Zeman Simchatenu

As Sukkot 5778 draws to a close I want to take a few minutes to reflect on the varied meanings of the holiday for me this year. As in previous years, I have experienced Sukkot as a time of joy and connection. The very fact that we do something so different – eating our evening meals outdoors in the sukkah – is a source of excitement and real joy for the children, and for the parents as well. In the evenings, the sukkah is twinkle lights amid hanging, scented, branches, with the radiance of the setting sun traced on the burlap scrim that we have for walls. It’s no wonder the kids wanted us to leave it up and keep the holiday going a little longer.

I’ve had the added joy of being home and sharing meals and gatherings in the sukkah with friends during the day. On sunny mornings, I when I am alone out there, I am not really alone. I am surrounded by the chittering of chickadees and visited by curious squirrels. Stellars jays occasionally barnstorm through the roof. When I can bring my friends together for simple companionship, that itself is a joy to me which feels also very holy. I am truly honored by every person who has come to sit in our sukkah. I hope that over the years, it will be remembered as the birthplace of many new friendships and meaningful connections.

As part of an intentional process of bringing that about, for the second year in a row I have hosted an event which I grandiosely  will call  “The Second Annual Faith Based Environmental Leadership Summit in the Sukkah.” This event consists of me inviting the people I know who are taking an active leadership role in protecting and caring for our environment, particularly those representing the faith community, to come sit in the sukkah together. There is no agenda. It’s just a time to get together in person, eat bagels, meet one another, and learn about what everyone is up to. While there is no agenda going in, I often feel like I leave with an agenda, inspired by the projects and enthusiasm of those around me. During our meeting this year, a canvasser for a Seattle mayoral candidate stopped by and we invited him to join us for a while. It turned out he didn’t know much about the environmental agenda of the candidate he was supporting, but some of my guests did, and he left with some great new talking points!

Finally, this year our “Zeman Simchatenu,” our time of rejoicing, was darkened by the very sad cloud of the death of a young father within our community. Interestingly, in Jewish law, Sukkot is such a time of joy that it is literally not permitted to mourn during the holiday. The traditional week-long period of mourning, called shiva, must be postponed until after Sukkot ends. My heart aches for this family, which I have known for almost 13 years –  we met as regulars at Tot Shabbat with our tiny baby boys who are now nearing Bar Mitzvah age.  It is at times like this that I am most glad to be part of a loving and supportive community that I know will be there for them over the years as we have been there for other families and individuals who have suffered loss. For all of us, these sudden profound changes that time brings only renew the message of Sukkot:  that we are always vulnerable, always fragile, and that our only security, our only true source of a joy that transcends the uncertainties of life, is our need for one another, and our commitment to one another.

Perhaps there is a message that we should take away from the prohibition to mourn during Sukkot, and a prayer for ourselves. May it be that during Sukkot, we all feel so interconnected, while yet so open to the experience of vulnerability, so, in a sense, raw, protected only by our community, that even the sadness of loss and mourning is met with such a depth of warmth that for this special week the chill does not reach us. And may the connections that we have strengthened in this way during Sukkot continue to sustain and support us all throughout the year.

 

 

 

 

Celebrating First Fruits in Seattle

pear

If I had lived in the Holy Land in ancient times, I would have tied a tiny ribbon of reed around the stems of my budding fruit, my wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, dates or olives. And when they were ripe, at about this time of year, I would have packed them into baskets as ornate as I could afford, loaded onto the backs of animals with horn tips painted gold, and accompanied them in a stately but also joyful and musical procession, stopping every afternoon in towns large and small along the way to Jerusalem, where I would have offered them at the Holy Temple as First Fruits to the Lord.

A priest would have taken the basket from me, and I would have recited these words:

“An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there he became a great, mighty and numerous nation. The Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us. So we cried out to the Lord, God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand an with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders. And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which You, O Lord, have given to me.

“Then, you shall lay it before the Lord, your God, and prostrate yourself before the Lord, your God. Then you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household – you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-12)

This was the honor shown to the gift of the fruit of the Earth by our ancestors.

