SHMITA: UTOPIA OR DYSTOPIA
THE VISION OF SHMITA AMID THE CORONA CRISIS
Tehila Sultana Schaefer and Einat Kramer
In the midst of a global health crisis, which appears to be instigating additional shockwaves, we are called upon to return to our roots and examine how Jewish tradition proposes to handle a crisis. If we look for crises throughout Jewish history we find a whole variety: famines that afflicted our ancestors in ancient Israel, as told many times in the Bible; exile forced upon our people several times; wars; droughts; and of course the horrors of the holocaust. But the crisis that can teach us most about the resilience prescribed in Jewish tradition is actually an expected crisis which the Bible commands us to set in motion – the sabbatical year of the Shmita.
The Shmita year is an example of how Jewish tradition views crises as part of a pendulum swing between disaster and normalcy. If we read the verses that discuss Shmita in the "Behar" Torah portion, we can see the tension between normal times and times of crisis. The six years of activity – in which people live their lives in regular cycles, in accordance with the agricultural seasons – represent normal times. This includes social order, economic order, and personal routine. A routine in which there is a clear link between what a person does, his labor in the field, and the plenty he harvests. Then comes the seventh delinquent year. A lapsed year in which people are guaranteed abundance, even though their routine has been violated. Seemingly this is a utopian reality in which the burden of livelihood is removed, and all that’s left to do is enjoy the agricultural produce of the sixth-year. It’s not just the owner of the field who enjoys this abundance. In this equitable and utopian vision, the fences come down so that all classes get to enjoy it, even the animals:
"And the sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you: for you, your male and female servants, your hired man, and the stranger who dwells with you." (Leviticus, 25:6-7).
But as we all know from the Covid-19 crisis, disrupting our routine is not necessarily a blessing. It brings about uncertainty, economic challenges, self and social criticism, and the dismantling of old structures upon which we relied until recently. Not coincidentally, the scripture raises a question that is poignant (in Maimonides’ opinion): what happens in the eighth year if nothing was planted in the seventh year?
"You may ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?” I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in." (Leviticus, 25:20).
The reasonable concern that arises in the seventh year – that the utopian experience will become a catastrophe due to the famine that will rage as the stored food depletes – was met with the promise of a blessing in the sixth year. The harvests from the sixth year will be sufficient until the harvest resumes in the ninth year.
We see that the year of Shmita does not stand out from the years that come before and after it. Both the sixth year and the eighth year (which is the first year of the new seven-year cycle) are deeply affected by the observance of the Shmita. In other words, the normal times and the Shmita year which disrupts normalcy are not mutually exclusive, but rather part of one existential and conceptual continuum.
The blessing of the sixth-year is the possibility to prepare in advance. The Shmita year, being an expected crisis, allows for early precautions. The danger of hunger recedes and makes way for food security, solely because of processes that take place in the sixth year and possibly even in all six years prior to the Shmita. Soil reclamation, crop rotation, encouraging biodiversity in the field, and other sustainable agricultural practices and climate-friendly diets, make it possible to create such a blessing from the soil and ensure food security, even in times of crisis.
All this concerns the agricultural aspect. But as the Corona virus has proven, every crisis brings other crises along with it. Therefore, preparing for the Shmita year in advance is not limited to the agricultural domain. The book of Exodus (Chapter 23) mentions the Shmita as part of a succession of moral precepts that teach the importance of forming a just society: prohibition of bribery, perjury, and untruthfulness; protection of the poor and the stranger, the obligation to return lost possessions, even to your enemy, and more. In this context, the commandment of the Shmita can be interpreted as another moral-social decree. In fact, the concept of Shmita requires a society predicated on systems of justice and morality in all aspects of life: in economics, in law and in the community. One could argue that the Shmita cannot be observed in an immoral society. This because in such a society, the Shmita year, with all the crises and uncertainty it unleashes, will turn into a violent social dystopia. Part of the preparations for Shmita during the six years of activity is the effort to form a moral society that takes all its members into consideration.
The cyclical structure, of which the Shmita year is a part, sheds a new light on how we can prepare for a crisis: the recognition that crises are part of the natural cycle is inevitable. The realization that the Shmita year comes back every seven years provides further impetus to form a society that’s built to endure crises, including those that arise during the six years. These days, as we face the current crisis, it is worth contemplating the kind of routine we seek to return to. What lessons can we learn from the current crisis in order to build mental and social resilience in preparation for the next crisis? What kind of society do we wish to create for normal times and for times of crisis? On the holiday of Sukkot at the end of the seventh year, the whole nation would gather in Jerusalem for the "Hakhel" assembly – a public reading of the Torah scroll. This can serve as a source of inspiration – focusing on strengthening our mutual covenant and our shared commitment to living an honest life.
If we draw from the Covid-19 crisis threads that will weave crisis and routine together, what threads will they be? Threads of anxiety, uncertainty, distress, and scarcity – or threads of kindness, mutual support, and recognition of the interplay between man and the natural world? Given what we have learned and experienced from the Covid-19 crisis, it may now be easier for us to open our eyes to the dangers of the climate crisis, which we tend to suppress. While there are many crises which we cannot prepare for in advance, we are hesitant to prepare for this climate crisis, which poses many dangers – nutritional, medical, natural disasters, mass migration and war – despite the well-known facts that thousands of scientists are warning about. We must remember that the abundance during the year of Shmita depends on the blessing of the sixth year. All of humanity currently faces the sixth year, the last chance to prepare for a foreseeable crisis, and we must choose how to act. If we follow the vision inspired by the Shmita, we might actually get to see utopia.
Tehila Sultana Schaefer is a writer engaged in Jewish-environmental education. Einat Kramer is the founder and director of "Teva Ivri" and the "Israeli Shmita" initiative.