The High Holidays are once again upon us, marking a new calendar year. This Rosh Hashanah (5782) also signaled the start of the traditional Shnat Shmita—the sabbatical year.
First mentioned in the Book of Exodus, Shnat Shmita encompasses the entirety of the seventh year in a communal agricultural cycle. Traditionally, it called on farmers to stop tilling fields and welcomed all people to partake of their produce. It also stipulated the cancellation of debts and the imposition of other economic adjustments aimed at ensuring everyone is provided for in society.
But while Shmita is rooted in ancient biblical practice, it is anything but a tradition of the past. Three ROI Community members show us how Shmita has affected their 21st-century lives, and suggest how others, too, can benefit from what the Jewish sabbatical year has to teach us.
Shifting Perspective, Taking a Leap
In 2015, at the time of the previous sabbatical year, Ophir Peleg took time off from his job as a senior consultant for top Israeli NGOs at TARA Consultancy group to attend the ROI Summit. That particular Summit invoked the theme of Shmita as an inspiration to press pause on everyday routines, encouraging Summit participants to shift their perspectives in ways big and small, and embark on renewed journeys of action.
In that spirit, Summit attendees undertook an exercise with life-changing consequences—at least for Peleg. As Peleg recalled it, participants articulated visions of their futures as if they were narrating the past: “You have six minutes and you tell the story again and again, and each time it evolves. The last time it came out I had a business, and for the first time, I saw myself as an entrepreneur.”
Emboldened by this vision, Peleg left his job and founded Social Export Israel. That was four and a half years ago, and since then Peleg and SEI have dedicated themselves to helping Israeli organizations figure out ways to share their knowledge base and sell their services outside of the country.
“I never took professional risks in my life,” Peleg said. “This was a big risk, and I may fail and if you fail, you grow out of it. You learn from it. I was lucky; this has been an amazing journey of Tikkun Olam.”
Peleg was so profoundly moved by the way Shmita helped him redirect the course of his life that he aims to harness Shmita’s power again this coming cycle.
“I feel that I need a change,” he said, “and might be more prepared to take another entrepreneurial adventure.” Though Peleg demurred from offering specifics, he said that Shmita coming amidst months of a pandemic feels particularly profound.
“After one and a half hectic years that have changed so much and made our spirits and souls so dry and tired,” he said, “it might be the best time to change our rhythm, re-define our boundaries and free more time for the people, things and places that recharge us, and that we love the most.”
Leaving Metaphorical Fields
To environmentalist Einat Kramer, the collective pause Shnat Shmita imposes facilitates self-reflection, and provides a framework for brainstorming innovative ways to strengthen commitments to the land and to one another.
In 2014 Kramer built a Shmita tent that she toured throughout Israel. For a solid year she spent three weeks out of every month pitching the tent and, in the fourth week, she ran public Shmita-centered events.
“I had food from local farmers, and a library and a recycling station, and I was asking people to join me,” she said. “I’d say, ‘If you had a year to fulfil your dreams, what would you do?’”
Their answers ignited action.
“One place gave all the workers a half a day off to go learn,” Kramer said. “A teacher gave her students one afternoon a week to go paint nature. People changed eating habits; they became vegetarians.”
This year, she will take part in a two-month-long journey through Israel with like-minded seekers who will take part in study sessions focused on Shmita and its intersection with Jewish and Israeli identity.
Plus, Kramer’s Shmita-focused web portal has been revamped for the upcoming Sabbatical year, with articles on Shmita, links to related events and performances, and suggestions of ways people can implement Shmita in their own lives. That may mean, for instance, leaving metaphorical fields for a period; more specifically, logging off of social media, or carving time from a work week to volunteer and open up your professional door to those whom you might not ordinarily make time for.
Coping With Crisis
“Shmita was and still is one of the most mind-blowing ideas that I’ve seen in Jewish tradition and in general,” says Aharon Ariel Lavi. “It’s revolutionary.”
“Sometimes people think that Shmita is about leaving everything to God or to the poor,” he said. “That’s not true. Shmita respects private property and its legitimacy in the other six years, but it comes to remind us that at the end of the day we don’t own anything. We come here as guests for a short time.”
This coming Shmita year, Lavi, a rabbi, will let his garden at his home in the Negev rest. In addition, he and his family are planning a mini-sabbatical of a few months “to think and plan our next steps in life as a family.”
What can others do? Consider reorganizing “finances [with an eye] towards the next seven-year cycle,” he said. “Close loans where possible, let go of unpaid debts people owe you, open a savings plan so you can take a sabbatical in the next Shmita year.”
More than leveling the playing field, Lavi believes Shmita teaches critical coping mechanisms both for individuals and communities. His forthcoming book, “Sheva: Seven Social and Economic Aspects of the Sabbatical Year,” explores this in depth.
“Shmita is a pre-planned, timed crisis,” he said. “It’s embedded in the system on purpose, and it comes to educate us and tell us that crises are part of life. Shmita tells us, ‘You’re all humans. You have a limited capacity to control your lives. You will experience crises because that’s how life goes, but if you acknowledge that fact and embed pre-planned, timed crises into the system, you might alleviate some of the negative effects of unplanned crises.”
Kramer echoed this sentiment. Shmita is not a once-in-a-decade festival, but the culmination of a seven-year process. Shmita prepares people for the most trying of times.
“A society that can go through Shmita,” Kramer said, “is a strong society.”
ROI Community is proud to empower its members to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities and the world. ROI encourages the expression of personal thoughts and reflections on this blog. Each post solely reflects the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of ROI Community and all of its members or Schusterman Family Philanthropies and its portfolios and partner organizations.
Photo credit: Snir Kazir and Hadar Bashari