But by drawing into the offering this remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, perhaps more is implied here even than gratitude for the abundance of food, and even more than the “feeding” of this abundance to the holy priests, who were the ones who were alone permitted to eat the First Fruits, signifying, perhaps, the renewal of the holiness “cycle,” if you will.

For me, it is deeply meaningful that we are called to contemplate, through the insertion of this enigmatic text, the resonance between the narrative of slavery, exploitation, and exile brought about by the descent into Egypt, and the narrative of the ultimate destination of that journey of redemption, which is the land of First Fruits. The people who offer their First Fruits with beauty and joy reflect a holy and fully embodied relationship with the land, a land which they perceive and acknowledge as the medium through which God brings blessings into the world, a land in which exploitation is rejected, a land which is to be used in partnership with the Divine to sustain all life, the smallest and most vulnerable especially.

We have so much to learn from these texts about how to bring this sensitivity and these practices into our lives.  I love this season of Shavuot and First Fruits for reminding me of the beauty and generosity of the Earth and God, and for reconnecting me with the inspiration of our beautiful sacred texts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beliefs and Practices of Judaism that Help Me Respond to Climate Change

These are the notes for my remarks at the Faith & Climate Action Conference held on October 8 in Seattle WA:

I am here to talk to you about the beliefs and practices of my faith that help me prepare to respond to climate change. And also, to learn from each of you, make new friends here, and bring your wisdom back into my community.

First, my tradition categorically accepts, and explicitly teaches, that our actions can set in motion a chain of events that will ultimately disrupt the climate to the point of the land becoming inhospitable to human life, and that if we let this process run its course we will “perish quickly from the good land that the Lord has given us.” We recite these words as part of the Sh’ma, our foundational affirmation of faith, morning and evening; we bind them to our bodies when we pray, and we write them on our doorposts and our gates – that’s what’s written inside the mezuzot that Jews affix to their doorposts. And yet still we can forget them, or not fully engage with their meaning.

To avoid this fate, we are told to adhere to the laws we have been given in Torah: to build a society upon justice with compassion, supporting the vulnerable as a community, welcoming the stranger, and deeply cognizant that the Earth does not belong to us, but that we are sojourners upon it, that it belongs to God. Indeed we are invited in Psalm 145 to imagine it as the very hand of God, extended, and supporting the needs of all life, including future generations.

These are the beliefs that provide the color and form of my response to climate change.

There are many practices that my faith tradition offers, that I am actively studying. Let me name a few of the highlights:

First we have Shabbat, the day of rest. To fully observe Shabbat according to Jewish custom, there is no driving; no money exchanged; no electricity used. Imagine: the whole community living within walking distance of friends and places of worship; imagine a world that uses 1/7 or about 15% less electricity, that spends a day free of the habit of consumer culture. Imagine what our communities would look like if they were designed for a Shabbat culture.

Next we have Kashrut, a detailed system of dietary laws that fundamentally restrict what creatures we may consume and require their ethical treatment. Products are labeled with a Heksher if they adhere to our community’s ethical norms. The Heksher may be the first system of food product labeling for this purpose in history. Imagine a system of product labeling that fully encompasses our social justice and environmental concerns, and people rigidly adhering to a system of food consumption that met the highest standards for worker and animal and environmental sustainability.

Next, there is Shmita – a seven year cycle which gives a year of complete rest to the land itself. No agriculture is permitted; people may eat only what grows without human intervention, grown locally, and only while it is in season (I guarantee you all of those requirements are there in Torah law!). During Shmita, all the fields opened to everyone, animals wild and domestic, and all people from rich to poor. Hording of food beyond one’s true need is not permitted! Imagine an agricultural system designed around a Shmita-aware permaculture, interwoven throughout our communities, with food accessible to all.

Finally, since I know I am running out of time, I want to say just a few words about self-reflection and Tikkun Olam. Today is Shabbat Shuvah. Jews around the world are in the liturgical period known as the Days of Awe, the Yamim Nora’im, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during which we reflect on and seek to repair relationships in our lives, with one another and with God. In our tradition, true repentance comes from realizing and understanding what we have done wrong, expressing a sincere regret and asking forgiveness, and working to heal the damage we have caused, and to never return to the actions that caused the harm.

