Category Archives: The Land

Shmita: A Workplan for the 21st Century Economy

Imagine my surprise and joy when I opened my email inbox this morning and found a link to this incredibly inspiring Eli Talk about Shmita! Through  my long dormant connections to the wider Shmita world, Aharon Ariel Lavi was able to reach me, and his words give me comfort because now I know I am not alone in beginning to ponder the question of how to respond as the next Shmita cycle begins to awaken in our consciousness.

As it happens, I have never really stopped thinking about Shmita, and like Lavi, I too dream of a day when, as he puts it, “Shmita can become a self-evident part of our society and economy.”

If you are inspired after listening to this talk and would like to take part in this ongoing exploration of possibilities about bringing Shmita to our lives in Seattle, in ways both large and social and small and individual, please reach out.

I will be teaching about Judaism-based environmental advocacy at Limmud Seattle in January, and Shmita will definitely be one of the topics to be explored. The Limmud presentation is intended to be a catalyst for a great deal more exploration and unfurling of Shmita over the coming years, in various contexts and communities.

Like Lavi, I consider the re-emergence of Shmita in the world to be part of an open conversation, and the more voices and the more ideas that are involved, the more it will grow and the richer and more meaningful it will become.

I am also looking forward to reading Aharon Ariel Lavi’s book, About Economy and Sustenance, which takes on the challenge of placing economic thought within a Jewish spiritual context.

Love at the Crossroads

These are (approximately) the words I shared as a member of the opening interfaith opening panel for the Love at the Crossroads conference produced by FACT (the Faith Action Climate Team) on October 28, 2017.

Love at the Crossroads

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to speak here today about Love at the Crossroads. I look forward to a day of learning with you about the connections between social justice, climate change, and love.

For a number of years, I have been studying the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish texts, looking within them for lessons about how human beings should relate to the Earth, and I have been writing and speaking and teaching about my reflections.

I do this in part because, as I’ve grown older I have seen that reason has not been very good at inducing so-called rational human beings to think differently, or make changes that are uncomfortable. I’ve seen that we live by the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, about what is real and important, and about what is expected of us. We can be motivated to change our behavior, but not, I believe, primarily by means of data. It is discomfort that does it. Spiritual discomfort changes us.

This discomfort can come from our own life experiences, or, from stories that work on us and change us from the inside. The Hebrew Bible is a rich source of stories; stories which play across not only our individual minds, but which are reflected across much of Western culture, and connect us to generations past and future. These stories, these “myths,” if you will, shape how we view ourselves, our roles and responsibilities in the world; and what values we are willing to sacrifice for. So, by taking hold of the coloration and meaning of these stories, and sharing them, we can change ourselves and the future – at least that is my hope.

 

The world the Hebrew Bible envisions for us is one in which we love one another. This is the central teaching of our faith.  Love your neighbor as yourself, and also, love “the stranger who lives within your gates.”  (Both commandments are found in Chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus.) But lest we think that love is just an abstract feeling, we are guided with very specific instructions about how to do this; about what our relationships are supposed to look like, with one another, with God, and with the land.

Here are some highlights:

  • Our system of justice should not favor the rich or the poor
  • We must take up the case of the vulnerable, the widow and the orphan, who have no one to advocate for them
  • We don’t take advantage of people’s ignorance – we don’t “place a stumbling block before the blind”
  • We don’t stand idly by our neighbor’s blood, we take responsibility for the welfare of others
  • The list could go on and on

Regarding the land:

  • It is through the medium of the land that God attends to all of our needs
  • We don’t own it. It belongs in perpetuity to God and must be used first to serve God: A portion of its produce must always be set aside for the needy.
  • Every seven years, the land must enjoy a complete rest, during which all of its produce is ownerless and may be used at subsistence levels by everyone, from the richest to the most vulnerable, including animals both wild and domestic.
  • Debts must be periodically forgiven.
  • The distribution of land, which is the ultimate source of all wealth, must be rebalanced in each generation so that it is not amassed by a few and used to exploit the many

In the words of Dr. Cornell West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And I would say as a corollary: “Exploitation is what happens when love is forgotten.”

