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.

 

Reflections on Al Chet / Missing the Mark – for a Shmita Year

sunThe section of High Holiday liturgy known as al chet has always been fascinating to me because it is a collective rather than an individual confession of sins. I ask forgiveness for these sins each year even though I know that I am guilty of some but not all of them. But I repeat them all every year. Why? Is there a sense in which each of us, on some level, is responsible and accountable for the sins of our community? Of the world?

Is the recitation designed to absolve us of our sins? Or to focus our awareness on them as sins? Should it be a prompt toward changing our own personal behavior? Can it also be an opportunity to inquire how we can participate in strengthening the community as a whole?

Below you will find some of the additional sins I will contemplate as I spend a portion of my time this year focused on my relationship with the Earth, the sacred medium through which we receive the blessings of health, well being, and ultimately, peace.

For the sin which we have committed before You out of hopelessness, believing that we are powerless;

For the sin which we have committed before You because we are distracted and overwhelmed by choices;

And for the sin which we have committed before You on account of having become resigned to what seems inevitable.

For the sin which we have committed before You by failing to raise our voice;

For the sin which we have committed before You by failing to lift our pen;

And the sin which we have committed before You by allowing despair to sap our will.

For the sin we have committed against You by taking more than we need;

And for the sin we have committed against You by creating systems that make waste easy and invisible.

For the sin we have committed against You by failing to let the land rest.

And the sin we have committed against You by introducing poisons into the food chain of all life.

For the sin we have committed against You by ignoring what happens to our waste once it leaves our hands;

And for the sin we have committed against You by blocking from our minds the consequences of our actions.

For the sin we have committed against You by destroying the birthing places, in the sea, in the sky, and on the land, which are the source of new life;

For the sin we have committed against You by benefiting mutely from systems that violate our conscience;

And for the sin we have committed against You by of elevating efficiency as a value above compassion and justice.

For the sin we have committed against You by failing to go out into nature each day to reflect on Your magnificence and Your compassion for everything which holds the breath of life;

For the sin we have committed against You by failing to learn the names and life stories of the plants and animals who are also our neighbors;

And for the sin we have committed against You by failing to teach our children about the majesty of Your Creation and the joy to be found in loving and caring for it, as beings created in Your image.

For the sin we have committed against You of valuing the present above the future.

For the sin we have committed against You of destroying Your magnificent creatures, not to fulfill our own need for life, but to make trinkets and objects for our pleasure;

And for the sin which we have committed against You by failing to weave our lives more seamlessly into Your great cycle of birth, life, death, decay and absorption into new life.

For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.

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

IMG_20140814_192156138

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.

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)

Shmita and Exile

“Exile comes to the world on account of idol-worship, sexual promiscuity, murder and the failure to leave the land fallow on the sabbatical year.” – Pirkei Avot

What do idol-worship, sexual promiscuity, murder, and failure to leave the land fallow in the sabbatical year have in common?

Why is exile a punishment/consequence?

What is “exile”?

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?

 

Bringing shmita values to life in Seattle