We can use this period to look at our relationship with God – with God’s outstretched and generous hand – as in need of repair, and form a strategy for restoring what has been damaged and changing the habits and behaviors that ruptured this relationship in the first place.

My tradition teaches that human beings are, in fact, partners in the work of repairing Creation.  We call this work Tikkun Olam – Repairing the World. We are taught that each person has their own part of Creation to repair, and we are taught by Rabbi Tarfon, a sage who lived during the time of the destruction of the second temple, who put it this way: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either” (2:16).

 

Together, our faith traditions are like trees in a forest that draw from roots that are very deep. It is so meaningful that we have assembled here together to strengthen our resolve, and to join our wisdom sources together. May we go from strength to strength as we work together to heal and repair the world.

The Stories We Tell

Recently I have been reflecting on the contrast between the rational side of the way our minds work and the more mythic or story-based side. While modernity strongly favors science and the rational mind as the primary source of worthwhile knowledge, I would like to spend some time reflecting on the power and relevance of stories.

While this topic may seem to be unrelated to the overarching subject of Shmita that is the focus of this blog, it is by means of stories that we transmit our values and the nature of our relationships with other people and the world around us. Shmita seeks to guide and shape those relationships, and so, uneasily, because there are few actual “stories” that include Shmita as an aspect, these two topics do intersect.

When we think of storytelling, what do we think of? What are some examples of the stories that animate our behavior? Depending on who we are, we may think of the stories we find in Torah (they are stories, after all. Clearly for the Author of Torah, storytelling was an important medium by which to communicate in a way that was sure to hold its relevance over a time frame that has so far extended thousands of years). We may think of fairy tales. We may think of the life stories of our political or social heroes.

I’d like to include some of the other forms of story that fade into myth. This week I read an article published in Indian Country Today that argues in favor of listening to the stories of indigenous peoples about their social norms, and particularly the stories they tell about how they should and should not relate to the wild world that surrounds them.  It focuses on indigenous Amazonian storytellers, whose wisdom guided social norms with respect to use of the area’s natural resources long before Europeans introduced different, exploitation-based economic models into their system. Their stories about how to fish from the enchanted lakes reflect values (such as take what you need for your family’s use and no more or you’ll be punished)  and what place is sacred and needs to be avoided completely to ensure long-lasting abundance of wildlife to sustain a healthy ecosystem (modern scientists have found this to be a biodiversity hotspot) that are nearly lost to modernity, and are only recently being re-discovered through modern biological study and resource management practices.

The resiliency of oral history and storytelling as a mode of transmission of important information can be gleaned from the almost incredible discovery that Australian aboriginals hold a 10,000 year long collective memory about the geography of the place they call home, recalling place names and locations of land that has long ago sunk below rising seas, but which can now be found and identified with modern methods of analyzing the sea floor.

What if we were to seek out this indigenous knowledge – not only about what exists, but also about how to transmit cultural norms that are deeply interwoven with these landscapes. What if we listened, really listened, and brought our scientific and our mythic minds to bear on addressing the questions of how to live on the earth and with one another? Will the stories of our day all be cautionary tales, about how this moment was used incorrectly, and the consequences? Or can we still take up the strands of knowledge that are around us and create resilient, enduring, and deeply “true” stories about the relationship of human beings and the earth, to guide our practices, and our deeper sense of who we are?  What would that type of storytelling look in the modern day? How can it be borne into existence?

As we develop experience living with Shmita and its conceptual offspring, the stories we tell to ourselves about what that experience has been will begin to form the basis of a new and enriched world, in which people long for and more deeply understand the meanings and possibilities of their own lives.

Debt, Seattle, and the Hebrew Free Loan Association

At the end of seven years, you are to make a Release [shmita].

Now this is the matter of the Release: he shall release, every possessor of a loan of his hand, what he has lent to his neighbor. He is not to oppress his neighbor or his brother, for the Release of the Lord has been proclaimed!” … – Deuteronomy (15:1-2)

Debt release is as intrinsic to the concept of Shmita as is the fallowing of the land.  And like the fallowing of the land, it is extremely difficult to imagine doing in practice. Indeed, the difficulties were foreseen by the Author of the Torah, as it were, as the verses that follow the commandment to release debt acknowledge that the tendency might be to reduce lending to one who is in need if the lender fears he may not be repaid.  The text goes on to exhort those in a position to lend to “open, yes, open your hand to your brother, to your afflicted-one, and to the needy-one in your land!”