 

We are told that if we follow these laws (and more) then we will be rewarded with rains that fall in their season, and the land will be productive and feed us; but if we do not, that God will “break our fierce pride! The heavens will be like iron, the earth like bronze; your land will not give forth its yield, its trees will not give forth fruit; our cities will become a wasteland.”

Will this come about as a result of “miracles” or “natural consequences?”

It would be interesting to write a long essay on this subject that probes all the possible connections between social justice and environmental sustainability, but let me raise just one.

 

What if we took seriously the lesson that the land is God’s, and that we are meant to benefit from the natural abundance that springs from it. The gifts that spring up from the land we are to experience as a gift, part of a relationship, that links us with God and with generations past and future. We may make use of them, but only with reverence. The buzzword is “sustainability,” but it’s even more precious than that if we treat it as a gift.

Well, attached to this “land,” along with its potential for agricultural, there is wind, there is sunlight. These can be converted to energy. The dignity to using them in this way comes from the fact that they connect the individual not to the marketplace, but to God and the land.

 

My interpretation of the text leads me to believe that there is something powerful about people being connected as directly as possible to this source of natural abundance. Because it is there that we “feel” the love of our Creator for us, and “see” it as part of what connects us to our children and parents, and feel motivated by our own love for all of this, to care for it and tend it lovingly for the future. In this sacred and loving connection lies our hope that we can save the planet and one another. So let’s do everything we can do deepen and enrich our sense of our dependence on, and our ability to enter into sacred relationship with the land.

 

When I read stories about how vigorously fossil fuel interests and private utility companies are trying to delay or prevent the deployment of liberating renewable energy technologies, I am reminded of the story of Pharaoh. If you recall this story, Pharaoh took ownership of the produce of Egypt during seven years of plenty, and then when seven years of famine came, he sold the life-saving grain back to his people. At first this was very helpful. But as the famine wore on, this market for grain became exploitative. People were forced to pay for it by selling first their draft animals, then their land, and finally they sold themselves into slavery to Pharaoh.

It seems to me that there is a similarity here with the fossil fuel giants taking control of the millions of years of “plenty,” during which carbon was stored in the ground and became oil and gas, then selling them back to us. At first it was very helpful (and saved a lot of whales), but we have turned the corner and understand now that the environmental costs are too high.

 

We can and must throw off this Carbon Pharaoh, even though, just like with the first Pharaoh, despite warnings of disaster, he seems to be only hardening his heart against us. In the Bible, deliverance began with prayer, and was accomplished with a lot of help from God. Today our prophets are climate scientists, and the increasingly unmistakable drumroll of catastrophes, from widespread and devastating wild fires, droughts, and famines, to inundation of coastal cities along with more and more powerful hurricanes and storms, are feeling like modern day “plagues.”

 

In the Jewish tradition, we look at time as something like an ascending spiral, that advances, hopefully, even as it revisits the same stories year in and year out. Our texts give us keys and clues to living honorably on the land. Can we take these images and ideals and use them to build a new model of relationship between human beings and the sustaining and loving landscape we have been given, before it is too late?

 

When we do this, then the struggle will be over, and we will truly be able to say that our soul has returned from a very profound exile and found rest. Because isn’t this what we long for: the repose of the soul, in peace, in justice and with love, upon the good land that we have been given, in a world in which each person is able to rest in the shade of their own fig tree and vine, knowing that each other person rests securely under their own?

 

Shabbat Shalom

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)

 

The Puget Sound: Deepening Our Connection to Local Abundance

There is simply no way to get around the fact that shmita is deeply concerned with food, as a source of life, of health, of well being, and ultimately, of peace. The shmita year compels us to express and embody our latent awareness that the true source of food is not with us. Food comes as a gift from the Creator by way of the land. And significantly, through shmita laws, the Creator infuses the distribution of food with a concern for justice and compassion for each and every being.

