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Friday, June 05, 2020
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In the modern industrialized world, the mitzvah of shemitah may seem a bit remote with little relevance for our daily urbanized lives. Interestingly, life in Israel has restored the practical relevance of shemitah. In the latter part of the 19th century, when Jewish communities first organized in Israel, shemitah presented an almost unconquerable challenge. Nascent Jewish communities in Israel, lacking a financial cushion, faced tremendous struggles in attempting shemitah observance. Over the past 150 years, the economic situation in Israel has dramatically improved and, thank God, shemitah adherence has become more manageable. For Israeli Jews, shemitah carries deep resonance and even excitement; outside of the Land of Israel it remains more theoretical—a part of the Messianic future that has yet to be fully realized.

This year, though, our thoughts about shemitah feel more relevant. During the past few months, our confined lifestyles have resembled the “retreat” of shemitah. Our professional lives have receded and we have retreated into very personal and private worlds. A few striking comparisons between corona and shemitah immediately spring to mind:

1. Beyond Our Control

Obviously, the most noticeable shared message of both shemitah and corona surrounds the limits of human achievement. By imposing forced agricultural contraction, shemitah highlights the limits of human industry and creativity. Every seven years our economy and human innovation are each suspended to deliver a stark message: the land itself, as well as all human development, is the province of God. Corona brought humanity to its heels and has showcased a very similar message about the limits of modern medical care, sophisticated economies and of course democratic societies.

2. Turning Inward Toward the Spiritual

The one-year shemitah hiatus from work also enabled a year of spiritual activity and religious introspection. Liberated from the pressures of a busy agricultural schedule, we were free to ponder the deeper questions of existence as well as to forge a deeper conversation with God. The past two months have afforded us similar quiet and introspective space to contemplate our identity, improve our family relationships and pursue interests of the spirit. As Israelis slowly re-enter normal life, I am personally concerned that my own frenetic schedule will deprive me of this internal dialogue.

3. A Duet Between Man and Nature

We have all witnessed pictures of dolphins swimming through the canals of Venice and sheep convening around a Mcdonalds in Wales. The retreat of humans has beckoned a reassertion of nature. These scenes carry metaphoric meaning: Without question, man is the pinnacle of God’s creation and is empowered to harness nature and her abundance in the service of human welfare. Judaism completely rejects the environmentalist-infused assertion of equivalence between man and nature and the related claim that humans aren’t entitled to exploit the forces of nature. However, as we continue to push back the frontiers of science we are bumping into some important questions about the limits of human exploitation of nature. The shifting boundaries between man and nature—so characteristic of shemitah—seem to be on display during our current crisis.

4. Reordering Social Hierarchies

In addition to the theological and agricultural adjustments enabled by shemitah, the year-long cessation from commercial activity served as a social “equalizer” diminishing the differences between the wealthy and the impoverished. At a societal level shemitah redistributed wealth, and at a personal level it guarded against the hubris and callousness that wealth can induce. Our modern global economy has been plunged into a generational crisis whose challenges will likely surpass those of the Great Depression. How will this crisis affect our conception of wealth? The internet revolution introduced a gilded age of concentrated wealth within the hands of the “few.” Mega-corporations such as Google and Amazon have amassed more wealth than many countries. It is not inconceivable that inevitable economic instability will raise important questions about how we aim to distribute wealth.

5. Time Awareness

In addition to the “shemitah effect” and the cessation of industry, the experience of counting seven years instructs us about time management and time awareness. Counting toward the seventh year created awareness of each year’s positioning within the cycle. Time awareness lends structure and clarity to our lives. Shabbat assures that we are aware of a day’s position within the week just as Rosh Chodesh punctuates the passage of a month. The corona shutdown has reminded us all how vital time awareness and the structure of a schedule can be toward our healthy functioning. God provided time awareness and time-based schedules to brace and stabilize human experience; as these schedules have faded, our experiences have become destabilized.

6. Short-Term and Long-Term Milestones

A final overlap between shemitah and corona concerns our ability to count toward immediate milestones while still realizing that the larger process will occur more gradually. Typically, when we await a milestone we often raise inflated hopes that can obscure longer-term objectives. It is easier to revel in the success of short-term accomplishments than it is to concede that more persistent challenges are still unfolding. Life frequently embeds short-term struggles within longer-term challenges. Even after achieving a once-in-seven-year shemitah experience we still busily count toward the more unique and formative once-in-50-year yovel experience. Arrival of the much-hyped shemitah doesn’t distract us from the longer project of counting toward yovel.

We have all been counting the days and weeks of our quarantine. Every Shabbat I ask my family: “How many Shabbatot have we been at home.” Somehow, quantifying the experience allows us to better appreciate its magnitude. We are eagerly awaiting the lifting of the quarantine and the return to our normal routines. However, it is likely that even as these short-term milestones are attained we will still be struggling with a longer-term project: the complete eradication of this pandemic. This achievement will probably be more delayed, and until we achieve that success we will all be forced to make serious adjustments to our lifestyles. Whatever excitement the opening of society causes shouldn’t obscure the longer-term project. The dual counting of shemitah and yovel reminds us that, sometimes, even as we reach short-term milestones we must still focus on more long-term projects.


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion, located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.

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