In our community we held a discussion a few weeks ago about Shmita and debt, student debt in particular. The young woman who led the discussion was a law school graduate burdened by a significant amount of student debt. She spoke movingly about the effect the debt was having on her life, on her ability to own property, and on other major life choices and options. And yet, in the end it was impossible for her to conclude that student debt should be “erased” if doing so would reduce lending for education or lead to irresponsible behavior on the part of borrowers.

As I reflected on this conundrum, I came across a (perhaps) little known (at least little known to me) institution of Jewish life, the Hebrew Free Loan Association. This institution allows Jews to borrow money at zero interest for a variety of purposes, including getting an education, starting a business, and consolidating debt.

Hebrew Free Loan Associations operate in many cities in the United States including Seattle. According to an article by Michael Feldberg in My Jewish Learning, Seattle was actually the birthplace of the Hebrew Free Loan Association in America! According to Feldberg:

In 1909, a group of Seattle Jewish women formed a whist and sewing club with dues of 25 cents per month. When they had accumulated $64, they offered to purchase a gift for their local synagogue. Because the rabbi knew that the women raised the money by playing cards, he refused the gift. Undaunted, the women started the Hebrew Ladies’ Free Loan Society of Seattle. Their thoughtfulness helped some of Seattle’s first Jewish entrepreneurs get started in business.

Other HFLAs followed, and they were generally used to assist new Jewish immigrants at a time when they had a hard time gaining access to commercial credit. To be eligible for a loan from the Seattle Hebrew Free Loan Association a borrower must:

  • Be a member of the Jewish community residing in the State of Washington or a local Jewish student attending any accredited college or university.
  • Have two co-signers.
  • Have a source of income so that he or she will be able to repay the loan.

While the HFLA is dedicated to Jewish self-help, (according to Maimonides, “A loan is better than charity, for it enables one to help oneself”) there is nothing barring the wider community from forming “free loan” associations along similar lines.

Potential donors may wish to consider gifts to free loan associations as part of their overall charitable giving portfolio. Donations are tax deductible, and membership dues cover the administrative costs of the program. (The Seattle Hebrew Free Loan Association will hold its annual brunch on February 8. This might be a good way to learn about the program, meet people, and make a contribution.)

And debtors may wish to consider converting some of their commercial “debt with interest” to the type of debt without interest offered by the HFLA.

All of this is perfectly legal, and while it does not directly speak to the subject of total debt forgiveness envisioned in Shmita, it does perhaps point a way to some significant amount of debt relief through the elimination of interest payments, relief that is available today, operating within all of our our existing institutions and laws.

Shmita and the ‘Buy Nothing’ community

For six years you are to sow your land and to gather in its produce, but in the seventh, you are to let it go and let it be, that the needy of your people may eat, and what they (allow to) remain, the wildlife of the field may eat. Do thus with your vineyard, with your olive-grove.

– Exodus 23: 10-11

Anyone who locks his vineyard of fences off his agricultural field in the Sabbatical year has nullified a positive commandment.

– Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shmita v’Yovel 4.24

In the seventh year, there is a sense in which a sharing economy replaces the traditional economy. For those looking to become part of a share-based community close to home, the “Buy Nothing” communities on Facebook are a good place to start.

I was first alerted to the existence of the community during (what else?) a discussion of Shmita that took place last summer. Since joining my neighborhood’s Buy Nothing community, I have seen so much. The mother who has a bag of outgrown clothes for a 2 year old boy that she would like to “gift;” the person who has bought a new appliance or cookware and wants to “gift” the things she has replaced, etc.  Thus one person’s super-abundance fills another person’s need.

In addition to these simple acts of generosity, I have also seen acts of pure compassion that have brought tears to my eyes. Occasionally someone will post a request for someone they know who is in a more dire form of need. The NE Seattle group is gathering boxes to move a family out of a domestics violence situation, filling the holiday wish lists of children whose grown-ups are in the hospital, and putting together equipment for a cooking class for developmentally disabled adults.

