A Year of Release
What does a millennia-old agricultural law have to do with our spiritual lives today?
Shmita is the seventh year of a seven-year agricultural cycle found in the Torah. It is commonly translated as “sabbatical year,” but it literally means “release.” It is a year when the land is left fallow, agricultural activities are put on hold, debts are forgiven, and other agricultural and economic adjustments are made in order to take a step back and ensure that we are living in a just and healthy society. The shmita year is a year of rest, pause, introspection and release.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel under the British Mandate, writes in Shabbat Ha’aretz [Sabbath of the Land]:
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 surrounds buying, selling and acquiring things. These aspects of the world of action distance us from the divine light and prevent its being discernible in the public life of the nation. This distancing also permeates the morality of individuals like poison. Stilling the tumult of social life from time to time in certain predictable ways is meant to move this nation, when it is well-ordered, to rise towards an encounter with the heights of its inner moral and spiritual life. We touch the divine qualities inside us that transcend all the stratagems of the social order, and that cultivates and elevates our social arrangements, bringing them towards perfection.
What is the connection between a physical relationship with our land and our own morality? Does incorporating any type of personal shmita practice affect who we are as people—or on an even greater level, does it affect our societies? Rav Kook argues that there’s an element of regular life that beats down on us and inhibits us from being as fully moral as possible. This tension that he writes about is profound, this tension between listening to our inner voice and responding to the outside world. ideally, while we know we still have to exist in that outside world, we hope that we tip the scale in favor of our inner voice. But what does this have to do with shmita? The shmita year is an attempt to place us far away from the pull of buying and selling and, according to Rav Kook, allows us to focus on listening to the internal voice of truth. So we “release” for an entire year. For that year, we try and rid ourselves of an attitude that tells us “more!” and that measures our worth by our acquisitions. We strain to better hear this quiet inner voice in the midst of the “tumult of social life.”
Here in New York City, the traditional laws of shmita might not work for a number of reasons—first and foremost that the practice is only obligatory in Israel! So how can we make it work for us in our here-and-now? For one, we might simply hold up the vision of shmita as our ideal. What would it mean to live every day truly believing that everything we buy and every dollar we spend is just a regrettable concession to necessity? What would it mean to hold in our mind the idea that our ideal life would be a life without money, without property, without commerce? Even without participating in the actual ritual, we can remember that shmita challenges us to envision a utopia that is not based on the things that we imagine, in our more shallow moments, will make us happy.
Yet there are also ways to actually do something that removes us from what Rav Kook calls “the forcefulness that is inevitably a part of our regular, public lives.” Maybe this year, we can take note of the conditions under which our clothes are made. Maybe this year, we can make an effort to know where our food comes from, to buy more locally and to work toward ensuring just treatment of local farmworkers. And maybe, by experimenting for a year with living in a more gentle, elevated way, we can discover something divine within ourselves.