Shmita: A Sacred Opportunity for Renewal
Yom Kippur Morning 5782/2021
Rabbi Cassi Kail
It was 5:30 in evening and I had been writing for hours, or at least trying to write. I had composed the same paragraph over and over again, unsatisfied with my work. Time ticked by and I grew more and more frustrated. I was determined to finish the piece I had been working on. I reached out to a friend for advice. “Go take a walk” she said. I was resistant. How could I take a break now when there was so much to be done?
After staring at my screen a little bit longer, I decided to give it a try anyway. I unplugged and let my mind wander away from my sermon. I paid close attention to the colorful flowers, and dancing trees. I noticed the way the rocks and earth felt beneath my feet. As I stared out at the Pacific Ocean, and breathed in fresh air, an answer came to me as if being whispered in my ear. I knew what to write. I knew what to do. I hurried home and got to work right away. In no time, my sermon was complete.
I had been so convinced that the only way to finish my work was to keep plugging through, but, as it turned out, my success did not come until I did the exact opposite; until I gave myself space in which to rest.
Uri Alon had a similar experience. A cell biologist in Israel, Uri had been working on his PhD for some time. He had made enormous progress but at some point he just became stuck. All of his basic assumptions stopped working and he couldn’t figure out how to move forward. He felt that he had failed. He was overcome with worry.
Then, one day his mentor encouraged him to take a pause, and to stop the work that he was doing. Once he did that, he found himself able to approach the problem from an entirely different perspective. He successfully completed his PhD. When Uri moved on to his new research project, he found himself again in the same position. He was stumped, and unsure of what to do. He soon learned that the phenomenon he was experiencing was widely shared in scientific research. The only way forward, Uri learned, was to step back and pause—a technique he called “being in the cloud.” Once he felt renewed, he could approach the problem from an entirely different point of view.
I’m reminded of a teaching by Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague. He pointed out that the story of Creation in the Torah is written one day at a time. Each day, new life was created. Shabbat is also a day of creation, he taught. Although God had finished creating the creatures of the universe, Shabbat’s gifts were no less significant. In fact, Shabbat was Creation’s culmination. And what was created on this holy day? The act of stopping. The holiest, most significant moment of Creation according to Rabbi Judah Loew was the moment of pause.
Sometimes we just need a pause.
The past 18 months of our lives, much like the first days of creation, have been filled to capacity. We have had to respond to an ever-changing world with creativity, innovation, courage, and humility. We have acquired new skills. We have been present for those who need us, while simultaneously fulfilling our personal responsibilities. We have worried and changed course a thousand and one times. And it has been exhausting.
Just as God needed pause after the six days of creation, so too do we. And it just so happens that we have the perfect timing because 5782 is a Shemita, or Sabbatical year.
The Hebrew word Shemita means release. It refers to a yearlong period in which we allow the land to rest.
The Torah teaches, “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Eternal. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Eternal; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.”
After six years of working the land, the Shemita year provides a period of renewal. Farmers were not permitted to sow, till, or prune. The land was given the opportunity to flow freely. People could harvest anything that grew naturally. More, this produce would be available equally for everyone in society, regardless of status. Those impoverished by crushing debt were forgiven of their debt. During the Shemita year, everyone was equal.
Shemita is referred to as Shabbat Shabaton – The Sabbath of Sabbaths. This term signifies a depth that goes beyond that of Shabbat. During a Shemita year, it is not just individuals who rest, but also the land and society at large.
“What Sabbath does for the individual, shmita does for the nation as a whole,” writes Rav Kook. “Just as it was said about the Sabbath of Creation, ‘It is a Sabbath for God’ so, too, it was said about the Sabbath of shmita, ‘It is a Sabbath for God’.”
It is important to note that the rules of Shemita only apply in the Land of Israel, and that some of the rules outlined in the Torah simply cannot be kept in modern society.
Nonetheless, I believe that Shemita offers us powerful teachings that can guide and inspire us in the year ahead, about humility, faith, and renewal.
Each week, Shabbat doesn’t only offer us a pause. It offers us an important reminder of God’s sovereignty. For one day of the week, we disconnect with the business of our lives and tap into the sacred and Eternal. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains, “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.”
The Shmita year, similarly reminds us of the centrality of God in our lives. For six years we are commanded to work the land. Lest we become haughty and take full credit for the produce of the land, Shemita is there to remind us of God’s hand in all of it. Lest we begin to think that we own the land that we work, Shemita reminds us that all land belongs to God.
Allowing the land to lay fallow is an act of respect both for the creator of it all and for the land itself. It’s a message we can take to heart.
As artic ice caps melt at an alarming rate, hurricanes, and wildfires intensify, and landlocked areas in Chicago and Tennessee struggle with bouts of extreme flooding, we have little choice but to recognize the startling effects of global warming.
Shemita is a reminder that we mustn’t overwork the land, lest our planet become ill.
One Midrash teaches that when God created the first human being, God led him around all of the trees in the Garden of Eden, saying “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! Take care not to damage or destroy My world; if you corrupt it there is no one to repair it after you.”
We may not be farmers who allow land to lay fallow, but this Shemita year may inspire us to take extra care of our world.
It also reminds us to take care of one another. Since no person has ownership of the land in the Shemita year, every individual has equal access to its produce. Rich or poor, homeowner or slave, anyone and everyone can reap the food they need, and no one is permitted to take more than necessary. Even debts were cancelled. Shemita gave Israelites the opportunity to put aside differences and see one another as equals. This enabled people to see and appreciate one another in a new light.