The Queen Anne/Magnolia group has organized members to cook a dinner for Tent City, an encampment of about 100 homeless men and women, which is temporarily hosted by a small university in our neighborhood.

According to one friend who is also a member, “Buy Nothing has brought back meaning to the term ‘neighborhood community.'”

In the Seattle area, there are (at least) six Buy Nothing communities – in Northeast Seattle, UW/ Ravenna/Laurelhurst, Queen Anne/Magnolia, Southeast Seattle, and Shoreline. These are closed groups. To join you must submit your name, and then answer a few questions about who you are, where you live, and why you want to be a part of the community.

Perhaps, in addition to just the “mere” equitable and needs-based distribution of food that the seventh year seems explicitly designed to cultivate, the less tangible benefit would be exactly this simple awareness of the needs that exist in our communities, of the places where one person’s suffering can so easily and lovingly be relieved by someone else, if only they knew and could be brought in contact with one another.

Such a simple thing – these Buy Nothing groups. Yet they truly blur the line between “online community” and real community.

 

Chanukkah, Shmita and Shammai

As we head into winter, the light changes and creates changes inside of us. Dusk descends upon the Earth earlier and dawn arrives later.
An evening walk takes us through luminous pockets of blue, white, red and green. For some, winter light brings a melancholy and longing for bright summer sunlight. For others, the candles and iridescent colored bulbs bring excitement and nostalgia.

It is with this consciousness of light and its effects on the human condition that the Jewish people observe Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

During Hanukkah, we commemorate the triumph of the Maccabees over the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE.  When they rededicated the desecrated Temple, the Maccabees found only one cruse of oil left to light the ceremonial lamp.  That cruse of oil was only expected to last for one night; however, it lasted for eight days.

What meanings can we glean from the miracle of the oil? Perhaps it is that no matter how abused or degraded an individual or a group may be, there is the capacity in it for more fire and light than one could ever imagine. Or maybe it is that triumph over oppression illuminates what is good.  We have what we need even if it doesn’t seem as though we have enough.  We can enter darkness in our world and in our souls knowing that we will endure, and that the world has what it needs to illuminate truth, beauty and goodness.

Congregation Har Shalom is getting ready to construct its outdoor hanukkiah, which we light each night in front of the synagogue.  What will be different about this year’s Hanukkah Festivities at Har Shalom?

Generally the custom on Hanukkah is to light one candle for the first night, and one additional light each night until the eighth night when the hanukkiah is aglow with all eight branches burning brightly. A lesser known form of the ritual is to light eight lights on the first night and one fewer each night until one candle remains lit.  This year, since it is a shmita or sabbatical year in which we allow fields to lie fallow as instructed by the Torah, our community has decided that we will light our public hanukkiah according to the lesser known tradition. This mirrors the shift away from production and cultivation of land which in our times can be construed as increasing consumption of energy and natural resources.  The lights of the universe and beyond will be felt most profoundly on the culminating 8th night instead of eight lights that are humanly constructed and lit.

The sabbatical year occurs every seven years and provides the opportunity for a shift in perspective towards humility in which we
can explore the non-dominant approach.   Our usual way of doing things is interrupted and we take some time to retreat into stillness.  From there, new approaches to address old problems arise, a welcome opportunity in this challenging year.  We hope you will join us in staring into the night sky and that you will be blessed with discernment, and the lights of awareness and new hope.

This guest post was written by Jennifer Geraci and Rabbi Shoshana Leis. Rabbi Leis is co- rabbi of Har Shalom Center for Jewish Living in Fort Collins, CO.

The earth belongs to Whom?

As we move through liturgical time, we are called upon to embody the various mindsets that Torah wishes specifically to cultivate. During Pesach we meditate on the meaning of slavery and freedom, and in particular on freedom as being a fundamental embodiment of Divine intention for us, as intrinsic as life itself. I believe that as we move through the liturgical period of Shmita, we are called upon to embody an awareness of the earth as belonging to God, and to reflect and elaborate upon the implications that arise from this particular axiom of faith.

