam orders him to build seven altars and sacrifice seven oxen, yet he warns him that he can only say what God puts in his mouth. Balaam ends up blessing the Israelites […]

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Chukat: What Happens When You Keep Hitting The Rock by Gillian Steinberg

“We must hear both God and the rock crying out: the punishment is upon us.” In Chukat, after Bnei Yisrael complain about missing the comforts of home, Moses strikes a rock to elicit water. God is angry at Moses for striking the rock rather than speaking to it as instructed, but the water appears nonetheless. Moses’ punishment for this transgression occurs years later when he is prevented from entering Eretz Yisrael. In the shorter term, he is reprimanded but gets what he needs: flowing water to assuage the complaints. In this shmita year, our community seems self-satisfied in our connections with the land and following of divine commands. We seem to regard shmita as a kind of Godly magic: if we follow the rules, we are rewarded in kind. Of course, we also recognize science-based reasons for letting the land lie fallow, but our basic presumption around shmita seems to lie in cause and effect: we’re not sure why God sets these rules, but if we follow the manual precisely, we (literally) reap the benefits. Observing the effects of climate catastrophe — not in the distant or even the near future, but in the crisis of right now — we […]

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