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.