In Parashat B’hukotai, God reveals with utter transparency the purpose of the earth. We learn that the earth itself will bring forth the reward for building the society envisioned in Torah, by means of its rains, its soil, its vegetation. A hospitable climate leads to productive landscapes. Sufficiency and contentment allow us to be numerous and healthy, at peace internally, and so strong that our neighbors do not threaten us. As a result we find ourselves in possession of the inner and outer peace that we are told is the highest blessing that God wishes to confer on us, and for which we pray continually. The crown of these blessings comes when God builds a dwelling place in our midst and God’s presence moves about amongst us, as it did in Gan Eden. This is the unification that God wishes for us, and the earth plays a central role.

When seen from this point of view, what is the proper posture that we as a community should have toward the earth? Perhaps one model is the Sefer Torah itself. We treat the Sefer Torah with reverence. It is beautifully clothed. We handle it with care. We kiss it. We sing to it. If we drop it, penance is traditionally done by the entire community to atone for the lack of respect shown to a holy object. But if the Torah scroll is a holy object, what about the earth itself, which is also our teacher, also a gift from the Creator, also intended to be used by us for our good?

Part of the great challenge of Shmita lies in the fact that it is a collective mitzvah. While many mitzvot can be successfully accomplished on an individual level or the family level, in any facet of Shmita there is a communal aspect. Therefore, when we think about how to weave the religious fact or axiom that the earth belongs to the Lord into our culture, we need to look to the means by which a community works together, to the systems it has created for accomplishing collective goals. Within the realm of our daily lives, the world of our actions in the here and now, these means are primarily political and economic. It is, by and large, through our legal and economic systems that we work together as a community.

In our political system, land is owned outright, by individuals, governments and corporate entities, and there is little in the way of a cultural norm that would place its use into a “sacred” category. Legally, land is considered property which can be bought and sold.

As the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund points out: “In the U.S., title to property carries with it the legal authority to destroy the natural communities and ecosystems that depend upon that property for survival. In fact, environmental laws in the U.S. were passed under the authority of the Commerce Clause, which grants exclusive authority over “interstate commerce” to Congress. Treating nature as commerce has meant that all existing environmental law frameworks in the U.S. are anchored in the concept of nature as property.”

Because this approach has proved problematic, there is a move within some circles to ascribe to nature, to natural objects and natural communities, political rights that can be upheld by the legal system. This would shift the status of certain features of nature from that of property to that of a rights bearing entity. The type of right that such an entity would hold would be along the lines of the right “to exist and thrive.” A person or group, self-selected or assigned by the government, would advocate on behalf of the natural object or community (a forest, a river, or a mountain, for instance) in a court of law, and a judge would decide between the competing interests of the human and non-human claimants.

On the other hand, the field of environmental and natural resource economics is developing methods for assigning economic value to natural systems, so that a forest, for instance, can assert that it possesses a value apart from sum of the price the owner can get for each of its trees. The ecosystem services model is an attempt to assign a total value to the forest that captures the value of each of the services it performs. It filters water, for instance, and prevents erosion. It sequesters carbon. It produces oxygen. It provides a home for animal species that may provide beneficial services such as pollination. It may have a recreational use value for people who hike through it. And it may contain species that are prized even for their “non-use” value by people who will never see them but may feel that they derive some benefit from knowing that the species exists in nature. Adding up all those values, one may decide that it makes sense to leave the forest in place, that is, if the money can be found to purchase it rather than allowing it to be harvested as lumber.

Both of these approaches are interesting steps that challenge the simplistic notion that the earth belongs exclusively to the human beings, governments, or corporate entities that legally “own” it. Both are attempts to take into account the widely perceived complexity of the human relationship with the earth. Both are rooted in our time and circumstance, and if elaborated upon may help to shift certain large scale collective behavior toward more desirable ends.

However neither of these approaches, nor both together, capture the full vision, the dream that Shmita invites us to contemplate. “You open your hand: Your favor sustains all that lives.” (Psalm 145) No laws, rooted in a place or time or culture, no economic paradigm, can do justice to this simple observation of Divine intent. And it is to that Divine intent that the Shmita seeker remains committed.

