Category Archives: The People

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

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

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.

A Share-based Economy – Join a Time Bank

First of all, what is a timebank and what does it have to do with shmita?

The shmita year is a year of enforced interdependence among members of the community. During the shmita year, we learn to depend more upon one another and less upon the money-based economy. Dependence on the money economy is actually completely suspended when it comes to the procurement of life’s most basic necessity: food.

During the shmita year, food that is not directly gathered from the field or wilderness by an individual for his or her own immediate consumption is stored in a food bank-like public storage area, to be drawn upon by each when it is needed. Waste of food, or even its diversion to non-food uses, is prohibited.

During this period of extreme interdependence, the wealthy are not protected by their wealth, but stand as vulnerable and dependent as any other member of society when it comes to food. The role of “giver” and “receiver” are erased. The only “giver” is God, as it were. Everyone alike stands aware of his or her dependence upon God’s providence alone, each equal in her dependence on that which is outside of her control. From that awareness arise empathy and trust, in God as the ultimate provider, and in one another.

The timebank builds on the same concept, by creating a “marketplace” in which people can trade their skills, an hour at a time.

By connecting people who have something to give with people who have a something they need but cannot do for themselves, it too levels the economic playing field. Moreover, the underlying premise, that everyone has something to give and also a lack that can be filled only by reaching out and allowing oneself to become dependent on another, is beautiful and both practical and deeply spiritual.

I first read about the idea of the timebank in this article published by RealChange, the Seattle area’s homeless newspaper. I learned that the Seattle/Puget Sound area already has many functioning timebanks. They are found in the Central District, on the Eastside, north of Seattle, on Mercer Island, in West Seattle, and on Vashon Island. To learn more about how to join, TimeBanks of Puget Sound has a website.

I hope to learn more about timebanking over the coming year. I would love to hear from anyone who has participated in a timebank and can share news of what it’s like from the inside.

Participating in a timebank could be one action we might take during the shmita year.