29th Elul – entering the year of release

29th Elul  6th September 2021

We are about to enter a shmitta year.

Every seventh year is the biblically mandated “sabbatical year”, what is called sometimes Shabbat la’aretz – the sabbath for the land. Shmitta means “release” and not only is the land released from its ongoing work of production and allowed to lie fallow, but also debts are forgiven, private agricultural land becomes open for people to glean what grows of itself, and there is a kind of community reset of economic and social justice.

Time exists in patterns and cycles in the biblical world. So we see that in the same way that humans will work for six days and then take a day of rest, the land must be worked for six years followed by a year of rest. There is another echo too – there are seven weeks – seven times seven days which will culminate in Shavuot on the 50th day– rabbinically interpreted as the time commemorating Matan Torah – Revelation at Sinai; and there is the cycle of seven times seven years, which will take us to the 50th year – the Jubilee – when society is reset, people return to their own land, slaves are freed etc.

There are three passages in Torah which establish shmitta:

Exodus 23:10-12

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labour, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.”  The passage is set between the command not to oppress strangers as we too were strangers, and the command to keep shabbat which emphasises the rest of the entire household, servants, strangers and animals alongside the family. Not, I think, a coincidence. The poor and marginalised are the focus, the animals and the ones without land or agency.

Then we have Leviticus 25:2-7 :

When you enter into the land that I assign you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Eternal. Six years you may sow your field, and six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in the yield; but in the seventh year, the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Eternal God: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines. It shall be a year of complete rest for the land, but you may eat whatever the land will produce during its Sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound labourers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts on your land may eat all its yield.

And here the focus is on the wellbeing of the land which has its own needs, its own character to be cared for and recognised. Here people are not the owners or the exploiters of the land, but in a peer relationship with it.

The third passage is from Deuteronomy and adds an extra dimension – the remission of debts.

“Every seventh year, you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that they claim from their fellow; They shall not exact payment from their fellow or kin, for the remission proclaimed is of the Eternal. You may exact payment from the foreigner, but you must remit whatever is due you from the kinsman…. If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, do not harden your heart or shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your heart and lend them sufficient for whatever they need. Beware, lest you harbour the base thought, the seventh year, the year of remission is approaching, so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give them nothing. They will cry out to the Eternal against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to them readily, and have no regrets when you do so, for in turn, the Eternal your God will bless you in all your deeds and all your works. (Deut 15 1-10 redacted)

In his commentary “Shabbat Ha’Aretz”, Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in British Palestine, wrote of the shmitta year: “The Sabbatical year comes to correct the situation of inequality and societal rifts, by removing a major source of power of the elite: debts owed to them……….What the Sabbath achieves for the individual, the Shmitta achieves with regard to the nation as a whole.”

Every year we have the opportunity to consider and where necessary to reset the trajectory of our lives. Indeed we have the opportunity every day, but the yearly audit is baked into our internal calendars. And every seven years we are invited to think more deeply, to think beyond our own lives and our own time, and to connect to the condition of our world (though again, this is an invitation every day of our lives should we want to hear it). With its focus on the poor and marginalised, on the land, and on the resetting of debts and return to community equality, the Shmitta calls us to social and economic and ecological justice.

We are coming to the end of Elul – tomorrow we will hear the shofar call us back – back to ourselves, back to our values, back to God. We enter a period that will take us through the ten days of return and through Yom Kippur, all the while invited to contemplate what we are, what is our life, what is our purpose, what can we become, what can we let go of, what holds us back and what will help us to move forward.

The new moon of Tishri will soon be in the sky. As we enter the year of release, let’s release ourselves from old habits and old fears, and with Jewish communities all over the world, like Jewish communities for generations, take the first steps into a new year, a year of newness.