In the end, our tradition reminds us to keep one foot outside “the system,” whatever the system may be, whatever the time, whatever the country. Our laws will never be enough. Our economic system will never be enough. A parallax view will always be required to continue to bring us closer to ends which transcend ego and stand outside of time. This is the view afforded by our liturgical calendar, which now is now bringing us through the season of Shmita, in which we are asked to do what seems so impossible – to imagine and to humbly attend to the dignity of the earth as it fulfills the mitzvah of its Creator – to rest, while also manifesting through itself the open hand of God, its favor sustaining all that lives.

 

 

 

Shmita and Perennial Agriculture

“Now the Sabbath-yield of the land (is) for you, for eating for you, for your servant and for your handmaid, for your hired-hand and for your resident-settler who sojourn with you; and for your domestic-animal and the wild-beast that (are) in your land shall be all its produce, to eat.”

Leviticus 25: 6-7

If the land yields food in a Shmita year that has grown without the sowing of seeds or the tilling of soil, then according to Scriptural Law, that food is considered Sabbath-yield and is permitted.*  Clearly an agricultural system that emphasizes food obtained from plants which either re-grow from their roots each year, or which are permanent fixtures of the landscape such as trees, shubs and vines, will produce more useable food during a Shmita year than one that is primarily based on crops which require the soil to be tilled and re-seeded every year.

Intriguingly, whatever our motivation may be for aspiring to a Shmita-friendly agricultural system, with doing so would come layer upon layer of tangible, ecological benefits.

According to Eric Toensmeier, author of Perennial Vegetables: From Artichoke to ‘Zuiki’ Taro, a Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles, perennials can be low maintenance: they do not need to be re-sown each year, and with their larger root systems, can draw nutrients and water from deep in the soil. They are soil builders: they “improve the soil’s organic matter, structure and porosity, and water-holding capacity through the slow and steady decomposition of their roots and leaves.” They provide ecosystem benefits: their root systems hold water, and they provide habitat to beneficial garden plants and animals. And they sequester carbon dioxide in their deep root systems.

Jerry Glover is another advocate for perennial crops, particularly, in his case, wheat. Glover is part of a movement of plant breeders and agricultural scientists working to develop new breeds of perennial grain crops that could replace some or all of the annual species currently in use around the world. The focus on grain crops is important because about 70% of all of the world’s cropland is in grain production, according to National Geographic.

Such research is moving forward in the part of the Pacific Northwest known as the Palouse, which is one of the world’s most productive wheat-growing regions. The hope there is that by reducing tillage, wind and soil erosion can be avoided. In Perennial Wheat: the development of a sustainable cropping system  for the U.S., Pacific Northwest, published in the American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, the authors look at some new wheat varieties that are being tested for productivity, with the hope that they could be used in certain soil conditions in combination with traditional varieties of wheat to reduce soil erosion, enhance wildlife habitat, and provide other benefits such as water retention and carbon sequestration.

One of the practices I am incorporating into my personal Shmita awareness is learning about perennial food producing plants that I can one day incorporate into my landscape (starting in 5776, since another of my practices is to lay off planting new things in my garden in 5775!) This year, I plan to learn more about plants that I might want to  grow and explore the possibility of growing them in our shul’s garden. Maybe at some point I will have the opportunity to teach about those plants, encouraging others to try some perennial vegetables in their own gardens – so that they will be ready with harvests to enjoy by 5782, the next Shmita year.

I will also look for ways to support the development of perennial grain harvests. Every day we read about the rigor with which the Earth is worked to produce annual commodity crops, such as wheat, corn, canola, and soy. The soil is tilled, leading to erosion and destruction of native microbe communities, then it is sprayed with chemicals to prevent weeds and pests. The cycle seems to be a vicious one, as more chemicals are needed as the pests adapt, and more fertilizer is needed as the natural productivity of the soil is not allowed to regrow. Chemicals then flow off the land, where they  pollute water bodies and kill fish. Farms are no longer wholesome places to raise children, and clearly they are not welcoming places for wildlife.