What if over the course of our lives, we viewed every individual as an equal, deserving of our love and respect? The humility of Shemita encourages us to our judgements aside and see the sacred humanity in every soul.
“There is a realm of time,” Heschel says, “where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.” That realm is not only Shabbat; it is the Shemita year as well.
Shemita reminds us to be humble, embracing our responsibilities to the world in which we live.
Observing Shemita required faith. For an entire year, what little control you had over the land was completely taken away.
Any farmer knows that crop production is dependent upon on the weather, and other factors beyond their control. During a Shemita year, they could do nothing to the land to increase its production, even at difficult times.
Each day, they took what they needed, being careful not to take too much lest someone else go without. They were like Israelites in desert collecting mannah, having hope and faith that there would more to collect the following day.
During the Shemita year, farmers had a significant loss of income. Not only did they need to refrain from planting seeds, but since everyone had equal access to the produce that did appear, they couldn’t even sell what they did have.
When the year was over, it would take time to plant seeds and till the soil. It could take months before new grains would be ready to use and sell. In the meantime, they needed to put food on the table. They needed to take care of their families.
The Israelites had no choice but to place their faith in God that everything would work out okay.
For a year and a half of each 7 year cycle, the Israelites lived in a state of uncertainty, of liminality—something with which we have all too much recent experience.
Richard Rohr, the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, explains this moment of liminality is an opportunity for transformation. “We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of “business as usual” and remain patiently on the “threshold” (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown,” he said. “There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence… genuine newness can begin… because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.”
Psychotherapist and spiritual teacher Estelle Frankel adds, “If we are unwilling or unable to bear uncertainty, we will remain stuck in old, stale, dead – end situations and miss out on opportunities for renewal and growth that are available to us only in times of transition.”
The Shmita year provided the people with alternative to their every day. That gave them the freedom to consider the world they wished to create in the future. As Rabbi Aviva Fellman explains, “Shmita is not a call to live for one year with different rules… only to dump us back, unchanged, into that “real” world. Shmita is a rehearsal of a new way, a time to practice living in a world of “enoughness,” where each of us is filled and flourishes with enough, where disproportionate inequities would not, and could not, exist.” When Shmita ends, we can take our learnings with us to create a better world together.
Shmita reminds us that the way we’ve always done things isn’t the only way. We can change, but doing so requires deep thought and reflection. That brings us to our final theme.
Unlike the pandemic which we did not choose, and wreaked havoc in our lives, Shemita is a chosen opportunity to rest and reflect on the nature of society. For one year, life would be lived by entirely different rules.
When you think of it that way, it is amazing that our people ever kept Shmita in any form. It is so scary to take a pause, to live outside of our norm. We think that the only way forward is to keep on walking, to keep plugging away at our project, when in truth the best thing we can do is walk away.
“What keeps us from stopping is that we are terrified of resting,” teaching Rabbi David Ingber. “We are afraid of the imaginative terrible things we will feel in the quiet. We fear that when we stop, even for a moment, the sheer enormity of our lives will overwhelm us… we think that our speed will save us from the void. We dance around the security that is offered from touching what is underneath the speed.”
And yet something miraculous happens when we take the time to pause. We find new inspiration. We learn that our assumptions aren’t always accurate, that there is a new way, a different way, and perhaps a better way of living.
“Life can only be perfected through the affording of a breathing space from the bustle of everyday life,” Rav Kook explains in his groundbreaking book, Shabbat Ha’Aretz. “A year of solemn rest is essential for both the nation and the land… It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards God who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness. There is no private property and no punctilious privilege, but the peace of God reigns over all in which there is the breath of life.”
In taking part in Shemita, the Jewish people long ago were able to more deeply consider how they wished to conduct themselves as members of a just, moral, and compassionate society. And so do we.
In the past 18 months we have been through so much, and in that time we have learned. We understand we can be connected even when we are not physically together, that less time in a commute means family dinners and memory making. We have learned the importance of being included – so that events are not created only for those who are mobile and healthy enough to be there in person. We have leaned how essential our doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, firefighters, and essential workers truly are.
Even as we begin to go back to some of our everyday patterns, I hope that we don’t stop being a community in which people go on walks and ask neighbors what we can pick up for them at store, where we don’t take our time or health for granted, where we do our part—even if we don’t want to—to keep one another safe. I don’t want to go back to the world that once was. I want to turn my experiences into opportunities to create a better tomorrow.
This Shemita year is a time for us to reflect on what we have learned. We can never go back to our lives before; we have simply been through too much. But we can continue to grow and learn from our experiences.
May this Shemita year be for all a year of meaning. May our humility inspire us to help repair our world and teach out to our fellow human beings. May our faith continue to grow as we make our way through life’s uncertainties, and may it gift ourselves the time and focus to pause, reflect, and experience renewal.
May this year be for each of us the welcome pause we need.
Gmar Chatimah tova.
 Frankel, Estelle. The Wisdom of Not knowing. Shambhala, p.128
 Leviticus 25:2-4
 Introduction to his book, Shabbat Haaretz
 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
 Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13
 See Leviticus 25:6-7
 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
 Frankel, Estelle. The Wisdom of Not knowing. Shambhala, p.57
 Rabbi David Ingber’s Shabbat Behar Sermon at Romemu