As the month of Elul — a time of reflection and preparation — draws to an end, I am followed with a different sense of excitement for this coming year on the Jewish calendar. Just as every seventh day of the week is supposed to be a Shabbat from the other six, so too every seventh year is set aside to be wholly different from the previous six.
In Exodus 23:10, we receive the instruction: “Six years you shall sow your land, but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow.” Just sentences earlier, in Exodus 21:2, we receive the instruction that after six years of service we are to free our slaves in the seventh year. And in Deuteronomy 15:1-2, we receive the instruction for the forgiveness of unpaid debts in the seventh year as a way of freeing the burden that can come from the struggles of a difficult financial situation.
So in a time when most of us don’t work the land, do not own slaves and could not imagine credit card companies forgiving us our debts, what difference is it to us that this Rosh Hashanah begins the next Sabbatical year? Furthermore, living in Baltimore, where the laws of Shemitah are not required (only in Israel is one obligated to follow the laws of the land), why should we care?
Traditionally, during the Sabbatical year, those who, out of requirement, are not allowed to work the land would learn something new. Imagine what it would be like if every seven years, we made time and space to learn a new skill, tend to a new hobby, explore something we wouldn’t necessarily have time for.
The idea that we are to let go in the seventh year is dependent on the planning and allocations made in the prior six years so that one can “afford” to take that time. In our tradition, the guarantee is a divine decree that God will provide. The practitioners I know who are trying to find meaningful ways for us to engage with Shemitah have other creative approaches to ensure we can take time in the seventh year for things if we appropriately plan for that time during the previous six years.
For example, this year all staff at the Pearlstone Center will get seven additional days off from work. One of those days will simply be a vacation day. The other six, however, will be days dedicated to doing something that is intended toward growth. Staff may choose to go to a workshop or take part in a service project. What a great way to honor the year and the time in a way that provides growth and nourishment for the people who work tirelessly to create meaningful Jewish experiences for so many others.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah I encourage each person in our community to make a Shemitah goal. What is something that you can release this year that will be good for your spiritual growth? Perhaps it is an expectation held onto for too long, an unwillingness to take a different approach out of fear of change or a commitment to stop trying to control something you desperately wish you could but takes more cultivation than might be naturally possible.
In this way, I think Shemitah can provide incredibly relevant experiences for our Jewish community and our souls. If you make a Shemitah goal and want to share it, please do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and rejuvenating 5775.