In contrast, Shmita offers a vision of agriculture in which people and wildlife are welcome and nourished; a vision of an Earth which belongs to God and is entrusted to us as a perpetually renewable gift. May there come a day when we learn to treat it as such!

*Rabbinic law does not allow the use of plants which may regrow from seeds dropped the previous year, or which otherwise look exactly like plants which are prohibited, in the belief that people may cheat. See Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shmita v’Yovel 4.1-3 (source: Shmita Sourcebook)

 

Sukkot, Shmita and Vulnerability

In his d’var Torah for Parashat Nitzavim-VaYelekh, Rabbi Shai Held gets to the heart of a concept that unites Sukkot and Shmita – vulnerability.  During Sukkot, we dwell in fragile huts in which we are conscious of every breath of wind, of every drop of rain, of the warmth of the sun filtered by the shade of vegetation. Even starlight, which connects us far beyond the world of our daily experience and out into the vast universe, is intended to be part of the experience of dwelling in a sukkah.  The fragility of the sukkah is an aspect of its very permeability and connection to the world outside of itself. The entire community is enjoined to share this experience of dwelling in a fragile structure, a partially open structure, and we are called upon to offer our friendship, our hospitality, our gifts, to friends. From our place of vulnerability we build community, offering, and accepting, gifts of food and friendship.

In the end, Sukkot causes us to feel within our bones that our protection, in the end, is not in being cut off, from nature, from risk, from one another, but precisely in our immersion within the wholeness of the world – of nature, of the universe, and most importantly, of the wholeness that comes from being in relationship with one another.

The Shmita year likewise opens us up to experience vulnerability and connection. But unlike Sukkot, which lasts a single week, Shmita lasts an entire year; and whereas Sukkot provides, for most of us, only a simulation of vulnerability, the Shmita year asks for much more. Literally, the Shmita year asks us to release our tight hold, and to accept God’s gifts as gifts. We are required to deeply take in our reliance on natural processes that are outside of our control. We are asked to release our sense of ownership of productive, food producing land and to see it as, in the end, a gift from God, intended to nourish all life. We are asked to shift our focus from accumulation, to use, and then to sharing. We are asked to release our economic control over one another, or subservience to one another, that comes about as a result of indebtedness. We are asked to trust that there will be enough for all, and to make it so.

This heightened vulnerability would, of necessity, lead to a heightened experience of connectedness, with the productive landscape, with the processes that govern its bringing forth food, and with our companions, human and non-human, who share the land with us.

It is striking how often we hear about disaster bringing a community together. Think of the Oso landslide in our area – or Hurricaine Katrina. Out of a tragedy that blindly strikes a community, each person is brought to the raw experience best captured in that old expression, which I intensely dislike but find irreplaceable sometimes, “there but for the grace of God go I.”  From the authenticity of that realization emerges the response: the ones who run in with aid, with comfort, with food, with a blanket, a room for a stranger, the tools and the skills to rebuild. From the depth of awful circumstance arises a  community with a renewed sense of a purpose beyond their individual selves, and faith founded in direct experience in the goodness, the dependability, of fellow human beings. It seems to me that these holidays, Sukkot and Shmita, ask us to build these conditions, to respond, and to form this awareness, through the regular, voluntary acceptance and experience of vulnerability.

This very repetition is surely intended to develop and strengthen  our response, our willingness to stand in a gift relationship with one another and the wider world. In much of our daily life, we are asked to put our faith in the “market economy,” which enables (some of) us to purchase what we need free of any encumbrance by entangling relationships. However as Michael Sandel sets out to prove in his book, What Money Can’t Buy, “Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.” Our tradition requires that we stand in a particular relationship to one another, and, I would assert, to the Earth. Sukkot and Shmita in particular provide us with regular opportunities to bring our conscious awareness to those relationships.

Rabbi Held concludes his d’var with the observation that “genuine community requires compassion, and compassion, in turn, depends on admitting our own vulnerability. … Community becomes possible … when we realize and accept that we are all susceptible to being hurt and are, crucially for the Torah, all equally dependent on God.”

This, then, is what Sukkot and Shmita have in common – the intention of building a world up from an authentic experience of vulnerability, community, and our shared dependence on God.

 

Bringing shmita values to life in Seattle