Shmita imagines a food system so well integrated with natural processes that it can be left to run on its own one year out of seven and still ensure enough for all, including wild nature. Furthermore the sources of these foods will be so woven into the physical environment where we live that we will be able to harvest them ourselves as needed, without the need for commercial harvesters. Surely this is a powerful vision of a return to life in a garden!

A shmita food system is local – so that we can personally access and pick from the farms where our food is grown. It is chemical free – if the food is to be shared with wild creatures, it cannot be laced with poisons. And everyone has direct access to sufficient amount to eat to contentment, “sova”. There is no waste and no stockpiling. According to Dr. Jeremy Benstein, director of the Sova Project, “the fact that our globalized agricultural system is highly unsuited to local decentralized community based solutions says a lot more about the ills of the system than about shmita and its relevance.”

To my great surprise and delight, there is a body in the Seattle area that is expressing great sensitivity to the way that a strong local agricultural system is a foundational element of community and individual health and well being. graphicThe Regional Food Policy Council is looking holistically at the interaction between local government, education, health, equity, environment, agriculture and economic development. It is made up of a broad range of local stakeholders including farmers, policymakers, academics, native tribes, people concerned with availability of food within vulnerable populations, restauranteurs, and food processors. They meet downtown monthly and the public is welcome to attend. Register at their site to receive agendas and meeting materials.

Sabbath of the Land – Foraging in the Wild

“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

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The shmita year invites us to explore and rediscover our relationship of interdependence with the plants and animals that inhabit the margins of our lands and our hearts.

As we shift from eating commercial harvests purchased at market to what we gather for ourselves, we may find ourselves looking beyond the planted fields and cultivated gardens into the wilderness, the marginal lands, and the forests that border our communities.

When we are asked to join with those whom we may, in other years, consider “other,” those who work “for” us, animals, and wildlife, to share the Sabbath-yield of the land, with all of us as equals, we are invited to get to know one another. What tender herbs does the “resident sojourner” use? What insights, what recipes, what medicines? What are the names of his children? By learning and teaching one another, and by sharing our knowledge and culture with one another, how will the web of relationships within our community grow and change?

How will our perception of wildlife change (and let’s include all wildlife, mammals, but also birds, fish, and insects)? As we see with our own eyes their ways of life, their needs, their relationships with the land and one another, how will we respond? If we are asked to share with them, this surely implies that we will not begrudge them their portion with netting, or try to eradicate them with poisons. Maybe we will even look to our own marginal spaces, the edges of our property, public spaces near us, and feel moved to choose plants and shrubs for those spaces that will meet the needs of these new friends of ours for shelter and food.

During this shmita year, we should learn about and surround ourselves with the richness and abundance that we may otherwise fail to notice or appreciate, but which is all around us. Here are a few suggestions as to how to do this.

Please share your thoughts on other ways of responding to the text above.

Sabbath of the Land

“The Lord spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land is to cease, a Sabbath-ceasing to the Lord.

“For six years you are to sow your field, for six years you are to prune your vineyard, then you are to gather in its produce, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord: your field you are not to sow, your vineyard you are not to prune, the aftergrowth of your harvest you are not to harvest, the grapes of your consecrated-vines you are not to amass; a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing shall there be for the land!

“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 25:1-7)

Whose Sabbath is it?

“The Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land is to cease, a Sabbath-ceasing to the Lord.

“For six years you are to sow your field, for six years you are to prune your vineyard, then you are to gather in its produce, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord: your field you are not to sow, your vineyard you are not to prune, the aftergrowth of your harvest you are not to harvest, the grapes of your consecrated-vines you are not to amass; a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing shall there be for the land!”  – Leviticus 25:1-5

Whose Sabbath is it? (Hint: what is a “Sabbath”?)

Whom is it “to”? Whom is it “for”? (Note: in Hebrew these are both indicated by the same preposition in this text.)

Who (or what) is to do the resting?

How would you describe the role of the people in fulfilling this period of rest?