Sh’mita: The Year of Letting Go (2019)

“Climate change isn’t an issue – it’s a symptom of how we’ve chosen to live our lives and relate to one another.” – Cassandra Carmichael, Executive Director of National Religious Partnership for the Environment, at the Consultation on Conscience, Monday May 20th 2019, Washington DC

The Consultation on Conscience, in Washington D.C., hosted by the Union of Reform Judaism’s Reform Action Center, where I sat last week as those words hit me, was all about how we choose to live our lives and relate to one another. The five issues that the RAC is highlighting this year are: immigration justice, gun violence prevention, racial justice, reproductive justice, and environmental justice. With 1200 other Reform Jews, I went to Washington to learn about how our movement organizes and supports advocacy for human rights and for tikkun, justice that restores and repairs, in our America. Speaker after speaker called us, in different ways, to attend to the quality and justice of our relationships with one another as Jews and Americans – from Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. Congressional House of Representatives, to Matthew Dietsch, the young man from Parkland FL who co-founded March for our Lives, to Eric Ward, author of “Skin in the game” on the symbiosis of white nationalism and anti-Semitism, to Elias Rosenfeld, a DACA recipient who attends Brandeis in Waltham and checks online each morning when he wakes up to see if the laws governing his status in this country have changed overnight.

The speakers at the Consultation were diverse (and excellent). The unifying message was crystal clear. When we allow healthy terms of relationship to one another and to our environment to deteriorate, or worse, act to abridge them, our world explodes in pain. That can look like stretching the 2nd amendment past recognition, flooding our country with guns, putting them into the hands of people who cannot use them responsibly. We saw yet another horrifying example of gun violence at Virginia Beach yesterday, at the start of Shabbat, as an angry former employee mixed the day’s dusk with blood. Unhealthy relationship with our world can look like closing our ears to testimonies of personal and institutional racism from people of colour. It can look like taking the power to make medical decisions about our own bodies away from people with uteruses. It can look like shutting migrants into icy holding cells, tearing kids out of their parents’ arms, and leaving sick migrant children untreated til they die – six this year so far. And when we burn, poison and smother the earth – well, she will defend herself, and humans are no match for that.

In our parasha today, God explicitly makes the same connection. If you turn hostile to God – if you walk with God “b’keri,” in rebellion or challenge – if you repudiate the social and theological ecosystem that God lays out – then God will turn your world upside-down, and nature itself will rebel. “I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper.”[1] God forbid – but God does not forbid. God promises.

“Rabbi HaLevi Ashlag, a leading kabbalist of the 20th century, wrote that God established the laws of nature in the world, and a person or society that transgresses one of these laws will be punished by means of nature. He likens nature to a judge God established to punish those who violate the laws of nature.” In Gematria, the letters of the word ‘hateva’ (the nature), add up to the same amount (86) as God’s name that connotes judgement—Elokim. Rabbi Ashlag teaches that this implies that the laws of God can be called by the name ‘commandments of nature.’”[2]

The earth’s rebellion is not just punishment for human misbehaviour, God clarifies. Rather, it is a way of recouping what has been lost through human grabbiness and urgency. Our parasha again: “Then shall the land make up for its sabbath [Sh’mita] years throughout the time that it is desolate….it shall observe the rest that it did not observe in your sabbath years while you were dwelling upon it.” [3] The Sh’mita year is one year out of every seven in which the fields must lie fallow, all produce can be harvested by anyone who puts their hand to it, and all debts are canceled. If we do not interact with the earth in these rhythms to which God has called us, leaving both humans and earth space for rest and renewal, then destruction of human civilization will be nature’s method of achieving tikkun, a setting right of the scales.

We chanted two different versions of Vayikra chapter 27, verse 10 this morning. In it, God at once acknowledges and corrects the human urge to try and create some wiggle room, in an agreement that we might find burdensome. If I vow one animal to God and then try to exchange it for another, presumably less valuable or perfect – then, says our text, with just a hint of smugness, BOTH animals belong to God. I end up with neither.

So too with our earth. Swapping out one fossil fuel for another, as we cast about for sustainable sources of energy, gets us nowhere. There are parts of the earth, such as the Arctic circle, that are and must remain kadosh, set apart from human use, in order to maintain human holiness and life. Rather than carve open the earth, we can partner with the wind and water and sun, power we can use without damaging its sources. What is inconvenient to us in the short term lets our relationship with God and God’s laws – the laws of nature – stay intact.

“For civilization to endure and justice to reign, the yetzer hara [the generative, acquisitive, sometimes “evil” impulse] must be restrained, based on the fundamental understanding that the earth belongs to God. We are living as tenants with a lease, the terms of which include the weekly Sabbath and the sabbatical year… Without these restraints, the yetzer hara engulfs the world.”[4]

Our shul stands in Massachusetts. I used to practice real estate here; and I can tell you that we have some of the most tenant-friendly laws in the country. It’s a long, slow process for a landlord to evict a tenant. But even here, tenants who don’t pay rent, who mistreat other tenants, who break walls and burn the place down, are made to leave those homes, and often are refused future leases.

Humans have a powerful control over life on this earth, our home. It’s very easy to forget that we didn’t create it, and that ultimately, we don’t own it. God owns it. If we are living as tenants with a lease, we must be mindful that this lease is our only option in the neighbourhood. NASA notwithstanding, we have one earth – one place where the precious, we can say Divinely given, combination of air and water and sunlight let us breathe and grow and thrive.

The terms of our lease with God include the sabbatical, or sh’mita year. The word “sh’mita” is about letting go, releasing. What shall we release? We need to release our hopes and expectations that our lives can continue as they were before we began to change the world. They can’t. We cannot use fuel and kill off biodiversity at the same breakneck speed, we cannot create the same carbon footprint, and expect a different result. We need to work harder than ever before to slow the warming of our earth and to eliminate our fossil fuel usage. And at the very same time, we need to release ourselves from the fear, or the expectation, that we individuals, we Americans, we humanity, can make it all better on our own. We can’t. But we can be part of the healing.

Cassandra Carmichael again: “We are not called to change the world. We’re called to be part of the change process, to partner with God as God changes the world.” Or, as Rabbi Tarfon would say, “lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibateil mimenah.”[5] We are not obligated to finish the work – but neither may we abandon it, just as we may not abandon each other. For ourselves and our children and our children’s children, we can extend our lease on life.

Parashat B’chukkotai, June 1st, 2019, Temple Emanu-El of Haverhill MA

footnotes:

1. Vayikra (Leviticus) 26:18-20; translation from Sefaria
2. Ashlag, Rabbi HaLevi, “The Need for Caution in the Laws of Nature”, in Matan Torah, publisher Da’at Or HaGanuz, year unknown, pp. 96-99; quoted in Jonathan Neril, “The Blessing of Rain,” on My Jewish Learning, from canfeinesharim.com
3. Vayikra 26:34-35

4. Deko, Jeffrey “Science vs Sabbath,” on My Jewish Learning, originally printed on SocialAction.com
5. Pirkei Avot 2:21