July 4, 2022 -

“Shabbat and Sh’mita: The Importance of Rest & Renewal for our Land and Ourselves”

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Caruso at the Shabbat Service on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.  We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.

There is something about the sound of a bell. It’s a pronouncement without words, alerting us that something has changed. It’s a cessation, a signal, a reset; even a release. Bells aren’t particularly a Jewish mode of communication (I’d say the ram’s horn is the closest thing to it!), but a verse from the Torah (Lev 25:10) does appear on the Liberty Bell: Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.

In the Torah, the reference is to the Jubilee year, marking a time of communal release every 50th year. As The Torah: A Women’s Commentary puts it, “The purpose of the laws is to ensure the economic and social freedom of the Israelites, whom God collectively redeemed form slavery in Egypt” (p. 750).

The early Americans were craving a religious redemption of their own.

In 1751, the Pennsylvania Assembly ordered a bronze bell to be cast with the English translation of that Leviticus verse. The 268-year-old Liberty Bell, initially a token to the people of Pennsylvania of its colony’s 50th anniversary, has become a national symbol for all of us throughout all 50 states.

That bell was rung countless times, and even toured the country as a beacon of freedom. In fact, many causes taken up by Americans throughout the years – the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and our entry into World War II, have all been linked up to the Liberty Bell. For each case and cause, the Liberty Bell has reminded us of our civic interdependency; the obligation to care for the land and each other.

The bell’s first 90 years of fervent use took such a toll that it actually cracked (the wide crack that you might be summoning up in your mind right now is actually evidence of a repair job!). Eventually another fissure in the bell followed, and soon the bell was muted.

Today, the very same Liberty Bell is housed in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. And while it no longer rings – or tours our country – it continues to serve as a beacon. That bell evoked the biblical lessons that we still teach today: the land and people constitute the most primary resources necessary to us for our livelihood. And we, inhabitants of this earth, belong to one another.

The Liberty Bell can teach us something more: that we need ritual moments and symbols and sounds as a reminder of who we are and what we believe in; the opportunity to mark each significant transition in our lives.

This is the essence of Shabbat; being able to refrain and release from our daily toil to see the world anew. The Sabbath’s message promotes the radical notion that ceasing our actions with meaningful ritual is not an admission of boredom or aimlessness, but of rest and renewal.

This week, in the Book of Leviticus, we explore Parashat Mishpatim. In it, we learn about the laws of Shemitah – the biblical practice of releasing the land from the burdens of providing food for us – every 7th year. The design of the biblical authors was to let the fields lie fallow, to excuse all debts, and to release indentured servants.

Permitting the ground to rest gives the land a chance to reset itself. The great commentator and philosopher Maimonides (Spain, 1135-1204) wrote that the laws of the Sabbatical Year “are meant to make the earth more fertile and stronger through letting it lie fallow.”  The message: resiliency sometimes requires us to let go.

Agriculture is no longer a central part of our lives, but the land has much to teach us. It is, after all, our final resting place. Traditional burial has us returning the earth, giving back to it, as it gave to us. In the words of a colleague, the intimate relationship we have with the earth, is a “delicate giving and receiving.” The land will not produce unless we tend to it, but if we work the land too much, we may not reap its full capacity.

On each Shabbat we can embrace the notion that leaving something untouched – or undone – is a means to strengthening it. To be frank, we as a people tinker and fiddle far too much. Even the Liberty Bell needed to retire its services in order to preserve its unique character! When we seek to impose our will on the many matters in our life, we forget how we, ourselves, need a Shemita sabbatical of our own. And how often do we insinuate ourselves into the lives of others, even when it would be best to just let it be? For parents…this type of over-functioning can be a real pitfall. The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63:10) gifted us with a way to know our place with a blessing to be said to the bar or bat mitzvah child.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Simeon said: “A man is responsible for his son until the age of 13: thereafter he must say, ‘Blessed is He who has now freed me from the responsibility of this boy.’”

Hallelujah!

Interdependency with our family and friends – even with the land – requires a true discerning. When it works, it is a beautiful dance of give and take; of knowing when to withdraw and when to act; when to work the land, and when to let it lie fallow.

The sabbatical year of Shemitah echoes the lessons of the Liberty Bell. It reminds us that we are not only poised to give, to toil and till, and to strive, but we are also meant to collect the fruits of our labors, to receive the goodness of life, and to release the fetters that hold us back.

The notion of Shemitah is not simply about release from our own spiritual fetters; it is also about release of resources that others might need; to allow a release of land and food and debts that might be a burden on others.

As Dr Tamara Cohn Eskenazi writes:

…a society that fails to care for the socio-economic conditions of its members and does not establish an equitable system of justice cannot endure, let alone be free. “Someone else’s material needs are my spiritual responsibility,” said Rabbi Israel Salanter in the 19th century.

Today, Shemitah has gained new life!

Jews in Israel are taking the laws of Shemitah seriously, figuring out ways to leverage its ethical lessons. When the State of Israel was established, religious Jews in Israel began to incorporate the Shemita laws back into Jewish life. Through the years there have been many rabbinical debates about what Shemitah laws are allowed, and how to make rulings on foods for eating, and debts for forgiving. One big question is whether observant Jews could use the loophole of importing foods from out of Israel, or using foods from land that is not owned by Jews (or even importing foods from the Gaza Strip!).

There is even a movement striving to embrace the Shemita laws in a new and relevant way. Rabbi Julain Sinclair, vice president at Energiya, a company which promotes solar power in developing countries, said in a New York Times article about five years ago:

People are thinking, this is just too good to remain in the area of arcane Halakhic arguments, the values here are really important for any modern society… (Referring to debates over Jewish law). It’s about the sources of our wealth and letting go of our control and the hold on the things which make us wealthy, and the absence of which leaves other people behind.

In the same respect, Jack Levy, an Israel journalist wrote:

More and more Israelis are finding meaning in the mitzvot of Shmita, especially in the big idea that lies behind them. Shmita asks that we let the land rest, but also demands a timeout to our insatiable desires for economic conquest. Behind the ancient words, shmita and Yovel, lies a revolutionary idea that demands that we narrow social gaps, enable people sunk in debt to rehabilitate themselves and turn a new page…

While we may not have a bell to remind us of our social responsibilities, we do have Shabbat to remind us that we are interdependent with the land and all its inhabitants.

Perhaps each Shabbat can be a mini-Shemitah for us – a release from that which we hold on to too tightly, and an opportunity to foster resiliency in our communities.